November 15, 2017
American engagement in Afghanistan has been fraught and complex since it began in 2001. When I served as Supreme Allied Commander at NATO from 2009-2013, we had 150,000 NATO troops on the ground. Since then, the U.S. has continued to maintain a much smaller military presence, and has invested substantially in development efforts to expand health and education for the Afghan people. In this context, we continue to stress the importance of defense, diplomacy, and development to achieve further progress in the country and stability in the region. We’ve decreased NATO troops levels by 90 percent to just 15,000 and it is Afghans who are fighting and dying for their country.
President Trump’s recently announced approach to Afghanistan, as the centerpiece of his administration’s new South Asia strategy, includes being guided by conditions on the ground; very modest increases to U.S. and Allied troop strength (a few thousand); and taking a harder line on suspected militants, to include more aggressive offensive targeting. It is a sensible approach, and in implementing it our military leadership will benefit from a close reading of The Asia Foundation’s newly released 2017 Survey of the Afghan People. This seminal publication provides some useful insights and positive signs, and in some cases, dispels preconceived notions of how Afghans feel about their own country.
The survey has been an annual barometer of developments in Afghanistan for 13 years. It is the longest-running and broadest survey of Afghan attitudes on critical issues facing the country. Most would guess that Afghans would be less optimistic because of the relentless attacks experienced this year, both in and outside of Kabul. However, the 2017 survey finds that the number of Afghans who say the country is moving in the right direction has increased and optimism has risen slightly, reversing a decade-long downward trajectory in national mood.
Interestingly, despite expressing fears about security due to increased violence and the expansion of Taliban control in the country, citizens’ attitudes toward the Afghan National Police (ANP) have stabilized and toward the Afghan National Army (ANA) have even improved, in contrast to the previous three years. Today the ANP have an approval rating of 48 percent and the ANA of 57 percent, comparable to that in the United States.
Equally important is whether Afghans feel they are moving toward a better, more prosperous life. At present, there is a lack of confidence in the economy. Among the reasons for saying the country is moving in the wrong direction, 27 percent cited unemployment, which makes it the second most common concern after security. When asked about the biggest worry in their local area, Afghans consistently point to the lack of jobs. This accounts for the growing number indicating they would leave the country if afforded the opportunity. It is important for U.S. development efforts to identify ways to energize the Afghan economy, create jobs, and facilitate opportunities for entrepreneurship to help stem the tide of migration and give the youth-dominant population a sense of purpose, income, and confidence in their own country.
Progress relies on stability, peace, and confidence in governance. This year, more than 56 percent of respondents believe the Afghan government is doing a good job, a 7-percentage point increase from 2016 data, and 60 percent are satisfied with their provincial governments. It is worth noting that these are higher “confidence” numbers than the U.S. government enjoys at the moment.
This trajectory is consistent with increased openness to the role of women. Most (72%) now agree women should be allowed to work outside the home, vote in elections (89%), and have the same educational opportunities as men (82%). There is dramatically increasing life expectancy, rising educational attainment, and increased access to education, especially for girls. That said, Afghanistan remains the most fragile and volatile country in the region, and the country most affected by terrorism second only to Iraq. These gains for women will only continue if their environment is secure.
I know from personal experience that peace and stability always come at a price. The challenges Afghanistan has faced since the end of the Cold War—its unsettled history with its neighbors, weak governance, corruption, narcotics, and the porous nature of its borders—have enabled the rise of the Taliban, the Islamic State, and other foreign fighters who threaten to further destabilize the region. The sacrifice and investment of the U.S. and its allies over the past 16 years in both military and civilian efforts has meant hard choices for our leaders.
But stability in this region remains important to our national interests, and we are seeing Afghanistan step up in terms of its government and armed forces. The Survey of the Afghan People shows that despite the challenges they face, Afghans believe there has been progress in education, health, and confidence in government, and that their lives are better now than when the survey was first conducted in 2004. With sustained commitment from America and its allies in partnership with Afghan leaders, this progress can continue, improving the lives of Afghans while also protecting vital U.S. interests in this important region.
Admiral Stavridis served as 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO 2009-2013, with strategic responsibility for the Afghan mission. He is the 12th Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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