Listening to Afghanistan

January 11, 2010 at 9:23 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

The observant among you will note that, in the aftermath of its quite calamitous election, I became increasingly sceptical about the efficacy of NATO’s presence in Afghanistan:

So Karzai’s stolen re-election cuts at the very heart of what the Obama administration is trying to achieve in Afghanistan. Any action it takes from this point on will be seen to reinforce a rotten, corrupt, powerless and fraudulent government which has not brought anywhere near enough safety, security or prosperity to a war-ravaged people. Under these conditions, I can’t see how our presence there will be anything but counter-productive.

At the time, I thought the rationale behind that post was sound: the Obama administration were seeking to practice some form of Counter-Insurgency strategy to stabilise the country. COIN only works when military operations are accompanied by civilian outreach, aid & some measure of state-building. That’s hard enough to do under normal conditions, but Karzai’s election meant that we’d now be seen to be propping up a corrupt leader. Crucially, however, I was disturbed by the prospect of equipping this corrupt & fradulent leader with his own shiny new army.

So how to square that position with this poll by the BBC which shows the people of Afghanistan feeling quite chipper about their prospects for the year? Support for the occupying forces is reasonably high, support for either the Taliban or whatever remains of Al Qaeda is low, people have noted improvements to most areas of their lives and, tellingly, economic concerns are beginning to overtake security fears as Afghanistan’s #1 political issue. Even Karzai seems to enjoy favourable approval ratings.

I suppose the small sample size and the massive jump in figures from last year could raise questions about how representative this poll is, but let’s assume for a moment that its conclusions are sound. What to make of it? Well, it’s nice to see that some people are happy, but it doesn’t mean the Afghan mission is succeeding (indeed, most commentors conclude it is not), nor that those seemingly intractable problems have gone away. However, nor can this optimism be swiftly dismissed; many of us look to the year ahead of us in the context of the year just passed, and if the public really is positive about 2010, then it suggests they had a reasonable 2009.

But it does pose us an interesting question: how much weighting should we give to opinion polls as a measure of the success or validity of a military campaign? Should these numbers strengthen the argument for remaining in Afghanistan? Would damning numbers strengthen the argument for leaving? Critics of the Iraq invasion (myself included) frequently pointed to poll numbers which said Iraqis wanted us to leave, but if those numbers had said something different, would that have changed our minds? Probably not, which unfortunately means that we tend to use public opinion only when it suits our position. In something as serious as war and peace, that’s not really satisfactory.


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