Women surveying in North East Badakhshan, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of The Asia Foundation.
In the American coverage of the Afghan war — firefights, bombings, political wrangling and U.S. casualties — the sentiments of ordinary Afghans often get lost.
But once again this year, The Asia Foundation is offering an exhaustive survey of Afghan public opinion, with more than 6,000 face-to-face interviews throughout the strife-torn country. Like measuring the progress of the war itself, the numbers offer some cause for optimism — but also equal cause for concern and plentiful contradictions.
On the plus side, some 46 percent of Afghans believe their country is moving in the right direction, though an all-time high of 35 percent think it’s on the wrong track:
And they continue to express satisfaction in the provision of basic services — 73 percent on education, 70 percent on clean water and 57 percent on availability of medical care:
For anyone who’s driven Afghanistan’s rutted roads, visited fetid rural homes or undersupplied and dirty clinics, these results suggest Afghans must be the most forgiving people in the world.
But like last year’s poll, this one contains new, deeply troubling findings that call into question the effectiveness of stepped-up U.S. and coalition efforts over the last 18 months.
When the Obama administration surged an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan early last year, the objective was to restore security, of course. But it was also to help Afghans stand up the basic building blocks of self-government. That means local, provincial and national government institutions in which people have a stake, and a belief that they will respond to their citizens.
On both scores, the poll is disheartening.
Let’s take security. Just three years shy of the deadline for withdrawing all U.S. and foreign combat troops, Afghans actually feel even less secure than they did a year ago.
An all-time high of 56 percent say they often or sometimes fear for their own personal safety or that of their family. Only 24 percent — an all-time low — replied that they’re “never” afraid:
And a whopping 75 percent have a fear of traveling from one part of the country to another:
Afghans are also afraid to participate in some of the most basic sorts of political acts: 57 percent are fearful when voting, 63 percent are fearful of running for office, 66 percent feel fear at the thought of joining a peaceful demonstration:
And they express declining belief that government is responsive to their concerns and opinions. Some 78 percent agreed with the statement, “I don’t think the government cares much about what people like me think.”:
Washington and its allies long ago gave up dreams of creating any sort of Western or South Asian democracy in Afghanistan. But they have been trying to help that country create a form of self-government strong enough and connected enough to its people to resist Taliban efforts to fill the vacuum once foreign forces leave.
The latest soundings from the Afghan heartland suggest there’s a long way to go.