The Myth That Afghans Don't Want Us There
This is the third in a series on popular myths about Afghanistan. For Myth #1, read Popular Myths About Afghan Women, Myth #2 is The Afghan Women's Movement on International Forces, for Myth #4, read Guest Myth-Buster Melissa Roddy's The Persistent Afghan Pipeline Conspiracy Theory, Myth #5 is Afghanistan is Backwards and Irreparable, and Myth #6 is Afghanistan has never been conquered by outside forces.
Myth #3: Afghans don’t want us there.
The Truth: The reality is that most of those individuals and organizations insisting that NATO’s role in Afghanistan is an imperial enterprise are unconcerned with what Afghans want. If they were concerned, discovering the opinions, thoughts and ideas of Afghans would have been an early priority when forging a position that influences the actions of our own government, and impacts the lives of Afghan men, women and children.
Though among most stoppists there is little pretending to care about the fate of Afghans, when queried, they will often say something along the lines “they don’t want us there,” despite the evidence to the contrary. There remains in some milieus the persistent image of US bombs perpetually raining down on a people innately hostile to foreigners, and who want nothing more than to eject their foreign invaders and see a return to the iron rule of the Taliban. Perhaps this idea is drawn from a cache of imagery in the memories of those who opposed the Vietnam War, or more recently, one of the Gulf Wars. It’s a simplistic pacifism rooted in the romantic idea of Che Guevara types fighting their oppressive government: the brown people don’t want us there. Give them their freedom. Give them their revolution. Let's mind our own business. Guns are bad!
The claim that Afghans want NATO and the US out of their country is the lazy guess, that would conveniently sanction the behaviour of anti-war organizations. But it betrays an ignorance of Afghans that is profound, deeply culturally relativist, and belittling to the people of Afghanistan; all under the guise of the accusation of military and cultural imperialism. And of course, it's a claim with no basis in evidence, fact or sound scholarship.
It's a claim or belief that rests solely on the in-vogue, post-modernist notion that everything from scientific research to international development to peacekeeping is interference along the lines of neo-colonialism. This is a fall-back theory for the illiberal left in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. Yet, there is evidence. We do know what Afghans think. As Terry Glavin has pointed out, “Afghans are now the most studied people in all of Central Asia. What they think should not be unknown to us."
Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, Afghanistan became accessible to scholars of all nationalities and disciplines, and as a result there has been much qualitative and quantitative research produced, on everything from Afghan perceptions of democracy, development and security, conflict, women's rights, education and the economy, and much more.
The Afghan Center for Socio-Economic Research released findings in early 2010 showing that 61% of Afghans support the U.S./NATO troop surge (Another poll, by the BBC, found 63% in 2009). In the same poll, 76% said the government should only negotiate with the Taliban if they stop fighting first. In the BBC poll from 2009, 82% of Afghans said they preferred "the current government" when asked "Who would you rather have ruling Afghanistan today?" (10% said "other"; 4% had no opinion, and 4% said "Taliban"). These findings echo the numerous other polls conducted in 2010, 2009 and earlier, some of which are compiled here.
When asked whether they thought things were going in the right direction, a majority of Afghans in BBC's poll taken every year for five consecutive years have consistently replied yes as a majority, with security remaining the population’s overriding concern. In 2009, most replied that they expected conditions to further improve in the coming year. In a 2010 poll conducted by ABC News, only 4% of Afghans said they would prefer a Taliban government. In a separate Gallup poll last year, 80% of Afghans said the Taliban were a negative influence on their country, and the 2009 BBC poll similarly found that Afghans saw the Taliban as the greatest danger to their country.
Further, when asked to rate the work of NATO in Afghanistan, 69% responded “excellent”, “good”, or “fair” in 2009. The same number also said that it was “very good” or “mostly good” that the US forces came into their country. The Asia Foundation survey found that three in four Afghans agreed with the statement: “Democracy may have its problems, but it is better than any other form of government”.
And by the way, you were more likely to be murdered in the United States in 1991 than an Afghan civilian is to be killed in the current war.
When I’ve confronted stoppists with this data, they will commonly suggest that the data is fraudulent, biased, or that people lied when responding. When I point out that multiple polls in different years and from different independent sources consistently come up with the same or similar findings, they say, “well you never can trust those polls”. I'm quite confident that were the polls to say that most Afghans opposed the US and NATO, stoppists would suddenly find the polls exceedingly trustworthy. If one doesn’t already live in a world of facts and reality, the truth was a casualty long ago.
From studying the dozens of polls, qualitative studies and from my own experience on the ground, I see a pattern in the findings that suggest a largely young population very much oriented towards the outside world. They are not hostile to foreigners, do not consider the US or NATO to be "invaders"; and they want democracy and protections for their basic human rights. They badly want education, and jobs. They love watching the male and female singers on "Afghan Star", and going to the gym, and playing soccer. They are critical of their government, and relish the free media. They worry about the economy. They want a good future for their children.
And they are taking advantage of the breathing space that has been created by the multinational coalition of soldiers in their country, who hold back the Taliban from grabbing power, even if the insurgency rages on. Inside this protected space, a new generation is rising from the ashes, often flourishing. They want an Afghanistan that is progressive, that embraces modernity, that will be a responsible member of the international community, and accountable to its citizens. There is a clear rejection of the Islamofascism of the Taliban. There is an appeal to outsiders: are you going to stand with us? It often meets with silence from the ordinary citizens of western countries, who squirm when confronted with this appeal.
Is it really so very inconvenient to recognize that we hold more in common with Afghans, than we hold apart? Why is it so hard for the 'troops out' crowd to accept that Afghans, too, want security and protection from aggressors? To recognize this does indeed place some responsibility upon us. It's time to accept that responsibility and stop denying the truth about what Afghans think and want.
Lauryn Oates is a contributing writer to The Propagandist.