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The results of an annual poll of Afghan opinion show a surprising degree of optimism for their country's future direction. But we should not rest on our laurels. A great deal could go wrong before the favourable perceptions can be seen to have turned a genuine corner in Afghanistan.
By Professor Michael Clarke, Director, Royal United Services Institute
In some respects the 2010 annual survey of Afghan opinion can be cautiously regarded as offering the most favourable results for five years. This conclusion must be cautious because the survey reveals little significant change in the way Afghans see the objective realities of their situation. They still see the poor economy, poor security and weak and corrupt government as overwhelmingly their main problems. They continue to observe that most aspects of infrastructure, health and food security are generally improving after dips in the last couple of years. But they do not feel more secure from Taliban influence than last year and the way they perceive Taliban influence throughout Afghanistan has not diminished at all. The ability of Afghans to move around their country has not improved since 2007 and there is still very little faith in the work of foreign aid organisations or much trust in the various Westerners who swarm across their territories.
What is remarkable, however, is the degree of optimism that those polled claim now to feel. A remarkable 70 per cent now say they think the country is 'going in the right direction' - the highest figure since 2005 and a big jump on the 40 per cent who thought this last year. This appears to be backed up by a five year high in the general sense of optimism for the future, for themselves and for their children. Some 70 per cent of those surveyed acknowledge that they are better off than under Taliban government: only 10 per cent thought they did better before the Western intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. The survey of 2010 seems to indicate at least the possibility that Afghan public opinion may be turning a corner this year.
Tolerating the Karzai government
If so, it is probably down to two factors. One is that, as a nation of resilient and pragmatic survivors, ordinary Afghans will back the likely winner in any of their frequent civil conflicts. For the first time since 2005, the Karzai government, backed essentially now by the US more than by NATO as such, begins to look to Afghans like the eventual winner. Some 90 per cent of those polled would rather see the Karzai government rule the whole country. Afghans have no illusions that the August 2009 elections were deeply fraudulent; but they have delivered a verdict. And for the majority of Afghans that verdict is more important than the rules by which it is achieved. Afghans in this poll say they believe in democracy. But on this occasion, let's just live with the result. Some three quarters of those polled think the current government will either defeat the Taliban or find a negotiated settlement with the movement. And a clear majority - up to 75 per cent - have faith that the US is likely now to succeed in its various aims to contain the Taliban, strengthen the government in Kabul and train sufficient Afghan forces.
Backing a 'credible' leader
Secondly, these surprising results have probably arisen from what might be called a 'two election bounce'. The August elections in Afghanistan undoubtedly highlighted the Karzai government in local communities that scarcely know anything about the politics of Kabul and care even less. But Hamid Karzai reinforced his status as a credible national leader in the eyes of many ordinary Afghans, regardless of the lack of political elbow room he now has or the political debts he must now pay off. All that is 'Kabul politics'. For the outside world the Afghan elections were a fiasco, but the fact that they happened at all may turn out to be a critical factor in Afghanistan's political future. And the US presidential elections of 2008 has produced a new administration in Washington and a commitment to Afghanistan that has already turned it into 'Obama's war'. For that reason, Afghans probably perceive that - having eventually made the commitment to back the McChrystal strategy - the US will now do whatever it takes to make it work. At least for the coming year, there is an 'Obama factor' that will affect the way Afghans see the United States.
Not taking Afghan opinion for granted
A great deal could go wrong before the favourable perceptions can be seen to have turned a genuine corner in Afghanistan. But the whole international strategy is now based on the belief that a 10 per cent increase in the objective security and economic conditions in Afghanistan could create a 50 per cent or 60 per cent shift in the public's perception of their situation. It is probably too early to say that this is now happening. The military campaign has yet to show greater results and the Karzai government has yet to demonstrate that it can put its own house in order and deliver real benefits for the majority of Afghans.
Caution must also be exercised in drawing conclusions from a single set of polling data. This poll involved over 1500 people over a concentrated few days in December, which makes it statistically valid. Nevertheless, any interpretation must rely on the professional skill of the pollsters to elicit genuine answers to relevant questions. In Afghanistan this will always be a challenge, particularly among a population that may have grown wary of being the object of such attention. There is always a tendency to tell the pollsters what they seem to want to hear. Nevertheless, these ABC/BBC/ARD polls have been asking comparable questions for five years now and the shifts in opinion they reveal must be regarded as interesting, to say the least.
But these results reinforce what a critical year is coming up in 2010. There is something here to build on and everything to play for; a battle of perceptions to be won or lost before the next survey is conducted.
An edited piece of this analysis is published on BBC Online.