Afghans Look on the Bright Side

2014 will be a momentous year for the Afghan people. As the Economist has observed: "Tectonic plates are shifting in Afghanistan as the country nervously prepares itself for three big transitions, all related." 

The security transition in Afghanistan is already underway. By the end of 2014, all U.S. and NATO combat forces will be gone and Afghan troops will have full responsibility for the country's safety. Afghanistan's political transition will kick off with April's presidential and provincial council elections. With President Hamid Karzai constitutionally barred from running for a third term, the country is poised to have the first peaceful transfer of political power in its history. And then there is the economic transition, which will come as the country begins to wean itself off the massive infusion of foreign aid of the past dozen years in favor of a more self-reliant economy.

So how do Afghans feel about these transitions? A recent survey directed by the Asia Foundation provides answers, some with current policy implications.

In July, the foundation surveyed some 9,300 Afghan men (62 percent) and women (38 percent) across all 34 Afghan provinces; 14 percent were from urban areas, 86 percent rural. The margin of error is 2.25 percent. This was the ninth poll conducted by the foundation in Afghanistan since 2004, providing a valuable perspective on the national mood of Afghans over time. 

Regarding the security transition, fear for personal safety among Afghans was up from 48 percent last year to 59 percent this year, an all-time high. This rise was certainly influenced by the increase in civilian casualties in the first half of this year and the expanded use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by insurgents. 

Around three quarters of the Afghans surveyed also said they would be afraid when encountering international forces (77 percent), as well as when traveling from one part of the country to another (75 percent). The former may explain, in part, Karzai's strong insistence that the U.S. military stop all raids on Afghan homes if he is to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that is presently under consideration.

At the same time, the survey reveals that confidence in the Afghan security forces continues to grow among the population. The percentage of those who regard the Afghan National Army as helping to improve security rose from 87 percent in 2012 to 91 percent in 2013. Still, when asked if Afghan security forces will continue to need foreign support, 76 percent said they would, a point made by many tribal leaders at the recent Loya Jirga (grand council) convened by Karzai to consider whether to sign the BSA with the U.S.

Turning to the country's political transition, perhaps the single most encouraging finding of the survey is that 56 percent of those polled said the outcome of the 2014 election will make a positive difference in their lives. Only a very small number, 15 percent, anticipated that it will make their lives worse.

Moreover, when asked about elections in Afghanistan, a majority (61 percent) responded that in general they are free and fair, despite the fact that the last presidential election in 2009 was marred by widespread fraud. Key electoral reforms enacted since then may have brought about a guarded optimism that next year's elections will be better. 

Still, more than half (59 percent) of Afghans said they would have some fear when voting in a national or provincial election, though there are significant regional and ethnic variations in this regard. Pashtuns in the Taliban strongholds in the southeast and southwest provinces have the most fear, over 70 percent.

All of this makes turnout in the April elections a question mark. Most Afghans (81 percent) said that election-day security conditions will be a factor in their decisions to travel to polling stations to vote. And Afghan women continue to face yet another challenge - their independence in voting. While 53 percent of those polled argued that women should decide for themselves, almost as many (46 percent) countered that men should decide for women or at least be consulted.

With regard to the economic transition, one survey question stands out as a point of reference: "Which of these periods was the best economically for you and your family - under Taliban rule or after?" Most Afghans (76 percent) said that economic conditions have improved post-Taliban, with women significantly more likely than men to report this improvement, as are urban residents (92 percent).

That said, ranking just behind insecurity as the greatest challenge facing Afghanistan today is one concern that will have a major impact on the country's economic transition -unemployment. The proportion of Afghans citing a lack of jobs is at its highest point since 2006. Only 51 percent of those polled said they were employed. On average, only 5 percent of women are employed. All of this adds up to a very worrisome trend since local job creation is likely to be the greatest challenge during the transition period.

Finally, given the many challenges facing Afghanistan today, one further finding from the survey is important to cite - a majority of Afghans (57 percent) believed that their country is moving in the right direction, citing reconstruction, an improved education system, and the opening of schools for girls among their reasons for reaching this conclusion. 

While counterintuitive to some, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry says this makes sense: "When respondents assess their lot they are making judgments informed by their past. Their modern history has been filled with much darkness. So, today, the people rightly report progress." 

And express their hope for more to come.

Karl F. Inderfurth, assistant U.S. secretary of state for South Asian affairs from 1997 to 2001, is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Theodore L. Eliot, Jr., U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 1973 to 1978, is dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Both are trustees of the Asia Foundation.

Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images