Thursday, February 11, 2010

How the war looks to Afghans - Further reality checks

In some earlier posts ( here & here & here) I discussed a BBC/ABC/ARD national public opinion poll in Afghanistan released in February 2009. Many analysts appear to regard these ABC/BBC/ARD surveys as among the most comprehensive, systematic, and reliable soundings of public opinion in Afghanistan. One notable statistic in the February 2009 poll was that the proportion of Afghans supporting the continued presence of US/NATO forces in Afghanistan was 63%--despite many disappointments and anxieties about how things have been going the past several years.

Of course, knowing what Afghans would or would not like the US to do does not, by itself, answer the question of what the US actually can and should do. But people who favor US abandonment of Afghanistan should not assume or pretend (or imply or insinuate) that this is what most Afghans themselves want, too. All the available evidence of which I'm aware (there's some more here), from surveys and other sources, indicates otherwise.

=> Now it is a year later, and a new BBC/ABC/ARD national poll of Afghan public opinion was conducted in December 2009. When the results were released in January 2010, Steve Coll remarked:
Afghans seem to be more optimistic about Obama’s policy toward their country than Americans are. Since their decisions will be more decisive than ours in the outcome, that has to be counted as a good thing.
This graph captures what Coll is talking about:

The BBC News report on the results from this poll is worth reading in full--with the usual cautions and caveats, or course. (Detailed results are here.) Some highlights:
Most Afghans are increasingly optimistic about the state of their country, a poll commissioned by the BBC, ABC News and Germany's ARD shows.

Of more than 1,500 Afghans questioned, 70% said they believed Afghanistan was going in the right direction - a big jump from 40% a year ago.

Of those questioned, 68% now back the presence of US troops in Afghanistan, compared with 63% a year ago.

For Nato troops, including UK forces, support has risen from 59% to 62%.

The survey was conducted in all of the country's 34 provinces in December 2009. [....]

The other significant theme which emerges from the figures is growing antipathy towards the Taliban.

Ninety per cent said they wanted their country run by the current government, compared with 6% who said they favoured a Taliban administration.

Sixty-nine per cent believed the Taliban posed the biggest danger to the country, and 66% blamed the Taliban, al-Qaeda and foreign militants for violence in Afghanistan. [....]

The survey also asked if people thought it was good or bad that US forces entered Afghanistan in 2001 to drive out the Taliban. Of those questioned, 83% said it was either very good or mostly good. This compares with 69% for 2009.
=> The survey results also suggest a positive response to the Afghanistan policy announced by Obama. Aside from the general pattern of results, here are two specific examples.

Regarding a central feature of the plan announced by Obama, Question #26 asked: "The Americans are adding 30,000 additional U.S. troops to their force in Afghanistan, and other NATO countries are adding 7,000 more. Is this increase in U.S. and NATO/ISAF forces something you support strongly, support somewhat, oppose somewhat, or oppose strongly?"

Support ("strongly" or "somewhat"): 61%. Oppose ("strongly" or "somewhat"): 36%. Apparently, a very solid majority of Afghans are, at the very least, willing to give this initiative a chance.

Another aspect of the plan announced by Obama was that, following a temporary surge in US/NATO troop levels, US/NATO troops would begin withdrawing in 18 months. Question #28 asked the following: "Obama has said he will begin withdrawing U.S. forces 18 months from now. Would it be your preference to have American and NATO/ISAF forces begin to leave Afghanistan 18 months from now, should they leave sooner than 18 months from now, or should they stay longer than that?"

In response, 25% answered that they "should begin to leave Afghanistan 18 months from now", 21% said they "should stay longer than 18 months", and 29% said that it "[d]epends on the security situation". That totals 75% of respondents ... versus 22% who said that US & allied troops "should leave sooner than 18 months from now". In short, if these results have any validity at all, an overwhelming majority of Afghans are not eager to see the US abandon Afghanistan. It's true that only 25% of respondents directly approved the idea of starting to pull out US/NATO in 18 months, but in reality the caveat about "the security situation" is built into the policy, and 25% + 29% yields a total of 54%.

In effect, as Steve Coll pointed out, most Afghans have endorsed Obama's policy, and they seem encouraged by it, too..

=> Unsurprisingly, respondents also said that Afghanistan has major problems, including poverty, insecurity, violence, corruption, and so on. But most of them also indicated that they expect things might start getting better. I hope they're right. We'll see what they think a year from now.

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S. The BBC News report also includes a recording of a brief interchange with former Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, who "is encouraged by the opinion poll results" and (rightly or wrongly) by other developments in Afghanistan, too. That's also worth listening to. You can click on it about half-way through the article.