While the people of Afghanistan are more disillusioned than ever with their government amid the country’s crises, public sympathy for the Taliban and their allies is eroding, according to the biggest annual survey of Afghans’ opinions. For the second straight year support is growing, if still narrow, for women’s rights to education and jobs outside the home.

Afghanistan

The Asia Foundation’s 2016 Survey of the Afghan People, presented Dec. 7 in a forum at the U.S. Institute of Peace, polled more than 12,000 Afghans and found only 29 percent—the lowest level since the survey began in 2004—saying the country is moving in the right direction. The decline follows a sharp drop in the national mood in 2014, when Afghan troops and police took over full responsibility for the country’s security in place of international forces.

Following a plunge of 18 percentage points in public optimism from 2014 to 2015, this year’s seven-point drop may reflect a new norm of citizen disillusionment with every level of government.  “Democracy has not fully delivered on its promises,” and this decline serves as a “reality check to inform the pathway forward” in Afghanistan, USIP President Nancy Lindborg said at the forum.

Insecurity and Disillusion

In each survey since 2007, Afghans most frequently have cited insecurity as the reason for the country’s negative direction. This year’s poll shows deeper public discontent over the performance of the Afghan army and police in providing security, particularly in the embattled provinces of Helmand, Nangarhar, and Uruzgan. The United Nations counted a record number of 5,166 civilians killed or maimed in the first six months of 2016.

Afghan government forces lost “control or influence” over nearly 5 percent of the country’s territory to the Taliban between January and May, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government watchdog agency. Amid the Taliban advances and escalated violence by the Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate in Afghanistan, “opposition forces uniformly trigger fear among Afghans,” the Asia Foundation survey says, with 93 percent of Afghans reporting they would fear any encounter with the Taliban and 95 percent reporting fear of encountering ISIS. Nationwide, 42 to 45 percent say they fear Afghan troops or police, although more than 80 percent say so in parts of the southwest, where residents often are caught between government and rebel forces.

map 2007 map 2016
“We see significant increase in fear for personal security,” said Jena Karim, a former Asia Foundation official in Kabul. Source: The Asia Foundation, Afghanistan in 2016: A Survey of the Afghan People

Amid setbacks in efforts to advance peace talks with the Taliban, 63 percent of Afghans still said a peace process can stabilize the country, a level of confidence similar to that of last year. Public confidence in the possibility of peace talks declined in the country’s center, west, and northeast, but was at 81 percent in the southwest, a traditional Taliban stronghold.

After a single round of peace talks last year, the process stalled when the Taliban acknowledged that their leader, Mullah Omar, had died years earlier. In April, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced he was dropping his efforts to get Taliban leaders to negotiate. And Omar’s successor as the formal Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in May. Continued erosion of the government’s political credibility and its ability to defeat the Taliban means reconciliation might represent the only viable option to stabilize the country, USIP analysts and others have said.

Taliban Lose Support, Women Get a Little

While fewer than half of those Afghans surveyed were satisfied with the government’s performance, the proportion who expressed sympathy for the Taliban or other armed opposition groups dropped nearly 11 percentage points.  The rebels’ aims have lost credibility, according to the survey’s data and speakers at the forum. With a dwindling international troop presence, for instance, Afghans see less merit in the Taliban’s declared motive of expelling the foreigners.

Also, “the notion that armed opposition groups are ruled by outside countries, like Pakistan, has become more popular,” and hastened the decline in public sympathy for them, said Jena Karim, a former Asia Foundation official in Afghanistan who spoke at the USIP forum.  Afghans increasingly say rebels are fighting the government primarily to establish their own power.

This change in attitude included residents of areas where the Taliban traditionally have held significant support. In Wardak Province, just west of Kabul, the level of sympathy dropped from nearly 80 percent in 2015 to around 36 percent this year. Heavy fighting in the past 18 months in the northeastern province of Kunduz may have contributed to public sympathy for armed groups falling there by more than half.

This year, 81 percent of Afghans said women should have “equal” opportunities for education, and 74 percent voiced acceptance of women working outside the home, up from 64 percent in 2015. Men who said women should decide themselves for whom they would vote increased to 54 percent from 48 percent. Those numbers are likely boosted by Afghans’ knowledge that the government is making women’s advancement a priority, a position symbolized by the active public role of Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, the survey’s report says.

Much of the support for women’s rights was narrow, with many Afghans objecting to education if it required women to travel from home, or to women working outside the fields of health care or education. Part of the increase in support for women working “appears to be explained by poverty and the need for additional household income,” the report says.

Joshua Levkowitz is a program assistant for Afghanistan and Central Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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