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Optimism in Afghanistan

By Ryan Sager | New York Post | July 27, 2004 | 2 pages

THERE’S good news from the forgotten front of the War on Terror: The first-ever public opinion poll in Afghanistan shows that people there are optimistic about the future and excited about upcoming elections.

But you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream press, which received the poll with a level of skepticism usually reserved for Yeti sightings and money transfers originating in Nigeria. The most coverage given to the poll so far: a five-sentence news brief in The Washington Post.

Perhaps some folks worry that the news is a bit too convenient for President Bush.

With the situation in Iraq seen by many as a mess, Afghanistan has a constitution, is registering voters and is moving toward holding a presidential election in October. And the survey of 804 randomly selected male and female Afghan citizens, commissioned by the Asia Foundation notes that:

  • 64 percent say the country is heading in the right direction. 
  • 81 percent say that they plan to vote in the October election. 
  • 77 percent say they believe the elections will “make a difference.”
  • 64 percent say they rarely or never worry about their personal safety, while under the Taliban only 36 percent felt that way. 
  • 62 percent rate President Hamid Karzai’s performance as either good or excellent.

This was no pro-Bush put-up job. The polling firm, Charney Research, is a partisan Democratic polling firm. And superstar Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who’s read the study — and who has worked on similar polling in developing countries — calls it “very reliable.”

Perhaps the media skepticism comes from the notion that it is simply too difficult to conduct a poll in a war-torn state like Afghanistan.

But if there’s an expert in polling in the midst of turmoil, it would be the principal of Charney Research, Craig Charney. He’s done opinion research everywhere from Nicaragua to East Timor to Lebanon — with results that were borne out when voters went to the polls.

The job is a lot tougher than polling in the United Sates. First, Afghanistan’s a tough country in which to get around — for logistical and security reasons, Charney says three of the country’s 32 provinces, with some 6 percent of the population, were inaccessible.

Second, Afghanistan hasn’t had an official census since the 1970s. One’s underway, but not complete, so Charney and his team had to rely on U.N. estimates to determine where population centers were.

But Charney Research, in accordance with international standards, randomly selected villages — and then families within those villages, and then members within those families — for in-depth interviews in the appropriate language, Dari or Pashtu.

Participants overwhelmingly said they felt free to speak, and plenty of them exercised that right by criticizing their government. Security and the economy were the greatest national concerns.

“It’s mixed news,” said a former legal adviser to Afghanistan’s constitution commission, Alexander Thier of the Hoover Institution. After 30 years that represented “one long, unremitting descent into chaos,” he said, “people have seen that there really is a possibility that the long downward spiral is over.”

What Thier finds worrying in the report is that, while Afghans are looking forward to voting, only 37 percent were confident that elections would be free and fair.

In a country with a history of civil war, this could spell trouble. “If most Afghans aren’t confident about elections, it will be easy for people who are unhappy to turn others against the results,” Thier said.

But since the presidential election will be held first — followed by parliamentary elections next spring — there’s a chance for things to go smoothly, Thier said.

Karzai is very popular — Bush can only wish he had Karzai’s numbers — and there’s no serious opposition to him this October. So, in effect, that election can serve as a dry run before the potentially more divisive elections in 2005.

“Afghans would like to see democracy in their country after decades of war,” Charney said. “Even those who say they are dissatisfied say they want more aid, not the return of the Taliban.”

“Many people said, ‘Thank you for asking,’ ” he said. “No one’s ever asked.”

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