Fifty-seven percent of Afghans say their country is heading in the wrong direction, the most pessimistic view recorded in 10 years of the Asia Foundation’s annual survey of Afghans’ attitudes. Unemployment and insecurity are the main causes for a sharp fall this year in public optimism, said Asia Foundation specialists, who discussed the survey results November 19 at USIP.

In Joi Bala, a village the National Solidarity Program helped with construction of three irrigated fresh water sources and two new community centers, residents walk by houses that collapsed under heavy winter snow, in Afghanistan, April 13, 2015. A new but modest Afghan government jobs initiative modeled on a previously successful one, the National Solidarity Program, hopes to stem an exodus of young Afghans to Europe. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)
Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Bryan Denton

The annual Survey of the Afghan People, conducted in June, recorded only 37 percent of Afghans as saying their country was heading in the right direction, down from 55 percent in 2014. The survey used face-to-face interviews to poll 9,586 Afghans representing 14 ethnic groups in all 34 provinces of the country.

While Afghans’ approval for the government fell sharply—to 58 percent from last year’s 75 percent—their sympathy for the Taliban and other armed rebels fell to its lowest level in 10 years; only 28 percent voiced any support.  

“Unemployment was across the board cited as the number-one problem facing youth.” –Zach Warren, Asia Foundation

Among Afghanistan’s political, economic and security challenges, “the transition that gets too little attention is the economic transition, a painful transition,” said Andrew Wilder, a USIP vice president and longtime Afghan analyst. “A bubble, war-and-aid economy has taken a big hit with a sharp drawdown in international troops but also [in] confidence in Afghanistan,” he told the November 19 forum at USIP

Afghanistan’s economic growth, boosted by war spending and international aid, averaged about 9 percent for the decade ending in 2013 but fell to 1.3 percent in 2014, according to development economist William Byrd also a USIP expert on Afghanistan. The slowdown also “reflects loss of business and consumer confidence, lack of private investment, very low public investment, and deepening uncertainty over the political transition and security outlook,” Byrd wrote in a recent report.

Byrd, Wilder and other analysts have said continued corruption undermines both the economy and the government’s legitimacy. In the survey, about 90 percent of Afghans said graft is a problem.

Afghan security has deteriorated since the United States and its allies withdrew the bulk of their forces –which had peaked at 130,000 troops—in 2011. With only about 13,000 international coalition forces, 9,800 of them Americans, staying on to train Afghan military and police forces, the Taliban have seized the initiative, taking over rural districts. In September, the Taliban seized an Afghan city for the first time, holding the northern provincial capital of Kunduz for 15 days before being pushed out by Afghan troops and U.S. air strikes. President Obama soon afterward reversed a plan to withdraw all U.S. troops by 2017, saying the current deployment will remain through next year.

Problems: Insecurity, Unemployment

The top two reasons why Afghans see their country heading in the wrong direction are insecurity and unemployment, said Zach Warren, survey and research director in Afghanistan for the Asia Foundation. While insecurity emerges as the top national-level issue, with 43 percent citing it as Afghanistan’s biggest problem, at the local level, unemployment is a more significant concern with 31 percent citing it, according to the survey.

While official statistics for years have estimated unemployment at about 8 percent, easily half of the country is under-employed, more than a third are trying to live on incomes of a dollar per day or less, and 90 percent of Afghan “jobs” are in the informal economy, day labor or other “vulnerable” employment, a 2012 report commissioned by the International Labor Organization noted.

In the new survey, “unemployment was across the board cited as the number-one problem facing youth,” chosen by 71 percent of respondents, Warren said. For women, education and literacy were the biggest challenges, with 20 percent citing them as a problem, followed by unemployment and domestic violence.

The coalition government led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah—the rival top finishers in last year’s disputed election—has yet to deliver on its election promise of creating a half-million jobs a year, said Timor Sharan, program management director for Asia Foundation.

Amid what was a long struggle to form the coalition, and continuous security challenges, the Ghani administration hasn’t had the time to “initiate any major economic policy except giving us a very bright picture of how the future will look like in the next 10 to 15 years,” Sharan said.

Feeling Insecure

Afghans’ fears for their personal safety have risen to the highest level in 10 years, the survey showed. About 67 percent of respondents voiced those fears nationwide, with larger proportions doing so along the border with Pakistan, where the Taliban traditionally have been strongest. Nationally, only 40 percent in 2006, and 48 percent in 2012, said they feared for their safety.

Encountering the Taliban or international military forces and running for public office were reported as being the most fear-inducing activities.

The survey also pointed to some conundrum for policy makers.

“Those in highly insecure areas are not as afraid for personal safety and also not as likely to leave the country,” Warren said. “It’s the young educated males in cities, in particular, that are most likely to migrate. It’s quite strange.”

Overall the Afghan National Police was seen by respondents as the force most responsible for providing security in their area with 47.5 percent mentioning it, followed by the Afghan National Army, and the Afghan Local Police, a village-based, self-defense force. Perceptions about the Army and the Police force being honest and fair declined slightly while perception of their role in maintaining security remained unchanged from the previous year.

About 74 percent of Afghans surveyed said they had heard of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and half of those said the group posed a threat to their districts.

Among the positive trends, the survey found that Afghans’ access to information expanded dramatically in the last decade, with TV ownership doubling in the last eight years and 80 percent of citizens owning a mobile phone. Using TV to get news was correlated with an increased likelihood of voting, even in rural areas, the survey found.

Despite the overall drop in optimism about the direction of the country and its institutions, three out of four Afghans reported being happy in their lives—the same level as last year.

Gopal Ratnam is a freelance international affairs writer.

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