Robert Moran | December 9, 2009
With so much discussion about US policy in Afghanistan, its worth taking the time to understand what the Afghan people are thinking. One way to do this is to read the Asia Foundation's fifth public opinion poll in Afghanistan. Conducted in the summer of 2009 (June 17-July 6), this survey of 6406 Afghan citizens was released October 27th and is a treasure trove of polling data.
I have seen mountains of polling data in my career, but this survey is easily the most interesting that I have ever read.
Titled "Afghanistan in 2009: A survey of the Afghan People", you can read it all here.
The entire report is a thorough 225 pages, but the questionnaire and topline data can be found on page 167.
Although readers should absorb the report and come to their own conclusions, taken together the data seems to paint a picture of uneven progress despite many obstacles. But, two related data points struck me as informative to the current discussion in Washington. 69% of Afghans agree that "The Afghan National Army needs the support of foreign troops and cannot operate by itself." 70% agree that the "Afghan National Police needs the support of foreign troops and cannot operate by itself." This is not comforting.
One caveat here. Obviously, conducting a survey in a place like Afghanistan is not easy. Due to violence and insecurity, some areas were not surveyed. In some unsecured areas, only men were surveyed. This is because (a) interviewing is face to face and (b) this is a traditional society in which men interview men and women interview women. Read this passage from the report:
"Moreover, in 2009, there were greater restrictions on the movement of survey researchers than in previous years. A number of districts in the country could not be surveyed because of inaccessibility due to logistical problems, natural disasters and security. Overall 208 of the 882 sampling points had to be replaced. The replacements were made by selecting other sampling points in the same region. The instability and frequent fighting in some provinces caused 102 of the sampling points across the country (12%) to be adjusted or replaced to keep interviewers out of areas affected by active violence. This was a significant change from 2008 when only 17 sampling points (3%) had to be replaced for security reasons."
This suggests to me that this data may be slightly rosier than the truth on the ground.
First, some basics about Afghanistan from the survey:
1. 81% have a radio (radio is the main source of information)
2. 52% have a mobile phone
3. 41% have a TV set
4. 6% have a computer
5. 54% cannot read
6. 60% have never attended school
7. Agriculture is the dominant means of support
8. 79% live in villages as opposed to towns (5%), cities (5%) or Kabul (11%)
Now, for the key findings based on my reading.
Are you better off now? 54% say they are more prosperous now than under the Taliban. 24% say they are less prosperous now. Compared to the Soviet occupation, 50% say they are more prosperous than under the Soviet occupation. 32% say they are less prosperous now than they were under the Soviet occupation.
Expectations. One series of questions is especially heartening (see page 179). Pluralities of Afghans expect a range of things to improve dramatically, especially education, drinking water and the security situation.
Violence. The data is not pretty. 16% say they "often" fear for their life and 17% report being a victim of violence or crime in the past 12 months. No wonder insecurity (see page 175) is cited as the biggest problem, just ahead of unemployment and the economy.
Corruption. 53% say that corruption is a "major problem" in their daily life. As an example, 16% say that they had to pay a bribe in all or most cases when obtaining official government documents. It is true that this is normal in most of the world, but Afghans clearly feel it is a problem. Interestingly, I have heard this from several people firsthand on the long flight from Dulles to Dubai.
The economy. Although Afghans feel that they are more prosperous now, they clearly feel that the economic situation has deteriorated. 47% say unemployment has gotten worse compared to a year ago. Only 11% say it has gotten better.
Schools. There is some good news here. The data regarding schooling and school construction seems to be very positive. For example, 40% say the schools have gotten better over the past year and "schools for girls" is the third thing mentioned by the 42% who think Afghanistan is moving in the right direction.
Religious Authority. In a forced choice question, 67% say that religious leaders should be consulted by political leaders. Only 27% say politics and religion should not mix. This is not terribly surprising and "consultation" could take many forms.
Democracy. At 30,000 feet, there is support for democracy. 78% agree with the statement that Democracy may have its problems, but it is better than any other form of government. But, there are clear disconnects. 59% agree with the idea that individuals should vote the way their community votes, not based on their individual conscience. 57% disagree with the idea that all political parties, even the ones that they don't like, should still be able to meet in their community.
This poll should be required reading in Congress and the White House.