A Nation in Transition: Afghan Perspectives on Society, Politics, and Economics, 2004 and 2018, Part 2

In Part 1 of this blog, we looked at some results from the Asia Foundation’s annual survey of the Afghan people, comparing the results from 2004 and 2018 on such issues as national mood, fear for personal safety, and satisfaction with the government. Part 2 continues this comparison, looking at issues such as education and the economy, but resuming with national issues.

One factor that does not reflect well on the Afghan leadership is that 70.6% of respondents now believe that corruption is engulfing the country. In fact, corruption has been a longstanding concern. The findings of 2006 to 2016 show that more than 70% consistently perceived corruption as a major problem. In 2017, that percentage jumped to 84%.

Although the 2004 survey did not ask about perceptions of corruption, other evidence of it does exist. In 2004, corruption and abuse of power were not being effectively countered by the Afghan government or the international community, which were both focused on issues seen to be more pressing. For instance, the 2004 disarmament effort, which embraced problematic warlords for the sake of short-term military battlefield advantages, and as tools of political co-optation, was an obvious problem. But not addressing corruption in 2004 means that it is now embedded in 2018.

Despite the territoriality of warlords, however, the 2004 survey data indicates that at least ethnicity was not a factor influencing people’s views of the government. President Karzai was even more popular in the Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, and other minority communities than among his own Pashtun brothers. But major support for President Ghani, also of Pashtun origin, comes from the dominant Pashtun community. Survey data shows that ethnicity was a factor in influencing the national mood in 2016–2018, with higher proportions of Pashtuns consistently expressing optimism about the direction of the country under Ashraf Ghani’s presidency, as shown in the table below (page 23, 2018 survey).


Interestingly, the survey data shows that by 2018, the international community had lost the war of winning the hearts and minds of Afghans. In 2004, respondents expressed favourable views of foreign aid workers, of the UN, and of US forces. Of those who thought the country was heading in the wrong direction, only 8% complained about foreigners exerting undue influence. Fourteen years later, answers to a number of questions indicate that foreign presence is no longer welcome. As for foreign troops as protectors of Afghans, 78% fear encountering them. Some 15% believe that the US presence in Afghanistan is intensifying the war with the Taliban and ISIS.

Unsurprisingly, in both 2004 and 2018, a large majority of respondents expressed unfavourable views of the Taliban. However, there are also conciliatory views. In 2004, 59% thought the Taliban should be allowed to contest elections, if they laid down their arms, a position that somewhat aligns with the peace and reconciliation efforts currently underway. In 2018, 47% expressed sympathy for the Taliban because they are Afghans and 20% because they are Muslims. Support for reconciliation with the Taliban rose slightly from 52% in 2017 to 54% in 2018.

As for democracy itself, the survey taken just before the first election in Afghanistan in 2004 indicated that Afghans were optimistic about democracy and the upcoming election. Only 4% did not expect free and fair elections. Even though 33% did not expect to influence government decisions through their votes, 77% firmly believed that voting would make a difference and 81% intended to vote.

By 2018, perceptions of democracy and political participation had turned pessimistic: 40% of respondents — ten times the number of 2004 — had low expectations for free and fair elections. While 53% expected to have some influence on government decisions in 2018, higher than in 2004, the percentage of those intending to vote was lower, showing that pessimism about democracy has grown over the years. In 2014, 73% expressed satisfaction with democracy, but the rate dropped to 57% in 2015. In following years, satisfaction with democracy remained consistently low.

In 2004, we could feel the excitement in the air on election day, with Kabul transformed into a giant festival. With no armed guards or armoured cars allowed near the polling stations, the day symbolized peace. The most striking symbols of that peace were the long line-ups of women, a large number with babes in arms, shivering as they waited to vote on that unusually cold October day. Teenaged girls too young to vote jostled around, savouring the pride and joy of the women lined up to exercise their voting rights for the first time in their lives.

In 2018, information about rights and democracy is easier to access for women and for all Afghans. Access to mass media has improved since 2004, with more Afghans using radio and TV as well as the Internet and cell phones. Other sectors where positive trends can be detected are infrastructure and education, not surprising given the time and resources invested over the last decade and a half in these areas.

Perceptions about literacy, a key indicator of access to education, show progress. In 2004, 32% cited illiteracy and lack of education as major local problems; by 2018, this number had fallen to only 9%. On the ground, there has been definite improvement in access to education, especially primary education, since 2004.

Statistics also indicate progress in infrastructure provision, which directly benefits people. While poor infrastructure was cited as one of Afghanistan’s biggest problems in both 2004 and 2018, the percentage of those dissatisfied with access to water, electricity, and local roads was much lower in 2018.

A disappointing regressive turn is seen in perceptions of the economy, poverty, and local jobs. While in 2004, 39% noted these issues as some of the country’s biggest problems, by 2018 that percentage had risen to 44%.

More needs to be said about the interesting trends in perceptions of women and women’s rights in Afghanistan. This subject, therefore, deserves a separate blog.


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