The 2009 Afghanistan Mega Poll

A Mercy Corps Survey on Almonds in Afghanistan

The Asia Foundation conducted its fifth nationwide poll in Afghanistan this year and released its results last month in a 231-page document entitled: “Afghanistan in 2009: A Survey of the Afghan People” (PDF download link). The 2009 poll reveals how Afghans feel about their government and the services it provides, the insurgency and security, the economy, democracy, corruption, women, and more. Anyone following the US and NATO efforts in Afghanistan today will note that these issues are front and center in the ongoing debate about what to do in that country.

Typical US political polls have sample sizes of 900 to 1,500 people for a country of over 300 million. The Asia Foundation poll sampled 6,406 adults (ages 18 and over) from Afghanistan’s 28.4 million people. The respondents were interviewed by 648 trained interviewers over a 20-day period this summer before the August election. The poll sample included a proportionate number of Afghans from each of the country’s 34 provinces according to what is known about the provincial population densities. Districts were randomly selected and then a clever technique called a “Kish grid” was used to randomly select households and then individuals. About 53% of those interviewed were male, 79% were from rural areas, and 60% never attended school.

If the poll results are used to compliment what is already known about Afghanistan, then the textured picture that emerges is that although the insurgency is engaged at instilling fear in the Afghan population, its primary military effort is focused on US and NATO troops. If you are a US or a NATO soldier, then security is likely to consume your mind 24/7. In contrast, while the average Afghan is aware of the insecurity around the country, his or her day-to-day perspective is not focused on the insecurity but on the economy and the low standard of living.

Asked about the biggest problem facing all of Afghanistan (Q-12a, ‘Q’ for question), 24% of respondents cited “insecurity/attacks/violence/terrorism” and another 17% identified “unemployment” as the two top problems. However, if similar responses from the same question are combined then it is clear that Afghans put the tattered economy on par with the insecurity as the biggest problem in Afghanistan.

For instance, another 5% of respondents identified the “Taliban” as the top problem, 2% “suicide attacks”, and 1% “innocent people being killed”. This makes the general insecurity problem in Afghanistan as the top concern for 32% of Afghans. However, in terms of the broader economy, another 9% specify the “poor economy”, 6% “poverty”, and 2% “high prices” so that 34% of Afghans believe that the broken economy is Afghanistan’s biggest problem. If services are added then the economic figure rises to 43% because another 5% of respondents said the lack of “schools” was the biggest problem, 1% the “scarcity of electricity”, 1% “roads”, 1% “health care”, and 1% “drinking water”.

Incidentally, only 4% of respondents identified “interference of foreign countries” as the top problem. This extremely low figure indicates that Afghans as a whole do not currently view US and NATO troops as a Soviet-like occupation force. It also might signal that interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs by such states as Pakistan and Iran is deemed secondary to the country’s other larger challenges.

The economic problem is even more pronounced when respondents were asked to identify the biggest problem in their local area only (Q-13a). A whopping 78% of respondents identified deficiencies in the economy or a lack of services, whereas only 11% cited insecurity and crime. No one identified the “presence of foreigners” at the local level as a top problem.

Following the economy, the lack of services, and insecurity, corruption is another major concern for Afghans. In fact, today the US government is pressing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to “clean up” the corruption. If Karzai is to succeed, he will need a pretty big mop because the poll results indicate that corruption in Afghanistan is institutionalized just like it is in many other countries in the world. When respondents were asked to describe corruption in five different areas (daily life, neighborhood, local authorities, provincial government, and Afghanistan as a whole), the responses ranged from 84% to 92% that corruption was a problem (Q-27).

It is unlikely that President Karzai will be able to significantly halt the corruption -what the poll defines as “bribes” and “favors”- until the Afghan economy improves because until that happens, Afghans are in survival mode scraping for every inch of their existence and this atmosphere brings out the worst in human behavior. However, President Karzai should be able to reduce nepotism, another form of corruption, defined by Merriam-Webster as “favoritism (as in appointment to a job) based on kinship.” Many of Karzai’s critics accuse him of nepotism.

One of the poll’s bright spots was Afghans’ view on democracy. Some commentators have suggested that Afghans do not like their current Western form of government and that this is a partial cause of the insurgency, but the poll results do not support this view. When respondents were asked if they agree or disagree with the following statement: “Democracy may have its problems, but it is better than any other form of government”, 31% said they “strongly agree” and another 47% “somewhat agree”. Only 4% strongly disagreed. Combining the first two positive figures we can say that 78% of Afghans lean toward democracy.

Afghans were also asked if “voting can lead to improvement in the future” or that “no matter how one votes, things never change” (Q-77). 70% agreed “voting can change things” (see also Q-81). In what concerns Islam and the state, 67% believe that “religious leaders should be consulted” while 27% say that “politics and religion should not mix” (Q-66).

On women, 83% of respondents said women should be allowed to vote in the elections (Q-73), but elsewhere 23% said that men should advise them (Q-105). In what may be a glimmer of hope for women’s status in Afghanistan, 47% of respondents said that political leadership should be equal for men and women, while 39% said it should be for men only (Q-108). However, asked if they are opposed to women representing them in five different governing institutions, such as the National Parliament or the local jirga (a council of tribal elders), anywhere from 49% to 54% of respondents answered ‘no’ (Q-109).

One of the poll’s biggest eye-openers was the perspective on the insurgency. 28% “strongly approve” and another 43% “somewhat approve” of the government’s attempts at negotiation and reconciliation with “armed Anti-Government elements” (Q-64a). The insurgency is made up the Taliban, the Haqqani network, Gulbiddin Hekmatyar’s organization, as well as several smaller groups. Haqqani and Hekmatyar were former Taliban ministers as well as Mujahideen (freedom fighters) during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The insurgency is almost exclusively ethnic Pashtun.

When you have a positive combined total of 71% on this sort of question it indicates that there is broad non-Pashtun support for reconciliation with the insurgents, and this suggests that underneath the ethnic/tribal culture, which is strong in Afghanistan (Q-58d), there is also an undercurrent of Afghan nationalism. This is good news because a state can split apart, as in the case of former Yugoslavia, without a sense of nationalism in the people. Afghans will always see themselves as either “Pashtun”, “Tajik”, “Uzbek”, etc. but it is essential that they also see themselves as “Afghans”.

The second insurgency question asked whether respondents were sympathetic at all for the “reasons” why the insurgents fight -without specifying what those reasons were (Q-64b). It is well known that the Taliban is fighting to evict foreign troops from Afghanistan, and then to forcibly erect an Islamic state that is strictly governed by a hybrid ideology of religious extremism and Pashtun culture. Surprisingly, 22% of respondents had “a lot of sympathy” and another “34%” had “a little sympathy” for why the insurgents fight.

What can we make of this relatively high sympathy rate for the insurgents’ motives? We already know that the overwhelming majority of Afghans do not want a Taliban reboot. It could be that most of the sympathy is coming from Pashtuns since they make up 42% of the Afghan population; however, we cannot be sure about this because the responses to this question are not broken down demographically. In addition, many of the Pashtun tribes have never supported the Taliban. President Karzai himself is Pashtun. Put simply, the insurgents are getting some degree of sympathy among non-Pashtuns, and this again could be explained by nationalism. For instance, we know that during the US Civil War many Northerners were sympathetic toward the South and its cause although they still disagreed and believed that the South should remain in the Union.

We may also speculate that the 22% of respondents who have “a lot of sympathy” for the insurgents may in fact be almost exclusively Pashtun because it is one thing to have a little sympathy for a cause and another thing entirely to have a lot of sympathy for it. If this hypothesis is true, and we cannot know with certainty unless the Asia Foundation also has the demographic data for this question, then we may be able to roughly quantify what percentage of the Afghan population is actively helping the insurgency: one in five Afghans.

One of the poll’s unexpected insights is the high degree of optimism that Afghans have for their country. Asked if Afghanistan is going in the right direction today, one would think that Afghans would overwhelmingly answer in the negative given the devastated economy, the growing insurgency, and rampant corruption. However, 42% of respondents agreed that their country is heading in the right direction and another 21% answered “some in the right, some in the wrong” (Q-9). Only 21% said Afghanistan is going in the wrong direction.

Ironically, Afghans would seem to be more optimistic about their country then Americans are of theirs because an October 2009 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 36% of Americans think the US is heading in the right direction. One thing is certain: the results of the 2009 Afghanistan mega poll make a strong case for the potential for success in Afghanistan. However, Afghans will need continued support to achieve it.