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Afghanistan in 2008: A Survey of the Afghan People

October 29, 2008

Afghanistan has been through increasingly difficult times in the 12 months since The Asia Foundation conducted its last survey of Afghan public opinion in the summer of 2007. Amidst slow but steady gains in vital basic amenities and services and some successes in reconstruction efforts across the country, the conflict resulted in significantly higher civilian and military casualties; food shortages in many regions became severe, with several million Afghans facing near-starvation this coming winter; and inflation and unemployment continued to rise. The country and the international community now confront presidential and other elections in 2009 and 2010.

In this context, The Asia Foundation conducted its fourth annual nationwide survey of Afghan public opinion in summer 2008. The aim, as with the other nationwide surveys that were conducted in 2006 and 2007 and the more limited survey in 2004, was to gather first-hand opinion of a large sample of Afghan citizens on a variety of contemporary governance and development-related issues such that the information generated is useful for policy makers and opinion shapers in government, the international community, and the broader Afghan public. Every effort is made to ensure that the questions asked and the information collected on public opinion is actionable and, with each passing year, these surveys have become more acceptable and more widely used both as a valid and reliable barometer of public opinion in Afghanistan, as well as a public policy tool.

Here are some of the key findings.

Thirty-eight percent of survey respondents say that the country is moving in the right direction, while 32 percent say it is moving in the wrong direction, and 23 percent have mixed views. However, there is a clear trend towards greater pessimism over the last two years: the number of those saying that the country is moving in the right direction has decreased steadily since 2006 whereas the number of those who say the country is moving in the wrong direction has increased.

Security issues are identified as the biggest problem in Afghanistan as a whole and are the major factor shaping both optimistic and pessimistic views of the direction of the country. However, it is clear that security issues in Afghanistan have a predominantly localized dimension. The survey finds that in 2008 the security situation in Afghanistan is becoming more polarized, with respondents in some places feeling secure most of the time and others experiencing relatively constant levels of insecurity. Overall, the proportion of respondents who have a positive view of the security situation in their local area has decreased in most regions since 2007. Respondents report an improvement in security conditions in Central Hazarajat, West, and East regions but a steady degradation in security conditions since 2006 in the South West, South East, and Central Kabul regions. Both the proportions of respondents who say they “˜often’ fear for their safety and those who report “˜never’ fearing for their security have increased since 2007, further emphasizing the clumping of deteriorated security conditions in different parts of the country.

As in previous years, the survey finds that compared to their level of fear for personal safety, respondents’ actual experience of violence and crime is relatively low. When respondents were asked about the kinds of violence and crime they had experienced, interpersonal violence or threat of violence is the most significant overall followed by property crimes. The experience of different kinds of crime in 2008 is largely similar to that recorded in previous years, except in the South West and South East, where it has risen significantly making these the most crime-prone regions in the country.

The survey finds that most respondents would feel safe to participate in a range of public activities that happen within their community, such as resolving problems at the community level or voting in a national election. However, they are significantly more fearful of engaging in public political actions, such as participating in a peaceful demonstration or running for public office. Women are more fearful than men about participating in resolving problems in the community or in a peaceful demonstration. However, there is no significant difference in the proportions of men and women who say they would fear voting in a national election or running for public office.

As in previous years, the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) enjoy the highest levels of public confidence of all government institutions. However, respondents express significant concerns about the capacity of these institutions to operate effectively without external assistance considering them unprofessional and poorly trained. The proportion of respondents expressing these concerns has decreased since 2007, suggesting that there is a perception that ANA and ANP capacity is improving.

A large majority of respondents are against poppy cultivation; however, attitudes have evolved in markedly different ways among regions since 2006. The proportion of respondents who say that poppy cultivation is wrong has risen sharply in Central Hazarajat and the North East, whereas the proportion who disapprove of poppy cultivation has fallen in the South East and East. Those who approve of poppy cultivation do so principally for economic reasons such as employment creation and profitability for farmers and workers, which is consistent with concerns about unemployment as one of the most important national and local problems. Those who oppose poppy cultivation do so mostly for religious reasons (because it is forbidden in Islam). A significant proportion of respondents mention the link between poppy cultivation, terrorism, corruption, and crime. Only a tiny proportion says they oppose poppy cultivation because it is against the law.

In 2008, economic issues have gained prominence as major national problems compared to 2007, particularly the issue of high prices related to the global crisis in food prices, unemployment, and poor economy. Since 2006, there has been a significant fall in the proportion of respondents who say that they are more prosperous today than they were under the Taliban government indicating that respondents feel a higher level of dissatisfaction with the economic situation of their families in 2008 than they have done in previous years.

Unemployment is identified as a major problem at the local level, and there has been very little improvement in employment opportunities over the last two years. Expectations of future improvement are lowest in this area, and a significant proportion of respondents expect availability of jobs to be even lower in the coming year. The other most important local problems identified by respondents concern basic infrastructure, such as access to electricity, water, and lack of roads and essential public services such as healthcare and education. Electricity supply remains one of the most problematic local amenities and emerges as the top development priority in 2008. Access to electricity varies widely between urban and rural areas and among different regions. On the other hand, the majority of respondents judge the availability of clean drinking water to be good in their local communities and continued improvements are expected in this area in the next year.

More of the poll’s findings can be found here.

George Varughese is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Afghanistan. He can be reached at gvarughese@asiafound.org. To access the poll in its entirety — and the 2007, 2006, and 2004 polls — please visit www.asiafoundation.org.

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