Afghanistan: Afghan Views and the Race Against Time

Note: This is the first of a two-part series. This piece takes into account Afghan public attitudes in determining what the real issue is there. Tomorrow's piece will look at what we can and should do based on this information.

Without a doubt, we're currently on a trajectory to lose the war in Afghanistan. I think even my cat knows that. But to figure out how to reverse course, we first have to agree on why we're losing so much ground so quickly. And, while the reasons seem very clear to me, many of my left-of-center friends and colleagues have different ideas. This means that if President Obama boosts the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by up to 30,000--and there's no consensus on why everything is even falling apart--then we could be looking at serious disillusionment with the administration among a large number of progressives. I think that's something that can be avoided. Unfortunately, one common misconception is that the U.S. is losing in Afghanistan because Americans are viewed as "occupiers" and because the Taliban are seen as a suitable alternative. Those who see it this way, typically feel that we should withdraw from Afghanistan, or, at the very least, maintain our current force levels. Take the recent editorial in The Nation for instance. The editors there say:

But more US forces will not bring stability. We are losing the war not because we have had too few troops but because our presence has turned the Afghan people against us, swelling the ranks of the Taliban.

Any good will the US military once enjoyed has long since been destroyed by airstrikes that have killed civilians.

While this editorial makes some good points overall, the underlying premise is incorrect: In reality, there is no evidence that "the Afghan people" in general have begun "swelling the ranks of the Taliban" to fight Americans. While air strikes and the generally botched mission in Afghanistan have demoralized much of the Afghan population, most would rather see us succeed there than to see us simply pick up and leave. It seems that most Afghans understand the nuances of the situation better than the average American.

The fact is, people are joining the Taliban in certain areas because we can't protect them--not because they dislike us or because they have an affection for the Taliban. It's often a life or death issue in these areas--specifically in the southeast. The people side with whoever they need to in order to keep their heads attached securely to their bodies. Most Afghans despise the Taliban, but they won't oppose them because they're not getting the help they need from us. And that sort of outside help is what they seek most desperately.

A new BBC/ABC opinion poll consisting of 1,500 randomly selected Afghans from all 34 provinces leaves no doubt about this dynamic. This is what the survey found:

Afghans were asked if the U.S. decision to send troops to their country to bring down the Taliban was a good decision or a bad one. In answer, 69 percent said it was the right decision, while only 24 percent disagreed. Of course, that sort of question doesn't account for either the current situation or for the performance of U.S. troops in the intervening years. It simply sets the foundation that I personally witnessed when I was there: That the overwhelming majority of Afghans loathed the Taliban government and foreign al Qaeda fighters in 2001, and that they wanted U.S. forces in their country.

From that baseline, we can dig into the other responses about how Afghans feel about the situation today. So first off, let's compare how they view the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and the United States. Afghans were asked if they viewed each favorably or unfavorably (to varying degrees), and this is how they answered (in percentages):

The Taliban

Favorable 7

Unfavorable 91

Osama bin Laden

Favorable 6

Unfavorable 92

The United States

Favorable 47

Unfavorable 52

What this shows is that there's plenty of disenchantment to go around Afghanistan's 34 provinces. While Afghans are, for the first time, viewing the U.S. unfavorably, there's no question that Americans are preferred over the Taliban and al Qaeda--both of which are nearly universally despised. But there's a lot more to this question than that simple fact. If we look at how Afghan answers to this question have changed since 2005, something becomes clear: While Taliban popularity has hovered between 7 and 13 percent and bin Laden's popularity has ranged from 5 to 9 percent, Afghans' view of U.S. forces has dropped yearly from 83 percent in 2005 to 74 to 65 to 47 percent today.

This shows that Afghans have not only hated the Taliban and al Qaeda consistently for years, but that they once held out hope that we could help them with that problem. And now, they're clearly losing faith in the West--yet again.

But, in getting back to The Nation's assertion about the "swelling" ranks of the Taliban, still other questions in the poll addressed this. When asked, only 4 percent of Afghans would rather have the Taliban ruling the country today, while 82 percent prefer the current government. Similarly, 58 percent of Afghans believe the Taliban poses "the biggest danger" in the country (versus 8 percent who believe the U.S. does). In a related question, Afghans blame the Taliban and al Qaeda for most of the nation's violence (49 percent) far more than they blame U.S. forces (12 percent). Of course, as with the other figures, these percentages have been headed in the wrong direction over the past year.

So I think I've beat this dead horse long enough. Most Afghans want to like us. They want us to succeed in helping to bring non-extremist stability to their country. But they're only a few air strikes away from saying "Fuck it, we'll take our chances with the fundies. Get out."

The question facing America now--and this goes to the very heart of counterinsurgency theory--is how can we get the regular people back on our side? And while my non-interventionist friends might scoff at this, the fact is, if we don't, the Taliban are in position to retake control of the country, potentially thrusting it back into a pre-9/11 state of near-anarchic civil war and terror exportation. And that's not acceptable.

So, given this information, what can we do? What should we do? I'll dive into that tomorrow. Also available at VetVoice