The headlines from an extensive poll of Afghans released yesterday were all-but-unanimous: “Afghans are more optimistic than last year.” They were drawn from the results to the famous “right track-wrong track” question widely used here and abroad to gauge national mood. But the 47-27 percent split represented only a slender uptick from 2009 (42-29 percent), a difference well within the margin of error. And the numbers behind the numbers of the Asia Foundation poll — taken in June and July, 18 months into the recent buildup of U.S. forces in Afghanistan — tell a more ominous story.
The national average belies wild swings from province to province. In fact, “wrong track” won out in virtually all the provinces where U.S. and other coalition forces are waging their fiercest battles: Kandahar, Zabol, Patika and Ghazni in the south and southeast; Wardak west of Kabul, Nuristan in the northeast. What’s more, the top reason cited by those seeing the country on the “wrong track” is lack of security. And they’re not the only ones who are worried. Nationwide, 54 percent said they frequently or sometimes fear for their own safety or that of family members.
Equally troubling for the Obama administration’s effort to halt the Taliban’s rise is the public’s perception that corruption on the part of their government continues to worsen. Some 55 percent of Afghans said corruption was a problem affecting their daily lives, up from 42 percent in 2006, and 51 percent in 2008. And fully half of all those who had had contact with government officials reported paying bribes in the past year; whether to obtain health care, police help, a job or a resolution in court. So it’s not surprising that when it came to resolving disputes, whether over land or other matters, far more said they turn to local elders, the local jirga or chieftain — whom they trust — than they do to the courts.
In short, this is a country whose people still feel besieged and beleaguered by violence they can’t control, and by a government they can’t trust.
A final note: compare this poll to the recent survey of Iraqis also taken in June and early July by IRI, the International Republican Institute. On first glance, the picture looked bleak: by a 59-41 percent margin, Iraqis thought the country was on the “wrong track,” a reversal from 2009. But on closer examination, the reasons why offered some reason for hope. For the first time ever, when asked to cite the biggest problem facing the country, a whopping majority of Iraqis chose not lack of security (24 percent), but lack of basic services (66 percent), a complete flip from 2009. Their litany of complaints included poor electricity, water and sewer service. In other words, in mid-year at least, Iraqis were beginning to feel like citizens of any other country, dissatisfied with their government’s performance on the mundane essentials of life.
We’ll know Afghanistan is turning a corner when those same mundane matters are what its people are griping about.