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Moving Toward Transition

A Survey of Opinion Leaders in Southern Afghanistan as the United States Begins Its Drawdown
  • By Christian Dennys and the Peace Training and Research Organization
October 7, 2011 |

The New America Foundation (NAF) and Peace Training and Research Organisation (PTRO) have released the findings from a joint public opinion survey in southern Afghanistan.

Respondents want an end to foreign interference

The conflict between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban in the country’s south, which will likely continue after the 2014 transition, remains a hurting stalemate. The respondents resent all belligerents. With the levels of violence and civilian casualties reaching their highest levels since the fall of the Taliban, most respondents in Kandahar (80 percent), and half in Helmand (49 percent), thought Afghanistan was heading in the wrong direction. In Kandahar, 92 percent of respondents believe the Taliban are stronger or have the same capability as they did a year ago. While the respondents are split between support for the government and the Taliban, the respondents primarily blame ISAF, Pakistan, Iran, and India, as well as global jihadists such as al Qaeda for the insecurity in their country. 

Nevertheless, there is a strong demand for the United States to play a constructive and potentially unique role up to and beyond the 2014 transition of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). According to the respondents in the survey, the most important matter the United States should focus on is addressing the various forms of interference from other states—namely Pakistan, Iran and India—in Afghanistan’s affairs.

Doubts about transition

Many of the respondents expressed doubt that the transition will bring about substantial change in their lives, because they already see the current conflict as a continuation of the civil war that started in 1989. Nearlythree-quarters of respondents are inclined to believe that violence in Afghanistan is going to continue after 2014, likely in the form of a bloody civil war. The Taliban are part of the demographic landscape for many respondents, and “defeating” the Taliban is not necessarily a high priority for them; instead, they are more interested in addressing a range of perceived injustices from the current Afghan government, which is seen by many as corrupt.

This report is based on 200 interviews with local opinion leaders carried out in Kandahar and Helmand in March 2011 and research material collected by PTRO staff across southern Afghanistan in recent years. The sample was created through “snowball sampling,” where researchers deliberately select potential respondents. Snowball sampling was chosen to reduce social desirability—a dynamic in which respondents give interviewers answers that they believe the interviewer wants to hear. There have

been no comprehensive studies on social desirability bias in Afghanistan, but anecdotal evidence and experience from a number of practitioners suggests it is high, possibly as high as 50 percent. A randomized sample cannot control for social desirability in Afghanistan for the following three reasons.

Security for many respondents, particularly in Kandahar, is not improving, and while there is a risk of a deteriorating security situation in Helmand as transition begins to Afghan security forces, many respondents already view the current situation as being akin to civil war. Transition alone will not address the risk of the deteriorating security environment. While the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan provides some of the motivation for the continued insurgency, this alone has never fully explained the strength of resistance against the Afghan government. This is because many of those fighting the government had fought some of the current national leaders in previous periods, including Afghanistan’s jihad against the Soviet invaders and the subsequent civil war. And many combatants are fighting this government simply because they view it as illegitimate.

Major concerns about governance persist

While the respondents identify economic and development needs, their biggest concerns are governance related. In both provinces, the respondents had mixed views of civil administration. This contrasts with the respondents having very unfavorable views of the Afghan National Police in both Kandahar (59 percent) and Helmand (30 percent). Seventy percent of respondents have a very favorable view of the Afghan National Army. This highly mixed picture is despite the massive expenditure of money and effort in governance, security and development programs in the provinces, in particular by the United States.

The very high levels of spending also may have contributed to the perception of rampant government corruption among 86 percent of the respondents. This level of corruption and associated injustice is eroding the remaining trust in the Afghan government.These are clearly challenges for the Afghan government, but they also represent challenges to the way the United States should do business in Afghanistan in the future.

Withdrawal won’t solve Afghanistan’s problems

While the respondents have an avowedly negative view of all foreign interference in Afghanistan, they recognize that the issues they face are not simply going to be resolved by the withdrawal of ISAF troops. Even with international forces gone, they will still face an uncertain and potentially unfriendly regional arena, and a fragmented and at times predatory government. Instead, the respondents indicate a complex understanding of their environment and identify their biggest concerns about their own country as addressing the afflictions of corruption and the disconnect between local and national governance in Afghanistan.

Based on the data, that there are three main areas where engagement by the United States should be robust: 1) curtailing the influence of neighboring states in Afghanistan 2) continuing to train and professionalize the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), in particular the police, and 3) developing civilian assistance in specific sectors.

For the rest of this report, including charts of selected key findings, methodology, topline questions, and demographics, please http://www.newamerica.net/sites/newamerica.net/files/policydocs/DennysFinalPaper_0.pdf.

Christian Dennys is a former advisor to the Office of National Security Council (ONSC) in Afghanistan and has been carrying out research on armed groups in Afghanistan for seven years. He is currently carrying out his doctoral research on stabilization.

While the respondents have an avowedly negative view of all foreign interference in Afghanistan, they recognize that the issues they face are not simply going to be resolved by the withdrawal of ISAF troops.