Afghan public opinion and its consequences
Jun 13, 2011

Afghan public opinion and its consequences

If we care about the Afghan people, and if we believe in democracy as a normative system for determining what is best for a people, it becomes imperative when conducting a unilateral action such as war that we learn what the Afghan people actually think and want.  We must measure our actions against these collective wishes and judge them accordingly. This recently released study  from ICOS of Afghan public opinion (among military aged men) provides an important and textured picture of many aspects of the war in Afghanistan and, while I recommend reading it in full, this post will consider some of these findings and compare them to previous positions I have advocated for with regards to Afghanistan.

The most striking fact that we must internalize and reconcile with from this study is the fact that the NATO military operations in Afghanistan are overwhelmingly disapproved of by the Afghan people;  87% in the south and 76% in the north think they are bad for Afghanistan. Consider what this means: after a decade of fighting in Afghanistan - ostensibly acting in the benefit of the Afghan people - an overwhelming majority oppose these actions. This general sentiment was seen throughout a series of different questions posed. If we are to advocate for continued military operations without change this demands an enormous burden of proof to justify continued, unchanged, military operations - a burden not met by standard western discourse. When seen in the light of recent remarks by Karzai strongly condemning, and refusing the continuation of, aerial attacks after yet more civilian deaths it is not surprising that there is such a strong sentiment against them.

One of the other important results is with regards to negotiating with the Taliban with public opinion answering the question of negotiations with yes/no/not sure at 53%/31%/16% in the north and 61%/22%/17% in the south. With these strong numbers, particularly in the south where they are arguably more relevant, there is a very strong case to be made about trusting both the judgement and the moral authority of their own determinism of the Afghan people. One might think that this is simply a function of support for the Taliban, but this doesn't bear out in the numbers. For example, in the north only 13% said they would do what the Taliban said and only 3% of those did it for their own accord and not because they felt they would have to. Yet a majority support reconciliation. A majority also supports reintegration of the Taliban into civil society in the south, but only around a third does in the north.

Rejection of NATO military actions and widespread support for Taliban reconciliation is not a rejection of the overall strategy. For instance, transitioning security to Afghan forces from NATO forces enjoys strong support with only 7% and 19% in the north and south respectively thinking this is a bad thing. The basic idea of a roughly national provision of security retains support. This is a pretty critical result since the West's endgame revolves around transitioning to Afghan forces. This demonstrates this endgame to be a credible one - at least in the eyes of Afghans - and lends hope to the idea that the war could result in a positive outcome for the Afghan people.

The study is divided into north vs south and separates the results based on the two regions which often differ wildly. This is to be expected. The south is largely of the Pashtun ethnicity, as are the Taliban, while the north is a mix of other ethnicities that, despite sometimes extensive disagreements, coalesced into the Northern Alliance that was fighting a civil war against the Taliban (and losing) when the internationals stepped in. Correspondingly, many indicators the polling demonstrated that the Pashtun south had far higher favorability towards the Taliban than the North did.

The differences between the north and the south are striking. On one question it was asked whether they would work for various parties if it meant the foreign troops would leave sooner.  In the north, 70% would work for the Afghan government, in the south, zero percent would.  In the north a majority supports government councils for dispute resolution while in the south a majority support tribal councils (neither supports Taliban councils outside of small minorities). There is also a large discrepancy in basic western institutions such as elections, women voting, girls getting education and similar factors that are largely supported in the north and rejected in the south. One interesting factor was the significant unwillingness of the South to either approve of the National Govenment or deal with government courts, favoring significantly the national police force and local tribal councils.

This north/south picture represents a challenge to the very centralized and national model that the internationals are setting up in their nation building efforts. To date, nation building has been overwhelming Kabul-centric. I have argued, and these stats back it up, that a more decentralized model of governance is imperative that puts more emphasis on local and tribal control, particularly in the south, is important. I do believe in the effectiveness and moral benefits of many of national governments with key elements of western democratic systems. However, if a people are simply not presently receptive to such cultural differences forced upon them there is little utility in doing so; indeed, it may be quite the opposite as it pushes people to more support of the Taliban.  However, a plan that allows for more local governance and influence over their culture can ameliorate the conflict and allow for a longer term, but peaceful, trajectory to the kinds of societal structures we may prefer.

I have long lamented the perception that the west has only two options in Afghanistan: retain more or less the status quo, or instead largely withdraw from the country. Instead, I believe in a continued presence but with many substantial changes in direction that include such things as declining military strikes, particularly those such as aerial with collateral damage possibilities, reconciliation and rapprochement with the Taliban, extensive emphasis on development particularly outside major cities, tackling the opium problem, reducing warlord power, and transitioning to both local and national Afghan governance and security provision in a way that is less Kabul-centric. Some of these changes have started occurring in the later years of the war despite previous neglect and some still have not manifested in western strategy. Regardless, this study demonstrates, I believe, considerable correlation between Afghan public opinion and my vision for the war in Afghanistan.

On a personal note, I am often humbled by the task of attempting to analyze and advocate for policies in Afghanistan. Despite the amount of reading and thought I have put into the country, there remains a significant difference in my cultural upbringing as a white, middle class, young and educated Canadian and the varied people I attempt to understand and advocate for. I am forced to accept a certain meta uncertainty in my analysis owing to such differences and acknowledge that what I advocate may not meet my goal of being best for Afghans simply because I cannot fully understand Afghans and what would find best for them. It is thus very gratifying that the major themes of these polls fit with my expectations and policy positions I have supported.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

Share this post:

Tweet It! Facebook Add Feed Reddit! Digg It! Stumble Delicious Follow

Post a Comment

Frequent Topics: