KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Despite mounting civilian casualties, increased insecurity — including in urban centers — and a slow to grow economy, Afghans have expressed a surprising uptick in optimism for their country.
According to the Asia Foundation’s annual survey of the Afghan people, released on Tuesday, 32.8 percent of Afghans say their country is moving in the right direction. This marks the first increase in optimism since 2013. Respondents attribute that 3.5 percent increase from last year’s 29.3 percent confidence rate to better governance, efforts to rebuild and repair infrastructure, and improved security.
To conduct their survey, the Asia Foundation spoke to 10,012 Afghans across the nation’s 34 provinces.
The slight increase in optimism also coincides with a noticeable drop in pessimism, this year’s rate of 61.2 percent pessimism is a considerable drop from last year’s record high of 65.9 percent.
The optimism reported by the Asia Foundation seems to be in contrast with other recent statistics regarding the state of the country.
In the first nine months of 2017, the United Nations documented more than 8,019 civilian casualties in the country — 2,640 deaths and 5,379 injuries. Though that figure is down six percent from the year prior, October and November were particularly violent months.
More than 150 Afghan civilians and security forces were killed over a single week last month. October also saw attacks on two mosques in Kabul and the central province of Ghor. Of those bombings, the Kabul attack was claimed by fighters claiming allegiance to the Iraq and Syria-based so-called Islamic State. The Ghor attack went unclaimed, though it was believed to have targeted a local strongman.
The October mosque attacks were part of another alarming trend that has been documented by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). According to UNAMA, there have been 833 casualties (261 deaths and 572 injuries) as a result of 42 different attacks on places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers since January 1, 2016.
The attacks claimed by Islamic State fighters have overwhelmingly targeted members of the nation’s Shi’a minority.
The increased violence has had an impact on all aspects of life in Afghanistan. It is estimated that one in three Afghan children will be deprived of education due to violence, displacement and lack of teachers.
The economy has not fared much better.
The Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled estimates that more than two million people are unemployed in the nation. Of the respondents in the Asia Foundation survey, 58.1 percent say their economic situation has worsened since the year prior.
The effects of these grim statistics are reflected in the Asia Foundation survey. When asked to provide two examples of what is going well in their local areas, 32.7 percent of respondents said that they “don’t know.” Another 19 percent responded “nothing.”
When asked to name the biggest difficulties facing their local areas, respondents said unemployment, 31 percent, and insecurity, 24.1 percent.
All this has led many Afghans seeking a way to leave the nation.
Of the people surveyed by the Asia Foundation, 38.8 percent said they would be willing to leave the country if they could find a way out. That is the second-highest rate documented since the Asia Foundation first began asking about willingness to leave in 2011. The highest rate was in 2015, when 39.9 percent of respondents said they would be willing to leave Afghanistan.
But there is some level of positivity to be found in the survey results. Of the Afghans surveyed, 56.2 percent say the national unity government is doing a good job. This represents a 7.1 percent increase from 2016, which saw a historic low in the public’s perception of the government.
This positivity is likely due to several recent developments.
Last week, the first shipment of Indian wheat transported through the Chabahar port, in southeastern Iran, reached Afghanistan. That shipment represented a milestone, not only as a sign of trilateral cooperation between Tehran, Kabul, and New Delhi, but also because it is yet another sign of the Afghan government’s ability to freeze out rival Pakistan from regional economic activity.
Afghans have long accused Islamabad of aiding and abetting the armed opposition in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. As such, any efforts to block out Pakistani influence in the nation is largely welcomed by the Afghan people.
The arrival of the wheat also comes weeks after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani banned Pakistani trucks from entering Afghan territory. This ban was seen both as a way to boost the Afghan economy — Afghan workers will be needed to offload Pakistani goods at the Torkham border crossing — and as a security measure. In the past, Afghan security officials have claimed that trucks full of explosive materials that have been the cause of several deadly attacks, originate on the other side of the Durand Line.
Ghani’s unity government has also managed to survive a year’s worth of challenges from a political opposition led by former high-ranking members of the government who were sacked, accused of crimes or felt left out of decision-making processes. Even a protest movement involving tents blocking traffic throughout Kabul during the month of Ramadan largely backfired, as locals felt the tents were merely a hindrance during the hot summer month.
The last year has also seen signs of greater cooperation between Ghani and his Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah. The willingness to work together came only months after Abdullah became the highest-ranking member of the Kabul government to publicly criticize Ghani last summer.