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Asia Foundation opinion poll: progress made, challenges remain, concerns growing?

November 21, 2011

Summary: A new opinion poll of the Afghan people shows a clear recognition of economic and political progress, but strong concerns regarding security and growing uncertainty for the future.

In November 2011, the Asia Foundation NGO released its annual polling survey of the opinions of the Afghan population.  The polling, which began in 2006, give a comprehensive snapshot of popular mood in the country.  This year (the polling took place in July 2011) 6,500 individual interviews were conducted across the country.  There are no significant shifts from 2010, although the number of people who feel the country is moving in the wrong direction had increased slightly.  When considering the country as a whole, insecurity remained the main (and growing) cause for concern over the six years since the polling commenced, with concern over unemployment and the economic situation showing decreases.  The Taliban remain unpopular.  Concerns at the local level are, once again, markedly different from those at the national level, being focused on unemployment, electricity, water, roads and education.

There is growing apparent approval regarding government and public institutions and their ability to deliver services.  However, there is still strong dissatisfaction with the way in which popular representation and democratic processes work overall – particularly parliament and government ministries.  Concerns over corruption continue to feature highly as an issue at both national and local levels.

The Asia Foundation polling offers a very helpful overview of themes and trends, together with a helpful reminder that the Afghan population does not always think along the same lines as the analysts within the international community.  The same broadly consistent approach and question set from 2006 offers increasingly credible and revealing snapshots of Afghan society.  Year on year changes may be generally small, but longer-term trends can be discerned when all six years of polling data are considered togethe.

The results offer a mixed bag of cause for encouragement and at the same time some growing negative trends.  There are significant variations caused by ethnicity, geographic location and rural and urban communities, making it difficult to summarise.  The BBC noted “poll reveals increased pessimism”, while the Voice of America focused on “Afghan support for the Taleban at an all-time low”.   But what does come across clearly is a recognition amongst the Afghan population of progress made in employment, education, the economy and the government’s ability to deliver basic services.  And where there is dissatisfaction with central government, democracy and representative bodies  – the electoral process and corruption in particular – it is not so much a rejection of the concepts but criticisms of the application.

Support for the government reconciliation efforts remains high, although the polling is unable to get into the detail of what people understand of the processes or how they think the issues should be resolved.  The Taliban remain unpopular, with the Asia Foundation noting that “…there has been a clear drop in levels of sympathy with armed opposition groups in all regions since 2009…”.   Although radio remains the most commons means of accessing information, TV is rising in prominence and the use of mobile phones is becoming widespread.  However, there appears to be an increasing desire for the involvement of religious leaders to take part in decision-making and governance.

Although the report indicates the continued slow marginalisation of the Taliban, the sense of insecurity remains strong.  The poll points to the activities of international military and Afghan security forces as contributors to this.  In addition, violence as a result of criminality (fuelled by unemployment and corruption)  looks to be increasingly cited as a problem.  Although not explicitly referenced in the polling results, It is highly likely that perceptions of Transition, the 2014 “deadline” and the actual and perceived ability of the Afghans to stand on their own feet militarily, politically and economically are understandably causing doubts and uncertainty.  This poll suggests strongly that progress, although real and tangible, is seen as fragile and that there is a growing uncertainty for the future.

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