Those who think Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a lost cause should think again. So says the evidence from a recent poll of what Afghans think, five years after the fall of the Taliban. “The current Afghan government retains broad support,” concludes the survey by Charney Research, with 68 per cent of Afghans approving Karzai’s work.
The trends are not in favour of Karzai: his standing was 83 per cent last year. Nonetheless, says Craig Charney, president of the polling firm, “Karzai’s situation has worsened, but is not catastrophic.”
While the Taliban are active throughout south and west Afghanistan, their suicide bombings and attacks on schools and government buildings are not winning them any supporters. Nearly 90 per cent of Afghans have unfavourable views of the Taliban, with 76 per cent saying they have “very unfavourable” views. The only thing with a worse rating: Osama bin Laden.
Even in the heartland of Taliban support – the six provinces of Paktika, Khost, Paktia, Ghazni, Logar and Wardak – only one in ten approve of the Taliban. “Even those who support the Taliban disapprove of their tactics,” notes Charney. Over the past three years, he says, Taliban support has remained more or less constant. “Karzai is hurting, but it is not to the benefit of the Taliban.”
Another indication of the trauma of Taliban rule is that 85 per cent or more Afghans are thankful for the US invasion, grateful for the presence of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation troops in the country and prefer the Karzai government – despite its inability to provide law and security or stamp out corruption – to the Taliban.
Charney, who has done a number of pan-Afghan polls in the past, says the new Taliban insurgency is “not a rerun of the Russian war.” In other words, they are not seen as defenders of Afghan sovereignty against a foreign invading power. “Afghans have chosen their own government. Islamic fundamentalists once presented themselves as defenders of Afghanistan. This is no longer the case. Unlike the mujahideen of the past, the Taliban cannot pretend to be the spirit of the nation,” says Charney. “Democracy does matter.”
Karzai has greater reason to worry about his low standing in southwestern Pathan-dominated provinces like Kandahar and Helmand, where 40 per cent or so feel the government is failing and the Taliban may provide an alternative source of security.
However, other Afghan experts argue the Taliban are not out to be popular, they are merely interested in undermining Karzai. They note that the main reason given in the poll for Taliban is a belief “it can improve security.” “I agree with the poll trends, but question the high level of support they indicate,” says Barnett Rubin of New York University, an Afghan expert who recently returned from a trip there.
Charney says, “The biggest surprise was to see how widespread Taliban activity had become.” Over 40 per cent of Afghans reported Taliban violence in their locality. In southern provinces like Helmand and Kandahar the figure doubles. “In the unholy trinity of Taliban, drug traffickers and warlords,” says Charney, “The Taliban are seen as the greatest threat – 57 per cent of Afghans. Drug traffickers got 20 per cent and warlords only nine.”