Friday, December 04, 2009

What do Afghans want? - Some reality checks

According to a 2009 ABC/BBC/ARD survey of Afghan opinion that many analysts seem to regard as among the most comprehensive, systematic, and reliable soundings of public opinion in Afghanistan released this year, what proportion of Afghans supported the continued presence of US/NATO forces in Afghanistan? 63%.

=> Well, you might ask, so what? OK, that's a plausible question.

Let me begin by acknowledging that for many people, ranging from self-styled foreign-policy "realists" to alleged "progressives" of various stripes, what Afghans themselves want the US to do, or what the consequences for Afghans would be if the US does or doesn't abandon Afghanistan, shouldn't matter much one way or another in considering US policy (& that of its NATO allies) toward Afghanistan. They would argue (explicitly or by implication) that such questions should be considered purely in terms of US (& western) interests. And, anyway, what Afghans would or wouldn't like the US (& its allies) to do right now wouldn't necessarily be good for Afghans themselves in the long run.

These positions are logically coherent and can be plausibly argued. As long as people who hold them are honest about it, such arguments can't simply be dismissed, whether or not one finds them fully convincing. And I would absolutely agree that knowing what Afghans would like the US to do does not, by itself, answer the question of what the US actually can and should do.

What is less acceptable is for people who favor US abandonment of Afghanistan to pretend, imply, or insinuate that this is what Afghans themselves want, too. According to all the available evidence of which I'm aware (some of which I've recently noted here & here & here), that's simply not true. On the contrary, the available evidence consistently shows that most Afghans do not want US & other NATO forces to pull out, are not sympathetic to the Taliban, (still) have more positive attitudes toward the US than just about any other population in the Muslim world, and in general do not want the US to leave them in the lurch.

For some people, these are inconvenient facts. But as far as we can tell, they are the facts.

=> None of that should be news. But many people do keep pretending (or implying, insinuating, or simply assuming) that most Afghans are hostile to the US "occupation" and want US & NATO troops to get out of Afghanistan. So it may be worth reviewing some of the actual facts--as best we can discern these from statements by Afghans themselves, surveys of Afghan opinion, and so on.

Consider, for example, some relevant items from that comprehensive ABC/BBC/ARD national public opinion poll in Afghanistan earlier this year. (For detailed statistics, see here, and for the BBC's overview of the results, see here.)

— When Afghans are asked directly whether or not they support the continued presence of US troops (Question #18 ), 63% support it (vs. 36% who oppose it).

Admittedly, 63% is down from 78% in 2006, but it's still a pretty clear majority. (And consider the fact that, as late as 2006, 78% of respondents in a Muslim country wanted US troops to stay!)

— Question #27 asks when US/NATO forces should leave Afghanistan. 27% said "Leave now".

Compare this with 42% for "Only after security restored", 3% for "Remain permanently", and a total of 30% favoring withdrawal sometime over the next few years. Are most Afghans clamoring for US/NATO forces to leave immediately? It seems not.

— "Which of the following do you think poses the biggest danger in our country?" (Question #11):
Taliban 58%
Drug Traffickers 13%
Local Commanders 7%
United States 8%
Current Afghan Government 1%

— "Who do you blame the most for the violence that is occurring in the country?" (Question #19):
Taliban 27%
Al Qaeda/Foreign Jihadis 22%
US Forces 12%

(The first two add up to 49%. Is that more or less than 12%?)

— If they have to choose between the Taliban and the current government, "Who would you rather have ruling Afghanistan today?" (Question #10):
Current Government 82%
Taliban 4%

=> One could go on, but the basic picture (consistent with results from other surveys) is clear. Some people in the US and Europe argue that abandoning Afghanistan would not only be good for us but would also, somehow, be doing the Afghans a favor. As John Nichols crisply formulated this position a few days ago in the Nation: "The only humane and proper response to the mess in Afghanistan is the rapid withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from that country." Perhaps, but it's clear that most Afghans don't agree, and we shouldn't pretend that they do.

=> Of course, that leaves open more specific questions of policy and military strategy. For example, even though most Afghans do not want the US to pull out and leave them in the lurch, do they want to see the numbers of US/NATO troops in the country reduced?

Here the picture is more complicated. Question #26 in the ABC/BBC/ARD survey asked directly whether these forces "should be increased, decreased or kept at the current level?" Some people who oppose a continued US commitment in Afghanistan have pointed to the fact that 44% of respondents answered "decreased." That is, indeed, a significant figure. But what those people have generally not mentioned, as far as I can tell, is that a total of 47% wanted to see the numbers of US/NATO troops either "increased" or "kept at the current level".

When I last checked, 47% is more than 44%--though not by much. The very least one can conclude is that there doesn't appear to be any solid Afghan consensus in favor or reducing the numbers of US/NATO troops.

On the other hand, there is also the that only 18% of respondents actually said they wanted those numbers increased--which is what Obama has just decided to do. How Afghans feel about this decision a few years from now will depend mostly on the results. Those are hard to predict, and there are good reasons to worry.

=> In the meantime, I think it will be useful for all of us(on all sides of the issue) to recognize that there are no simple or straightforward answers to the questions raised by Afghanistan and what to do about it. Instead, this is one of those issues filled with inescapably difficult and complicated realities as well as irreducible (and potentially agonizing) uncertainties. We should try to face up to these, rather than falling back too easily on preconceived notions, familiar clichés, and satisfying but unhelpful slogans.

In a recent post David Adler nicely indicated his sympathy with my ambivalence. I will respond by saying that I'm sympathetic to the way he sums things up:
Afghanistan is not Iraq, nor is it Vietnam. Like Jeff Weintraub, I'm deeply ambivalent about the way forward. But Ahmed Rashid's comments in The New York Review of Books remind us of some of the stakes involved. Liberals and lefties often note how the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan following the anti-Soviet jihad; curiously, the same people seem to be advocating abandonment now. [....]

What commands our consideration is the fact, established by the UN, that the majority of Afghan civilian deaths in recent months [JW: about two-thirds] are attributable to insurgent forces . The Afghans themselves know this. In polling released earlier this year, cited by Jeff Weintraub and detailed here, 63 percent of Afghans support the presence of U.S. forces (a decline from a high of 78 percent); only seven percent view the Taliban favorably (so much for the popular insurgency theory); 47 percent view the U.S. favorably.

[Many] antiwar advocates would have us believe that the U.S. and only the U.S. is to blame for war and violence, and it could all stop with a stroke of Obama's pen. This is naive, it's irresponsible, and thankfully it's far from being the current president's worldview.
Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub