Opinion Briefing: Making Progress in Afghanistan

by Nicole Naurath

Afghans name failing economy as the most important problem

Issue at Hand: The Obama administration has inherited a quagmire in Afghanistan. After coalition forces toppled the Taliban in 2001, a sense of security became pervasive so much so that attention was almost entirely shifted from Afghanistan to the war in Iraq. This gave the Taliban the ability to quietly gain strength in the mountainous border region of Pakistan and unleash a violent insurgency, more than tripling terrorist attacks in provinces surrounding and including Kabul.

Furthermore, Afghanistan's infrastructure is failing. Development aid is focused mostly on the cities and is spent inefficiently, much of it wasted on corruption. More than 80% of the population relies on agriculture to make a living. But with infrastructure as bad as it is Afghans turn to poppy cultivation, and ultimately to producing opium and heroin, because it is the only crop that can turn a profit in the current situation. It is now widely recognized that strategies for establishing security and building the economy are critical to stabilizing the country. However, winning a war in Afghanistan is not an easy feat. Afghanistan has become known as a "graveyard of empires," handing horrific defeats in recent history to Great Britain and the Soviet Union.

Obama's Stance: President Barack Obama now is refocusing attention on Afghanistan. Obama's plan to stabilize the country, while multifaceted, leads with a surge in U.S. troops. On Feb. 17, the president authorized the deployment of an additional 17,000 to the 32,000 U.S. troops to the area. While this reinforcement coincides with U.S. public opinion about the war in Afghanistan, Obama acknowledges that an increased military presence alone will not win the war, stating in a press conference that same day that "you cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban, the spread of extremism in that region solely through military means."

While the Obama administration works on creating an extensive policy on Afghanistan, some are questioning the decision to send more troops without a clearer road map. On "The Arena," Politico's daily online debate, several prominent analysts call for a clear definition of success and a focused strategy in Afghanistan and the region. And journalist Robert Dreyfuss of The Nation calls the military surge "a dangerously flawed strategy." Dreyfuss asserts that this is a "shoot first, aim later" move to quell the situation while the Obama administration does a thorough review of strategy in Afghanistan, and he says it will not work.

Afghan Views: While stabilizing the security situation may be the primary objective of the Obama administration, Afghans are more focused on the economy. When asked in December 2008 an open-ended question in which they could name anything as the most important issue that they and their families face, 41% of Afghan adults named the bad economy, 16% mentioned the closely related issue of unemployment, and 12% mentioned security.


Afghans' prioritization of the economy is not surprising considering the extent to which satisfaction with the economy has eroded since Gallup first polled in Afghanistan in 2006. At that time, one-third of Afghans (33%) said they were dissatisfied with their personal standard of living. The proportion of Afghans dissatisfied with their standard of living approached nearly one-half (45%) this past December. Confidence in the economy has plummeted: When asked about the overall Afghan economy in 2006, the population was split -- 47% felt that economic conditions were good and 46% felt they were not good. Currently, however, just less than one-third (31%) say conditions are good, while 66% say they are not.

The same percentage that say economic conditions are good report having a job or work either paid or unpaid (31%). Similarly, in 2006, 35% of Afghans said they had a job. While there has been little change in perceptions of the employment situation in the past several years, Afghans' perceptions of the overall economy are strongly related to whether they have a job.

Perceptions of security situation also slipping

While the economy is the top priority for Afghans, the deteriorating security situation can certainly not be ignored. Afghans were asked in 2006 and 2008 to think about the level of security today versus during the days when the Taliban ruled. In both surveys, the highest proportion said that the security situation was higher now. But this number is slipping as fewer Afghans said in 2008 (39%) that the level of security is higher than said so in 2006 (53%).


More alarming is the finding that, when asked to think about their own neighborhoods, more than 4 in 10 Afghans (44%) say the security situation has gotten worse over the past six months.


Policy Implications: An improved economy and job creation are top priorities for Afghans -- a combined percentage of 57% of adults named one of these as their family's biggest problem. But the economy cannot flourish until basic security is restored. So if the Obama administration seeks to win local support in its attempts to improve the security situation in Afghanistan, it must simultaneously pursue active strategies for boosting Afghanistan's economic growth.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with 1,196 adults in 2006 and 1,010 adults in 2008 aged 15 and older. The 2006 poll was demographically representative, covering all major regions of the country, but was limited to six provinces (Kabul, Logar, Bamyan, Kunduz, Kandahar, and Herat). For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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