One of the most difficult political messages that must be delivered to voters in German constituencies, is the fact that our civilian and military assistance to Afghanistan will be a long-term one. This year we have seen some good progress, but also suffered some serious drawbacks and terrible losses. Despite the achievements, there has been scathing criticism in Germany, especially of our military involvement. The main argument of those who oppose our engagement, is that the Afghan population may perceive us as mere occupation forces, and as a result, strongly reject it.
But how about the Afghan people themselves: how do they judge our presence in their country? It was encouraging to come accross the latest opinion poll commissioned by the German TV network ARD, and their American and British counterparts ABC and BBC. Surprisingly and unfortunately, the poll was not able to garner much attention in the media, therefore hardly influencing the public debate. However, it is indeed worth a closer look.
The project was conducted with field work by the Afghan Center for Social and Opinion Research. It was the broadest and most thorough study since the US-led invasion in 2001. All interviews were conducted in person by Afghan researchers. Women spoke to women and men to men. The opinion poll team interviewed 1,377 individuals in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan. The figures portray a surprisingly positive picture: a strong majority of Afghans approve of NATO-led troops being present in their country, and most Afghans are relatively hopeful about their personal future. Our assistance is broadly accepted throughout the country. The US and its allies are perceived as helpful. Even the US forces enjoy a very good reputation, indeed better than in most other Islamic countries. The result contradicts the rather negative and bleak outlook articulated by a substantial portion of the media, and even some relief organizations.
Nonetheless, there is obvious room for improvement. A second and closer look reveals a split situation with a relative peaceful Northeast on the one side, including Kabul, and a troubled Southwest on the other. According to the poll, the forces of the ISAF are rated differently in the two areas. In the Northeast, which includes the German Sector, the support went up from 70 to 82 percent (Index Year Ago). In this region, NATO and Afghan forces could establish stability — however fragile.
In the troubled Southwest the support dropped dramatically from 70 to 45 percent. This result is evidently due to the lacking capabilities of NATO and Afghan forces in relation to protecting civilians against Taliban forces. However, most Afghans still want the NATO troops to stay, even in the Kandahar region, where the Taliban are stronger and violence is more pervasive.
The poll is partly encouraging, but it is certainly no reason for unrestrained celebration. The numbers indicate that Afghans are slightly less optimistic than a year ago. They are frustrated by the slow pace of reconstruction efforts, including the German ones. While the construction of streets or bridges, as well as support with drinking water proceeds at a good pace, there are still enormous infrastructural problems, like the maintenance of electricity, or a growing unhappiness with the stagnating labour market, among others. The opinion poll clearly indicates that the reconstruction efforts constitute one of the most crucial points for the success of this mission.
But still, development will not be possible without security. The main priority of our military presence is to enable Afghan institutions and security forces to control the country on their own, and to give the Afghan people hope for their future. Hence, the formation of the Afghan Army and the establishment of a working Afghan Police will prove important in that context. Be that as it may, one of the most challenging aspects of this endeavor, will be to hire and train the police force. Germany will have to take its duties even more seriously in order to achieve satisfactory outcomes in this field. Our efforts must be reinforced. The start of the EUPOL Mission seems to be a good step forward.
Without progress in this respect, the Afghan government would see its support further diminished, which may encourage the Taliban to regain control in isolated or stable regions. President Hamid Karzai and his government are still rated as good or excellent by 75 percent of the interviewed. But the poll indicates that this support is not inspired by the president himself, but instead by the lack of other alternatives.
In conclusion, the authors emphasize that Afghanistan is far from becoming a second Iraq. Our presence in Afghanistan is not perceived as occupation by the Afghan people, rather the opposite. The results confirm that security and development remain key for success, and it also indicates we are currently on a good path. As they are fragile and diluted, we must continue with our ongoing efforts, and even bolster them – otherwise we still face the risk of failure. Nonsuccess is not an option in this situation, because the collapse of Afghanistan would not only be a disaster for the country itself, but it would destabilize the entire region and make of the Afghan territory a safe haven for international terrorism.
Dr. Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg is a member of the German parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee. He is also chair of the CSU in the Oberfranken district, and serves on the Atlantic Initiative Advisory Board.
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Nanne Zwagerman on A Shared Mission in Afghanistan?
- Hans Binnendijk on Finishing the Job in Afghanistan
- Members of the Atlantic Community on Afghanistan Mission: A Hard Sell in Germany