Afghan Public Opinion

Mark Kleiman summarizes some key bullet points from the Asia Foundation’s most recent survey of public opinion:

— In 2009, 42 percent of respondents say that the country is moving in the right direction.

This figure is higher than in 2008 (38%). Similarly, 29 percent feel that the country is moving in the wrong direction compared to 32 percent in 2008, signaling a check on the trend of declining optimism that had been evident since 2006.

—The main reason for optimism continues to be good security which has been mentioned by an increasing proportion of respondents each year, from 31 percent in 2006 to 44 percent in 2009. More respondents in 2009 also mention reconstruction and rebuilding (36%) and opening of schools for girls (21%) as reasons for optimism than in previous years.

— Insecurity also remains the most important reason for pessimism, cited by 42 percent of respondents. However, the proportion of respondents that highlight insecurity in 2009 has fallen since 2008 when half of respondents (50%) emphasized this factor.

— Insecurity (including attacks, violence and terrorism) is identified as the biggest problem in Afghanistan by over a third of respondents (36%), particularly in the South East (48%), West (44%) and South West (41%). However, concern about other issues such as unemployment (35%), poor economy (20%), corruption (17%), poverty (11%) and education (11%) has increased in 2009 compared to 2008.

I think you can use this data to support a variety of policy conclusion. But it’s striking that the US debate between escalation and scaling-back tends to proceed from a shared assumption that Afghanistan is in a crisis point. But Afghans seem to think things are improving. Note also that corruption, which has been talked about a lot over the past month, rates relatively low on the complaint scale. In terms of unemployment it seems to me that the most helpful thing we can do would be to revise trade policies. Allow the duty free importation of Afghan textiles to the American market. See what it takes to persuade Turkey and India to stop putting such high taxes on Afghan agricultural products.

This kind of thing is very boring to talk about and isn’t amenable to David Brooks writing columns about how the real issue is whether or not Obama is manly enough to demand victory. But it’s really important. Poor labor market conditions make people disgruntled. In stable democracies they vote for opposition parties. In non-stable places they may take up arms.