Afghanistan: A Survey Sends Danger Signals for the Pending American Surge

Support is plummeting among the Afghan people for the President Hamid Karzai's administration in Kabul, as well as for the Western military and economic presence, even though opposition to Islamic radical insurgents remains strong, a recent survey found. A majority of Afghans would also not welcome a substantial increase in the number of American troops in their country, according to the opinion poll.

On February 17, Obama reportedly approved the deployment of at least an additional 17,000 US troops to Afghanistan. The decision signals that Washington is intent on pursuing a surge strategy in Afghanistan.

The Afghan opinion survey was commissioned by a coalition of Western television broadcasters, including the US-based ABC News, the British Broadcasting Corp. and the German ARD network. Gary Langer, Director of Polling for ABC News, presented the findings February 11 at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

In response to the key question posed by the survey; "Do you think things are going in the right or the wrong direction?" Langer noted a "tremendous drop" in public confidence. In 2005, he added, 77 percent of poll respondents believed the country was headed in the right direction. Today the share is only 40 percent.

The image of the United States has taken a similar beating. In 2005, the United States had an extraordinary 83 percent favorable rating, making it "the poster boy for American popularity in a Muslim nation," Langer said. But in the most recent poll, the favorability figure stood at 47 percent: "For the first time now in our own data, we have a bare majority of Afghans holding an unfavorable opinion of the United States," Langer said.

Respondents also have lost faith in the effectiveness of American policies in Afghanistan, with a decrease from 68 percent favorable in 2005 to 32 percent now. Few Afghans polled (only 21 percent) believed that Barack Obama's election as president would bring about a major improvement in their conditions, and almost the same percentage (16 percent) felt his election would actually make their conditions worse.

Three-fourths of the respondents viewed the coalition air strikes as "unacceptable because they put too many civilians at risk," Langer said. Perhaps for this reason, the number of respondents who consider attacks against coalition forces justified has doubled, to 25 percent. And "among people who report coalition bombings in their area, the number who say it's acceptable to attack coalition forces is not 25 percent, but 44 percent," Langer added.

The polling was conducted by the Afghan Centre for Social and Opinion Research, which solicited the opinions of 1,534 Afghan adults in face-to-face interviews performed between December 30, 2008, and January 12, 2009, in all 34 of Afghanistan's provinces.

While a majority still supports the presence of American troops in Afghanistan, most Afghans aren't eager to see the number of American combat troops in their country increase. The American surge strategy could put as many as 30,000 additional American soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan. A plurality would like the current number to decrease, despite the arguments made by American experts that a greater foreign military presence would reduce the number of Afghan civilian casualties by reducing the need for air strikes and yielding more precise operational intelligence.

Views of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his administration have nosedived. In 2005, Karzai enjoyed a favorability rating of 83 percent. That number is 52 percent now. Overall, the rating of the government's performance has dropped from 80 percent in 2005 to 49 percent in the latest survey. One constant, however, is highly negative feelings among Afghans for Pakistan.

The survey found mixed data with respect to infrastructure development and other forms of economic progress. On the positive side, "there has been an increase in our most recent data in reported road building, health clinics opening and police stations." Unfortunately, Langer added, "these don't seem to mitigate the problems that exist." Noting that "63 percent of Afghans in this survey tell us they are unable to afford adequate supplies of food," Langer observed that "it is hard to celebrate a new road when you can't buy enough to eat."

If there is a silver lining to the latest survey results, it is the fact that the Taliban remain deeply unpopular. Almost two-thirds of the respondents favor seeking a negotiated solution with the Taliban, but "the vast majority of that group say only if the Taliban first lay down their arms and discontinue fighting," Langer said.

Responses varied markedly by region. The poll, Langer noted, highlighted that it is "misleading to think of Afghanistan simply in aggregate, given the different needs and different issues we see across the country by province and by region." For example, concerns about corruption, though rising overall, remain greatest in the urban areas of Kabul and Herat. Conversely, support for the Taliban and tolerance for opium cultivation are highest in Afghanistan's southeast.

Judging by the survey results, a military surge in Afghanistan would not, in itself, solve the country's stabilization challenges. "The problems in Afghanistan are decidedly not about one thing," Langer said. "It's not as if we could instill security and the problems would go away. Or building a road or a bridge or school somehow magically solves the difficulties in this country. Each of those -- the local conditions, the sense of the how Taliban has grown stronger, local security -- all independently predict whether you think the country is going in the right direction."

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.

Afghanistan: A Survey Sends Danger Signals for the Pending American Surge

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