Opinion polls, civil war and self-deception

IssueApril 2010
News by Gabriel Carlyle

“Rubbish!” cried a man in the audience. The scene was a public meeting against the war in Afghanistan. What prompted his outburst was a reference to the results of an opinion poll conducted there last December.

According to the ABC News poll, 68% of Afghans “strongly” or “somewhat” support the presence of US military forces in Afghanistan. This was unpalatable to our heckler, and so it had to be wrong. A complex picture He is not alone. Last year, in the teeth of similar poll results, the Stop the War Coalition produced a leaflet claiming, without further evidence, that: “The majority of Afghans do not want the war and occupation”.

In reality, the evidence points to a more complex picture. The ABC poll indicates support for Obama’s surge (30,000 extra US troops this year). 61% of Afghans either “strongly” (22%) or “somewhat” (39%) supported the escalation. Only 8% said that attacks on US/NATO forces “can be justified”, down from 25% at the beginning of 2009.

In a Chatham House debate last year, Stop the War’s convenor Lindsey German hinted that such polls were deliberately falsified, and the liberal Huffington Post news website has recently elaborated a similar critique. The latter cited claims that the December poll had excluded rural areas, that it probably contained falsified data, and that it was implausible for the interviewers to have visited all of the sites claimed, owing to security concerns. None of this appears to bear serious scrutiny.

Indeed, as a detailed response from ABC’s polling director explained: 80% of interviews were conducted in rural areas, 31% were directly monitored or back-checked by supervisors, and all data were subject to strict quality control review. In the absence of any evidence of falsification – a serious charge – these polls have to be taken seriously (though not, of course, uncritically). The Huffington Post’s point that the Taliban doesn’t carry out surveys, pollsters are likely to represent “foreign troops, the central government” or a private company associated with the occupation clearly has some merit.

However, 59% of those interviewed rated the performance of US forces negatively, and 62% blamed either US/NATO forces or “both sides equally” for the deaths of civilians in airstrikes – hardly results tailored to garner favour with a supposedly pro-NATO interviewer. So what accounts for the support for the US/NATO presence, and the dramatic shift from majority opposition to Obama’s escalation (see PN 2507)?

The biggest danger

Polls in Afghanistan have consistently shown that a majority of Afghans fear the Taliban, and this, more than anything else, probably accounts for the continuing high levels of support for the presence of US/NATO forces. In the December 2009 poll, 72% identified the Taliban as one of the “biggest danger[s] in the country” (only 20% named the US) and 90% said that they preferred the current government to the Taliban.

The apparent decline in the proportion of civilian deaths attributable to US/NATO forces may partly explain the about-face on the surge. However, the national polls fail to reveal certain crucial regional variations. So, while 68% of Afghans support the presence of US forces nationally, in the south and the east – where the fighting is heaviest – only 42% do. Similarly, support for attacks on US/NATO forces is “much higher” in the south than it is nationally. In other words, there is far less support for the war among those at its sharp end.

Fuelling conflict

And it’s no coincidence that the south and the east are predominantly Pashtun - the ethnic group comprising roughly 42% of Afghanistan’s population, from which the Taliban draws its recruits. In effect, we have taken sides in Afghanistan’s long civil war. Current US strategy – rapidly training scores of thousands of new Afghan soldiers and police – looks set to further increase sectarian strife.

As the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn has noted: “The US can only increase the military strength of the Afghan state swiftly by skewing it towards the Tajiks, who were always the core of opposition to the Taliban”. No-one should be deceived into supporting such an outcome. Most Afghans – 65% nationally, rising to nearly 75% in the South and 91% in the East – still favour negotiations with the Taliban to end the war.

Moreover, according to the Guardian, while “British officials believe that significant Taliban leaders are ready to start talking about a political settlement... senior officials in the Obama administration believe peace talks are premature”. By pushing for British withdrawal, the anti-war movement can help force the US to the negotiating table. It should continue to do so, free from self-deception.

Topics: Afghanistan