Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How Afghan Opinion Weighs on Obama’s Options

Summary: Three things Obama should know before making strategy decisions for the Afghan War

After Dr. Abdullah Abdullah exited the run-off election for the Afghan presidency, President Barack Obama called on incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai to bring a “new chapter” in his country’s history.

Not only is it important for Afghans, but also for American interests as the Obama Administration decides how to proceed with the now eight-year-long involvement in the war in Afghanistan.

Obama had been holding off on a decision over whether to send more troops to Afghanistan until after this year’s elections there. Many in the administration felt it was best to wait until the U.S. knew who they would be working with and what kind of legitimacy their reign would bring. After all, in order to win the war, American and NATO forces need to win over the people of Afghanistan.

Now that the race is over, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says Obama will soon be meeting with his national security team to discuss four strategy options.

Knowing the importance of public opinion in Afghanistan, here are a few things Obama’s advisors should know before making any decisions…

1) Afghan Opinions About a “Surge” are Heavily Divided

According to Gallup polls following Obama’s decision to send the first surge to Afghanistan, citizens there were divided by both region and ethnicity over whether such a strategy would work.

One reason the decision over whether or not to send as many as 40,000 additional troops requested by General Stanley McChystal has not happened yet is because the Administration is still waiting to see what impact the original troop increase will have - many of the soldiers called up by Obama’s previous order have just recently arrived. It is possible that Afghan opinion is slowly changing as the original increase finally starts to make an imprint on the direction of the war.

2) Karzai is Trusted by Afghans…Sort Of

Some old Gallup polls also find that a plurality of Afghans believe Karzai is the most trustable person in the country. However, only 25% see him that way, and the runner-up - at 22% - is “no one”…

Furthermore, the poll found that Afghans would be more confident in foreign forces running the country than the Karzai Administration.

Now, this poll was taken last year, and it is more than likely that opinions have changed - especially following the outcomes of recent elections. However, seeing as Karzai has been a trusted figure in the past, he could be a strong ally for the U.S. if he began to turn the country around.

3) Corruption is Rampant and Growing

After the first rounds of elections in August, the entire world began to see Karzai and his inner-circles as corrupt - but this is a widespread problem in Afghanistan that shows no signs of slowing.

Our last Gallup poll - released today - finds that 81% of Afghans believe corruption is widespread, while 69% say not enough is being done to curb it.

Again, these polls were taken in June - before the marred elections - and a perception of widespread corruption is likely to have increased.

Finally, an increasing number of Afghans say they have personally been asked for bribes by government officials.

No matter what decision the president makes, it will not be popular with all Afghans, and no strategy we chose will be 100% full-proof. Winning over the Afghan people is incredibly important but - because of some very real challenges, including differences of opinion and mistrust in a government which is the political reality the U.S. has to deal with - it will also be incredibly difficult.

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