commentary

(The Washington Post)

April 1, 2011

Afghanistan's Reasons for Optimism

by Craig Charney and James Dobbins

Nearly two-thirds of Americans think the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Behind this figure is a prevalent pessimism that the war is unwinnable.

Curiously, most Afghans have a very different view. In fact, Afghans in general are much more optimistic about their future than we Americans are about ours. Fully 59 percent of Afghans think their country is moving in the right direction, the most recent published poll found in November, vs. 28 percent of Americans who feel that way now about the United States. Asked a version of Ronald Reagan's classic question — Are you better off today than five years ago? — 63 percent of Afghans say yes. In America, consumer confidence has edged up in recent months but is still down 40 points since 2007.

Americans picture Afghan President Hamid Karzai as illegitimate, inept and corrupt; believe that the surge of U.S. and NATO troops is failing; and see Afghan forces as graft-ridden incompetents.

Yet Karzai's government enjoys a 62 percent approval rating in his country, while he personally was viewed positively by 82 percent of his compatriots in November.

Afghan support for American forces had fallen a bit over the past year but was still at 62 percent, much better than the 31 percent of Americans who support troop commitment. The Taliban, by contrast, was viewed unfavorably by nine in 10 Afghans — while eight of 10 Afghans expressed confidence in the Afghan National Army.

How to explain this surprising (to Americans) optimism on the part of the Afghan population? One merely has to look at some of the underlying realities.

Since 2001, when U.S. troops overthrew the Taliban, Afghanistan's gross domestic product has tripled. This puts Afghanistan on a par with China in its double-digit economic growth rate, though from a much lower base.

In 2001 there were 1 million Afghan children in school — almost all boys. This year more than 8 million children will attend school — a third of them girls. Afghanistan's dismal literacy rate will triple over the next decade as these children complete their education.

Now, 80 percent of Afghans have access to basic health-care facilities, almost twice as many as in 2005. Infant mortality has dropped by a third, and adult longevity is rising.

Perhaps most remarkable, half of Afghan families now have telephones, thanks to the cellphone explosion since 2001. Almost no one had a phone a decade ago.

Polling confirms that Afghans are very troubled by official corruption, but they don't compare their government to Switzerland's. If they look abroad, they look at their neighbors — Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, China, Pakistan and Iran — and see systems generally far less accountable than their own. Mostly, however, they look to their own past and realize that this is the best they have had it for decades and that life continues to improve.

This outlook is also evident in the areas where NATO and Afghan forces have been most active. In Helmand Province, the surge's epicenter, killings attributed to the Taliban dropped by half between January 2009 and November 2010.

As violence declined in Helmand, normalcy began returning and markets reopened. Three in five residents reported good economic opportunities in November; only one in five did before the surge.

Afghans are also very concerned about still-rising violence, but they put that in context. In March, the United Nations announced that 2,700 Afghan civilians were killed last year, most by insurgents. That annual figure would have been a bad week in Iraq back in 2006. It would be a bad month in Mexico today.

Recent levels of violence do not compare to the levels that Afghans experienced in the 1980s and '90s. War with the Russians and then among Afghans drove vast numbers of citizens out of the country. The Afghan refugee flow is still on balance back into the country.

If Afghans are more optimistic about the future than Americans are, it is because they make their judgments the same way Americans do, by comparing their present circumstances to their past and projecting that trend forward. The difference is that most Afghans are better off now than in the recent past, while most Americans are not. Consequently, they are optimistic — and we are the opposite. This also helps explain the drop in American support for the war, which says a lot more about how Americans view their prospects than how the Afghans view theirs.


Craig Charney, president of Charney Research, has polled in Afghanistan since 2003. James Dobbins is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand Corp. and served as the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2002.

This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Post on April 1, 2011.

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