Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Which foreign country do Afghans hate the most?

For anyone who has been following Afghanistan at all during the past decade and a half, that's not a trick question. In an earlier post I mentioned in passing the ABC/BBC/ARD national public opinion poll in Afghanistan, released in February 2009. Question #38 asked: “Now I’m going to ask what you think about some people and groups. Is your opinion of [INSERT] very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, or very unfavorable?”

The results (with some details omitted):

a. The Taliban: Favorable 7 | Unfavorable 91
b. Osama Bin Laden: Favorable 6 | Unfavorable 92
c. The United States: Favorable 47 | Unfavorable 52
d. Pakistan: Favorable 8 | Unfavorable 91
e. Great Britain: Favorable 39 | Unfavorable 54
f. Iran: Favorable 57 | Unfavorable 40
g. Germany: Favorable 61 | Unfavorable 31
h. India: Favorable 74 | Unfavorable 21

In 2007, according to previous poll results used for comparison, 80% expressed an "unfavorable" opinion of Pakistan, which was already the highest percentage by far for any foreign country. Since then, Afghan hostility toward Pakistan seems to have increased even further.

None of this is surprising, but the reasons are worth underlining. Back in the 1990s, the Pakistani military and security services played a major role in sponsoring, supplying, and supporting the Taliban and helping it seize control of (about 90% of) Afghanistan. Pakistan was one of only three foreign countries to recognize the Taliban regime (the other two were Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). Since the Taliban lost control of Afghanistan in 2001, its base has been in the border regions of Pakistan. And most Afghans believe (correctly) that at the very least the Pakistani government and military have been allowing the Afghan Taliban to operate from Pakistan, and that at least some tendencies within the Pakistani security apparatus have continued actively supporting them.

In fact, many--if not most--Pakistanis are still angry (or enraged) with the US for having overthrown the Taliban regime in 2001. This attitude needs to be recognized as a significant social fact about Pakistani public opinion, but I think it is also fair to describe it as morally and politically despicable. At all events, it is not an attitude shared by most Afghans.

Why do Afghans express such positive feelings toward India? The only plausible explanation, I'm sure, is the antagonism between India and Pakistan. If those favorable attitudes toward India worry Pakistanis--who are concerned, for understandable reasons, about possibilities for Indian influence in Afghanistan--they should consider how their own country's policies have helped to promote them.

=> As long as we are trying to read the tea leaves from polling results to get a sense of how Afghans see things, a few other points from this ABC/BBC/ARD survey might be worth considering.

Afghans' feelings about the US look positive compared to their feelings about Pakistan, but everything's relative. In the country-by-country ratings tracked by this and previous polls, "favorable" attitudes toward the US have declined from 83% in 2005 to 74% in 2006, 65% in 2007, to 47% in 2009. As the ABC/BBC/ARD poll report properly emphasized, the latest results marked the first time when negative attitudes toward the US exceeded positive ones. This is a big deal. And and this downward drift (or plunge) is linked to some larger trends with genuinely alarming implications.
The United States, its NATO allies and the government of Hamid Karzai are losing not just ground in Afghanistan – but also the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

A new national public opinion poll in Afghanistan by ABC News, the BBC and ARD German TV finds that performance ratings and support levels for the Kabul government and its Western allies have plummeted from their peaks, particularly in the past year. Widespread strife, a resurgent Taliban, struggling development, soaring corruption and broad complaints about food, fuel, power and prices all play a role.
On the other hand, to get a sense of the full picture, it's also important to pay attention to some other points that emerge from the ABC/BBC/ARD poll results. One is that, according to this poll and all other available evidence, the great majority of Afghans do not want the Taliban to win.

Question #11 asked: "Which of the following do you think poses the biggest danger in our country?" The clear winner was the Taliban, at 58%. By comparison, 13% picked drug traffickers, 8% picked the US, and 1% [sic] picked the current Afghan government.


Question #10 asked: "Who would you rather have ruling Afghanistan today?"
Current Government: 82%
Taliban: 4%

And even though Afghans are increasingly unhappy with the US, when respondents were asked which foreign countries are "playing a positive, neutral, or negative role in Afghanistan now?" (Question #39), more of them still rated the US role favorably than rated it unfavorably--though the margin is shrinking. ("Neutral" and "no opinion" percentages are left out here.)

a. Russia: Favorable 14 | Unfavorable 33
b. Iraq: Favorable 12 | Unfavorable 11
c. Pakistan: Favorable 5 | Unfavorable 86
d. India: Favorable 41 | Unfavorable 10
e. United States: Favorable 44 | Unfavorable 36
f. United Kingdom: Favorable 24 | Unfavorable 38
g. Germany: Favorable 36 | Unfavorable 19

=> It seems evident that most Afghans are not clamoring for the US and its allies to leave them in the lurch. And while we should be clear-sighted about how terrible things are in Afghanistan right now, a genuinely honest discussion also has to recognize that, for most Afghans, conditions are much better than they were under the Taliban. All the evidence points that way--even infant mortality figures--and Afghans say so themselves when asked.

In the end, of course, what Afghans do or don't want (or even which policies would be more or less disastrous for Afghans themselves) amounts to only one factor in deciding what the US, the Europeans, and other outside actors can and should do.

It may be that at this point Afghanistan is in an irreversible downward spiral, and there is no realistic hope for reversing this--at least, given the necessary human, financial, and political costs. In that case, any moral obligations that the US might have not to abandon the Afghan people become irrelevant, and we should decide to cut our losses and start heading for the exit. Many claims that the situation is hopeless strike me as reflexive sloganeering (which doesn't necessarily mean that they're wrong). But informed analysts who are worth taking seriously, like Patrick Cockburn (not to be confused with is appalling brother Alexander Cockburn), have argued that it is "Time to Leave". I don't find such conclusions entirely convincing, but they can't simply be dismissed.

On the other hand, other serious, informed, and generally acute analysts, including Peter Bergen, Ahmed Rashid, and Trudy Rubin, have been making cogent arguments that point in the opposite direction. Just for example, here is what Ahmed Rashid said at one point in his October 8 New York Review of Books piece on Afghanistan & Pakistan:
With Obama's plan the US will be taking Afghanistan seriously for the first time since 2001; if it is to be successful it will need not only time but international and US support—both open to question. [....]

Across the region many people fear that the US and NATO may start to pull out of Afghanistan during the next twelve months despite their uncompleted mission. That would almost certainly result in the Taliban walking into Kabul. Al-Qaeda would be in a stronger position to launch global terrorist attacks. The Pakistani Taliban would be able to "liberate" large parts of Pakistan. The Taliban's game plan of waiting out the Americans now looks more plausible than ever.
Is this obviously wrong? I'm not so sure.

The stakes are very high, for Afghans and for the rest of us. I wish I were as certain of the right answer as many people on different sides of this debate seem to be. But if Americans and Europeans do decide that abandoning Afghanistan makes the most sense from considerations of "national interest" or realpolitik, at least we shouldn't pretend that this is what most Afghans actually want, or that we're doing it for their benefit.

—Jeff Weintraub