Commentary Magazine


How Afghans View Their Country Now

Is Afghanistan a lost cause? Many Americans think so. In fact, on Wednesday night in New York, I’ll be debating the motion “Resolved: Afghanistan is a lost cause” as part of the Intelligence Squared U.S. debate series. (Tickets still available — see the website.) Obviously, I’ll have more to say on this subject then, but for now it’s worth noting that the Asia Foundation has just released a survey of 6,467 Afghans — and they don’t view their country as a lost cause.

Here is the survey’s major finding: “In 2010, 47% of respondents say that the country is moving in the right direction. This figure has been increasing since 2008 (38%) and 2009 (42%).” By contrast, only 27% think the country is moving in the wrong direction. Insecurity remains the biggest source of concern for Afghans — cited by 44% of those who think their country is going in the wrong direction. But Afghans are happy with improvements in their economic situation: “More Afghans say they are better off now than a year ago in all domains, particularly in terms of the financial wellbeing of their household.”

Another major source of satisfaction for those who think Afghanistan is moving in the right direction is the performance of their government:

Satisfaction with the performance of the national government has risen steadily over the last three years (from 67% in 2008 to 71% in 2009 and 73% in 2010). The 2010 survey records the highest levels of positive assessments of national government performance since 2007 in almost all regions.

That may seem illogical to Americans who are used to focusing on the shortcomings of Hamid Karzai, but obviously Afghans — with experience of decades of war and oppression — have a different metric by which they measure governmental performance. In the West, we are concerned over the problems with Afghan elections. But Afghans are happy just to be holding elections: “Around three quarters (74%) of respondents say they think elections have improved the country.”

That doesn’t mean Afghans are blind to the flaws of their government — “Fifty-five percent say corruption is a major problem in their daily lives.” But they also see improvements that we tend to ignore. For instance, there has been much reporting on the deficiencies of the Afghan Security Forces. But more than 90% of respondents said that the Afghan National Army is “honest and fair with the Afghan people.” However, that doesn’t mean Afghans think their security forces can go it alone. Some 70% think the ANA still needs the support of foreign troops.

That is a level of nuance and realism that, alas, is all too often lacking in Western assessments of the situation.