A survey of more than 9,000 Afghans in all 34 provinces reinforces the pivotal role of the country’s impending presidential election next year, just months before the U.S. and its NATO-led allies remove most of their remaining troops.
More than half – 56 percent -- of the respondents in the face-to-face survey by The Asia Foundation said they believed the election would make a positive difference in their lives, according to results analyzed in a panel discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on Dec. 11. And 57 percent said their country is moving in the right direction, up from 46 percent two years ago and 52 percent in 2012.
The result constitutes a perhaps unexpected optimism among a people thought to be beaten down by decades of conflict and by a crisis over fraud allegations that marred the last presidential election. When asked why they thought the country was moving in the right direction, 32 percent cited reconstruction, 24 percent cited good security and 13 percent cited improved education.
The survey did reveal deep anxieties over the continuing conflict and associated violence in much of Afghanistan. Almost a third, 30 percent, said insecurity was the biggest problem facing Afghanistan, and 81 percent said security conditions would be a factor in whether they would travel to a polling place for the April election. The survey found 59 percent always, often or sometimes fear for their safety or that of their family. About a quarter said corruption was the country’s biggest problem, and another 25 percent cited unemployment.
“The Afghan people are very apprehensive, fearful as we move into 2014,” said Mark Kryzer, country representative for The Asia Foundation in the Afghan capital Kabul. “But they’re surprisingly optimistic in some key areas.”
Kryzer and two other foundation officials presented the results of the survey at the USIP event. The conclusions are based on face-to-face interviews with 9,260 Afghan men and women, almost 50 percent more than last year. It was the ninth year that the foundation has conducted the survey, results of which were released earlier this month in Kabul, Canberra, Australia, and in New York.
The survey’s reliability this year increased not only with the greater number of respondents but also with techniques such as compensating for security risks by interviewing people when they came to safer markets nearby, said Keith Shawe, the foundation’s director of survey research. The survey also included logic checks into the questionnaire to bolster reliability.
Despite the surprising results, the survey can serve as a valuable check on common notions of Afghanistan as a hopeless case, said Scott Smith, USIP’s director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs. He is editor, with Moeed Yusuf and Colin Cookman, of the new book Getting It Right in Afghanistan (December 2013, United States Institute of Peace Press).
Anyone who has worked on or in Afghanistan extensively has their own impressions or understandings of the reality on the ground, Smith said.
“But sometimes we don’t maybe recognize how anecdotal it is – that it’s based on the driver we spoke to or the few urban Afghans that we know or our gut instincts,” Smith said. “When reading the survey, and you come up with something counter-intuitive, at least give yourself a moment to say, `Let’s assume this is correct, and what might be the reasons for it being correct.’ ”
The Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police won a high degree of confidence in the survey. More than nine in 10 respondents said the army is improving security, and 86 percent said the same of the national police.
While support for equality of women and men under the law and in education remains overwhelming, there is significant wavering on women’s representation and on protecting them against violence. The percent of respondents who think men and women should have equal representation in political leadership has dropped to 44 percent this year, from 51 percent in 2008.
“It seems that the public support for equal representation has been on a steady decline,” said Palwasha Kakar, the foundation’s director of women’s empowerment and development in Afghanistan. This year, the parliament decreased the quota of seats for women in the election law to 20 percent from 25 percent, after initially removing the requirement for female representation entirely. And an effort failed and even backfired in parliament to codify the law on violence against women, which currently is in the form of a presidential decree.
In The Asia Foundation survey, Afghans showed declining support for mixing politics and religion, down from 70 percent in 2012 to 58 percent this year.
USIP’s Smith said the absence of information on Afghanistan under the Taliban regime contributed to critical mistakes by the U.S. and others in the international community, especially in the early days after the U.S. invasion in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks that killed almost 3,000 people in New York, at the Pentagon and on a hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.
The next year will be pivotal not only for the elections but because the U.S. and other NATO-led forces will mostly withdraw. And if Afghan leaders don’t approve a bilateral security agreement with the U.S., they may exit completely rather than leaving behind a force to continue training the Afghan army and to conduct anti-terrorism operations.
“We have crucial decisions to make now, and crucial events we need to react to,” Smith said. “And we don’t have an excuse any more of not having decent information.”