KABUL, Afghanistan — There is a loud sound of head-scratching in Kabul these days as Afghans and foreigners alike ponder the results of a poll conducted jointly by ABC News, the BBC and German television company ARD.
According to the survey, 70 percent of Afghans believe their country is going in the right direction. A similar number have faith in their government, support the presence of the foreign troops and say that their living situation is generally pretty good.
But the prevailing mood in the country does not seem to support the published results.
“It is a big mistake to believe in that BBC poll,” said Rahimullah Samander, head of the Center for International Journalism. “Things are getting worse day by day.”
His view is echoed by journalists, researchers, and ordinary Afghans around the country.
“I think they mixed up the numbers,” laughed a young journalist from Khost province. “They got the positives and negatives backwards. It should have been 70 percent of the people think the country is going in the wrong direction. When they say that only 6 percent of the people prefer the Taliban to the government, they really meant it the other way around.”
The poll was conducted by Acsor, a public opinion research organization that has been active in Afghanistan since 2003. The managing director, Matthew Warshaw, stands by his figures, albeit with some caveats.
“’Right direction’ does not mean that everything is OK in Afghanistan,” he said in an interview with Global Post. “It just means that things are shifting in a more positive way.”
One of the major factors contributing to the new optimism, said Warshaw, was the successful resolution of the presidential elections in the fall.
Many observers would not have called the fraud-plagued, conflict-ridden spectacle of the Afghan presidential poll a “success,” but Warshaw insists that Afghans have a fairly low threshold.
“There was no civil war, the elections did not end in violence,” he said. “This (poll) is about their interpretation of what is good.”
But even within the poll itself there were glaring inconsistencies. While more than 70 percent of Afghans express confidence in their government, more than 90 percent say that the government is highly corrupt.
Back to that low threshold again.
“I have heard (Afghans) say ‘better the criminals that we know,’ ” said Warshaw. “These guys have already put the money in their pockets. The new guys would have to do the same thing before they could get started.”
The poll is being widely promoted as a sign that Afghanistan has turned a corner; it is also, perhaps, a way of boosting flagging support for the erstwhile “Good War.” ABC Nightly News anchor Diane Sawyer came to Kabul as the poll results were announced, and the BBC sent veteran reporter Alan Little to Herat to probe the city’s success stories. German newspapers ran the story of the poll under the headline “Hope has returned.”
But while Western news outlets broadcast the soaring optimism in Afghanistan, those actually in the country are having none of it.
“This is not the reality that I am hearing,” said Alex Strick van Linschoten, author and researcher who has spent more than four years in Afghanistan, much of it in the south. “I spend all day every day talking to Afghans, and all they say is that they are depressed and want to leave the country.”
Van Linschoten acknowledges the difficulty of conducting public opinion research in Afghanistan, given the rising insecurity, suspicion of outsiders and fear of prying eyes and ears.
“If you want to get useful information from an Afghan you have to spend hours with him,” said van Linschoten. “You only get really honest answers after the second or third meeting.”
The average interview, according to Warshaw, lasted about 30 minutes.
While Warshaw insists that interviewers were recruited from among the local population to minimize suspicion, Afghans say that it made little difference.
“Most Afghans saw the interviewers as spies,” said one Afghan BBC journalist, speaking privately. “They would not say anything against the Americans, because they were afraid that soldiers would come and raid them in the middle of the night.”
Polling figures showed that almost 70 percent of Afghans say they support the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, while anecdotal evidence indicates that resistance is growing to what is increasingly seen as foreign occupation.
Photos from the interviews show that a good number were conducted on the street, since in many parts of the country Afghans do not let strangers into their homes. The interviewer and his subject would squat on the ground, Afghan-style, and crowds of onlookers would gather round.
“Who will say anything against the government with his neighbors watching?” laughed the BBC journalist.
This, of course, is supposing that the interviews were actually conducted.
“My experience of polling in Afghanistan has been that the interviews are almost always faked,” said van Linschoten. “The interviewers want the money for the poll, but they do not see the need to actually conduct the interviews, when they know nobody will give them a straight answer anyway.”
Warshaw insists that quality control is rigorously observed at Acsor. The interviews — all 1,543 of them — were conducted face-to-face, since telephone penetration is not sufficient to allow random sampling. A scientific method is observed to ensure that the samples are random, and at least 15 percent of all interviews are checked, he said. But he could not explain how the checkers could get into areas that are highly insecure in order to ensure that the interviews were real and not made up.
But even if all of the interviews are valid, they cannot hope to give an accurate picture of Afghanistan, even according to the poll’s architects.
“This was a broad news poll,” Warshaw said. “If we asked a more spefici battery of things, we might get different answers. For example, support for the government is quite high, but if you ask detailed questions about corruption or the government’s ability to deliver services, you get much more negative answers. But that was not the overall goal of the survey.”
Instead, he explained, the poll was to deliver a general reflection of people’s attitudes.
“This is a nightly news poll,” he said. “I’m not sure it answers all things.”
Neamatullah Arghandabi, who runs a youth organization in southern Afghanistan, has a philosophical view of the survey.
“I think everybody realizes that this is the last chance for Afghanistan,” he said. “Everybody wants things to get better. What is being expressed is more a hope than a rational feeling.”
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Alex Strick van Linschoten.