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Working with the BBC, RUSI analyses the latest opinion poll charting Afghan attitudes. The results reveal a number of positive trends but also growing scepticism about the foreign intervention.
By Michael Clarke, Director, Royal United Services Institute
This year’s poll is a reflection of how difficult a year 2008 proved to be and is a pointer to some of the problems that 2009 is likely to bring. Afghans themselves remain determinedly optimistic about their ultimate future but are evidently less hopeful for the next couple of years. They see foreign intervention in their country – their liberation from a Taliban government – less positively now than at any time in the last five years. A majority are frankly sceptical about the effectiveness of the Coalition forces and they worry much more about government corruption at all levels than ever before.
The declining image of the Coalition
Afghan public attitudes to the United States and its key Coalition partners have become steadily adverse over the last five years. Perceptions of the ‘performance’ of the US in Afghanistan have gone from being predominantly positive in 2005 by a ratio of around 70:30 to being predominantly negative in 2009 by about the same ratio. A similar reversal applies at local as well as at the national level, and positive attitudes to the US presence overall have fallen significantly; where four out of five Afghans previously welcomed it, now only three out of five do so. Attitudes to US bombing are, not surprisingly, overwhelmingly negative. Most publics in the world, of course, like the US more than they agree with its particular policies, but Afghans have gone from an 85:15 ratio with a ‘favourable’ view of the US in 2005 to one that is just 50:50 now.
Other members of the Coalition fare no better in Afghan public opinion. Britain was always less popular than America and is regarded as less effective. Support and popularity for Britain is expressed by fewer than half the respondents polled. Germany comes out only a little better. The greatest proportion of the population want to see the Coalition draw down in Afghanistan, even though they worry greatly about security in this event; fewer than one in five would like to see more Coalition troops in their country. This could be important at a time when the US is planning to build up its troop numbers in Afghanistan quite significantly and is urging its European allies to do a lot more.
Attitudes towards the Afghan government and the Taliban
According to these polls, the Afghans are generally sceptical about the authority and effectiveness of their own government but have just about kept faith with it and are continuing to do so now. There have always been limits to their patience with the government in Kabul and it has not yet run out, but their support is evidently volatile. On the basis of this series of surveys it seems that conditional support for the Afghan government is partly based on the lack of faith in any alternative. Warlordism, even if it is a phenomenon Afghans have to live with, is not popular, still less foreign Islamic fighters. Foreigners of any kind are not regarded as much help and attitudes even to the hard working foreign aid organisations are generally equivocal.
There is minimal support among the respondents for the Taliban; fewer than one in ten Afghans express any support for them at all, and there is no sign of this growing. Nor are the Taliban regarded as more influential than before, even if their presence is still evident in terms of the kidnappings, killings and bombings that continue to impact significantly on the lives of ordinary Afghans in many parts of the country. Afghans have never liked the Taliban, but they fear them, and the decline in public support for the US has not given the Taliban any perceptible boost. Nor do Afghans seem to feel that the Taliban have reformed, despite the adoption by Taliban leaders of more overtly nationalist rhetoric and a toning down of some of the fundamentalist messages. The Taliban, Al-Qa’ida and foreign Jihadi fighters are collectively still blamed by most Afghans for the violence the country suffers and while there is growing support (now at 64 per cent) for efforts to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban, the caveat that the overwhelming majority would favour this ‘only if the Taliban first stop fighting’ is very significant. The Afghans do not have a problem deciding what to think about the Taliban, but they lack faith in the government, or the Coalition, to prevail against the insurgents. They see Pakistan as deeply complicit in the problems they face, though are surprisingly neutral over the role Iran plays in the current crisis.
Hope for the future
The news from these polls is not all bad. The investment put into infrastructural development over recent years is becoming evident to ordinary Afghans and the visibility of the benefit in terms of schools, roads, water, power and so on, is either increased or at least not diminished from previous polls. Support remains generally strong for women’s rights – a good indicator for the development of civil society as well as for the female population – though these rights will inevitably be expressed in an Afghan way. And there is no intrinsic love for the narcotics business, even if it is ubiquitous in many parts of Southern Afghanistan.
Building on the results of last year’s polling, the Afghan people emerge from these surveys as patient, stoical, politically realistic and depressed. The battle for hearts and minds that will ultimately contain the Taliban and chase the jihadis out of Afghanistan is not yet lost, but it is further than ever from being won. The poll reinforces the idea that the credibility of the Afghan government in the eyes of ordinary people is the most critical commodity at stake. The military effectiveness of the Coalition is secondary to that, though important enough in itself; and the perception of that effectiveness may now have slipped to dangerous levels. This will be a difficult year in which Afghan elections will also have to take place and be seen to be successful. The Coalition must articulate a new strategy, based around the fresh approach of the Obama Administration, emphasising the centrality of governance, training and mentoring, and dealing with corruption. There is still something in the Afghan public’s well of patience to work with in these respects, but on the trends presently discernable, it will not last indefinitely.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.
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