Afghanistan war worsening but optimism is up, says new poll

The Afghanistan war has intensified and a fraudulently elected president retaken power, but 70 percent of respondents say the country is moving in the right direction, up 30 points from last year. Some analysts question the jump in positivity.

Indiana National Guard/AP
Afghan farmers receive instruction on the use of a hand-cranked seed spreader from the Indiana National Guard's 1-19th Agribusiness Development Team prior to planting forage Kochia seed – a hardy, perennial grass being introduced in an effort to revegetate over-grazed rangeland areas on December 7, 2009 in the Matun District, Khowst Province.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Promising Afghan future

It’s morning in Afghanistan, according to a new nationwide poll of Afghan public opinion. But while even some skeptics agree that Afghans may have a more optimistic view of their country than outsiders suppose, analysts with deep experience there are cautious about the sunny picture emerging from the survey released Monday, saying it runs counter to their sense of the mood and the repercussions of the recent fraud-riddled election.

Seventy percent of Afghans say the country is moving in the right direction, up 30 points from one year ago, according to the poll from ABC News, the BBC, and ARD German TV. Conducted last month after President Hamid Karzai’s reelection was confirmed, the survey also found his approval up 19 points on the year, to 71 percent.

Matthew Warshaw, managing director of ACSOR Surveys, the firm in Kabul that conducted the poll, chalked the optimism up to three things: the peaceful resolution of the election controversy, the US deepening its commitment to the country, and more Afghans seeing development in their local area.

“I think there was somewhat of an election honeymoon” in December, says Mr. Warshaw, referring to the bump in optimism that usually follows democratic elections in other parts of the world.

Recent elections: inspiring, or hopelessly flawed?

For Afghans, postelection bliss may stem from the simple fact that the country dodged a violent breakup over the results. Also, “people are willing to wait and see if Karzai can deliver on many of the promises he’s made, and I think people are hopeful that the increased effort by the US and NATO may help solidify the security gains,” says Warshaw.

But Afghanistan’s recent elections were anything but usual, protracted by widespread allegations of fraud and a flawed monitoring process that pitted the government against its international backers.

That said, even some skeptics of the poll argue that Afghans have a more positive view of the election than may be commonly thought.

“I think the international community has missed what a positive experience these elections were in some ways for a lot of Afghans,” says Noah Coburn, an anthropologist who conducted postelection surveys for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, though only around Kabul.

“I think in general [Afghans] were fairly upbeat and people felt that campaigns were quite active. There was quite a lot of public debate over political issues which … in the history of Afghanistan is quite remarkable, so I can see Afghans emerging from this past year more positive in that sense.”

Still, for Dr. Coburn and other analysts, the 30-point jump in optimism over the country’s direction raises eyebrows.

“A 30 percentage point increase in a one-year period in the number of people feeling that the country is going in the right direction just doesn’t feel plausible to me,” says William Maley, an Afghanistan expert at the Australian National University.

He points out that the survey found a 14-point increase in the number of Afghans who feel the 2001 takedown of the Taliban government was “very good.”

“You are talking about things that have happened many years before. You would expect that people’s perceptions would sort of stabilize,” he says.

Polling in Afghanistan: not very straightforward

He and others point out that Afghans do not always feel safe being candid.

“We Afghans sometimes don’t know if the person questioning is someone from the government or whether it’s honest polling,” says Haroun Mir, director of Afghanistan’s Center for Research and Policy Studies based in Kabul. Unfamiliarity with polling can also bump up against cultural traits: “Answers from Afghans are not one word, sometimes it’s a 10-minute speech. And then it’s up to those conducting the polling to get one answer from it.”

Mr. Mir says his reading of the public-opinion climate is one of “growing pessimism” with little enthusiasm about the returning Karzai government, now struggling to assemble a cabinet.

Of course, for anyone attempting gauge Afghan opinion, the poor security situation in parts of the country poses a challenge. Dr. Maley points out that “wide swaths” of the country struggled to take part in the election due to insecurity, raising questions about the poll’s “nationwide” sampling.

Warshaw counters: “We think we have access to well over 90 percent of the population. There are small pockets where there are active military exercises or significant insurgent activity.”

The survey involved 600 people interviewing 1,534 randomly selected Afghans in all 34 of the country’s provinces and had a 3-point margin of error. ACSOR has operated in Afghanistan since 2003, and Warshaw has nearly 15 years experience in polling.

“I think what we are seeing in the poll is feasible. If we look at other results where people are still concerned with security and corruption, they aren’t giving a pass to the government and the foreign community here,” says Warshaw. “They are saying they are hopeful that things could change.”

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