By Michael O’Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan
For Americans weary of bad news, Afghanistan has not been a place of refuge. U.S. casualties. Political troubles in Kabul. A fresh offensive in the works in Helmand province, with the attendant risk of higher casualties.
The ever-present question: When will it end?
Indeed, there is a long way to go. President Hamid Karzai’s second term is off to a slow start, and U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s additional military resources are only beginning to flow into the combat theater. But there is reason for hope.
Our optimism begins with personal experience.
One of us (Sherjan) helped start girls education programs in Afghanistan even before the 2001 war, when the Taliban largely banned them. Even then, Afghans were yearning to move forward into the 21st century. Today, with the support of allied forces, they have a chance. She knows that much of the world sees the Afghan people as backward and wanting to reject those beyond its borders. Her experience, however, shows that this isn’t the case.
For the other (O’Hanlon), observing Afghans voting last August was inspirational. True, the threat of violence kept turnout quite low, but those who did vote were proud to do so. The defiant election workers and even the oft-criticized Afghan police showed the world that the government can function competently despite decades of civil war and weak state rule before 2001.
Yet it is not simply our personal opinions or experiences that give us hope. Two new and encouraging polls that have received little attention to date in the U.S. back us up. They are important to bear in mind — not least for the U.S. Congress, which will soon be called upon to consider additional funding for Afghanistan. While polling is always inexact and potentially misleading, these surveys were done by professional organizations that in fact had found less positive trends before in earlier polls — bolstering their credibility now. Something about Afghanistan is again showing promise.
Start with the resilience and hopefulness of the people. A major poll conducted late last year by the BBC, ABC and German TV company ARD showed that 71% of Afghans believe life will get better. Similarly, a poll in November by the International Republican Institute, which promotes political party building and democracy abroad, shows that 56% of Afghans believe the country is headed in the right direction; only 27% believe it is headed downward. By contrast, just 30% were optimistic last spring.
These numbers have significance beyond reflecting a temporary improvement in the Afghan mood. They suggest a renewed sense that the Taliban — which remains extremely unpopular, with favorability ratings of less than 10% — will be defeated. The Afghan people are not ambiguous on this score, reflecting a feeling that the current Afghan government and the international community can prevail in this epic battle.
Belief in the government is important because Afghans like to go with a winner, or front-runner. Such support can snowball as people begin to gain confidence that the Taliban is not, in fact, coming back. Reversing this psychological trend is critical.
Consider a few more key results from the polls:
Afghans like Karzai. Some 66% consider him the legitimate president of the country despite the flaws in the elections, 58% consider his job performance good or very good, and 81% say they have a favorable view of his leadership qualities.
More than 60% of respondents identified themselves first and foremost as Afghans, not as Tajik or Uzbek, Pashtun or Hazara — suggesting the real basis for a united nation.
People have high confidence in the Afghan army, to the tune of about 70%.
Views about foreigners are mixed but hardly xenophobic. Only 38% of Afghans expressed positive views of the U.S. But 68% still want the Americans to stay because they know things would be much worse with the Taliban.
The surveys also reveal underlying concerns. Both polls found Afghans very worried about corruption in government. And Afghans are sufficiently worried about the rise of the insurgency to favor some form of negotiation with the Taliban — or at least elements of it — by a ratio of 2 to 1. They also realize that the August elections were marred by major problems; two-thirds say they didn’t vote.
So this is no time for complacency or victory speeches. NATO leaders in particular understand that this year and next will prove pivotal.
Yet on balance, we are in an increasingly promising position, and the Afghan people — as good as anyone at picking a winner — have started to feel it. That’s good news for Afghans, and it’s promising news for the soldiers and civilians putting their lives on the line to give Afghanistan a better future.
If we keep the faith, good things should happen — perhaps sooner than many now expect.
Michael O’Hanlon is director of research and senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Hassina Sherjan is CEO of the Kabul-based home decor company Boumi and founder of Aid Afghanistan for Education. They are co-authors of a new book, Toughing It Out in Afghanistan.