Poll: Afghans express confidence in country's direction, security

Kabul, November 11, 2006 (USA TODAY) - Despite a raging pro-Taliban insurgency, the people of Afghanistan say they are optimistic about the future, satisfied with their young democracy and rank security low on their list of everyday concerns, according to a survey out today.

In what it is billing as the widest opinion poll conducted in Afghanistan, the non-profit, San Francisco-based Asia Foundation surveyed 6,226 Afghans 18 and older in person in 32 of the country's 34 provinces over the summer.

Polling couldn't be conducted safely or reliably in two areas: southern Afghanistan's strife-torn Zabul and Uruzgan provinces, which together account for 2.3% of the country's population. The survey's margin of error was +/—2.5%.

The poll, financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, suggests that Afghans are surprisingly confident about the direction of their country even as NATO forces battle a pro-Taliban insurgency in southern and eastern provinces and the violence begins to threaten other places that previously had been considered safe.

While violence has increased, Afghanistan has made some progress in the nearly five years since U.S.-led forces overthrew the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban regime.

Afghans finally got a chance to vote — in presidential elections in 2004 and parliamentary elections in 2005. Roads have been paved and schools reopened after three decades of anarchy.

Outside the south, major Afghan cities such as Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, Herat in the west and the capital, Kabul, have been largely free of political violence.

Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said he was not surprised by the survey. "These findings ... in no way contradict the larger conclusion that this is a country still desperately poor and desperately in need of help," Starr said. "What they affirm is that help produces results, which in turn generates appreciation."

The poll found that:

•Afghans were more than twice as likely (44% to 21%) to think their country was headed in the right direction, rather than the wrong direction; 29% had mixed feelings. Still, the optimists were down from 64% in a smaller Asia Foundation survey conducted in 2004.

By contrast, Iraqis have a bleaker outlook. A Sept. 1-4 World Public Opinion Poll of more than 1,000 Iraqis showed that 47% thought their country was going in the right direction, while 52% thought it was going the wrong way.

•77% said they were satisfied with the way democracy is working in Afghanistan.

•Only 6% ranked security as the biggest problem in their area, behind unemployment (18%), electricity shortages (12%), poverty (10%), a weak economy (10%) and scarce water supplies (9%). Sixty percent said they rarely or never worried about their own safety. However, 22% said security was the biggest problem facing the nation.

•54% said they were more prosperous now than they were under the Taliban, which governed Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001; 26% felt less prosperous.

•42% said corruption was a major problem in their daily lives, and 77% called it a major national problem; 51% of those who dealt with public health care officials reported paying bribes for health service.

•Afghans had contradictory attitudes toward political tolerance: 85% said the government should allow peaceful opposition, but 64% said they would not allow political parties they personally opposed to meet in their areas.

•Nearly one-tenth of men and one-eighth of women felt that women should occupy most political positions in a country where women traditionally have been barred from schools and jobs.

•87% said they trusted the Afghan National Army, and 86% said they trusted the Afghan National Police. The police, in particular, have been widely criticized for being corrupt, brutal and beholden to local warlords. A report released this month by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based non-profit group devoted to conflict prevention, called the Afghan police "little more than private militias ... regarded in nearly every district more as a source of insecurity than protection."

"I have never met one person, including the minister of the Interior, who trusted the Afghan National Police," Barnett Rubin, who studies Afghanistan at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, said in an e-mail. "I think this is not a very reliable survey."

Starr counters: "For a country that didn't have a national army and had only local militias, the fact that one exists — no matter its absolute level — is a breakthrough."

George Varughese, who directed the poll for the Asia Foundation, which supports programs in Asia that help improve governance and law, economic reform and development, agrees that some of the results "appear to challenge the current wisdom on issues in Afghanistan," but says, "We feel it is a solid, important piece of work, completed during a difficult time."