For the most part, Afghanistan is portrayed today as violent and war-torn and with an ineffective and corrupt government. The consensus seems to be that there is little hope that the country will hold together or defend itself against the Taliban and other terrorists after U.S. and NATO combat troops leave two years hence. The conclusion is that much blood and treasure has been wasted since the Taliban were ousted in 2001.
But there is another view of this story. The majority of Afghans see their future quite differently.
The Asia Foundation has just completed its eighth survey of public opinion in Afghanistan since 2004. These surveys have established a valid, long-term barometer of the Afghan people's views over time. Last June nearly 6,300 Afghans were interviewed across all 34 provinces on a wide variety of issues. Respondents were divided between men (56%) and women (44%), and included both urban (22%) and rural (78%) households. The fact that 16% of polling sites were not accessible for security reasons -- potentially creating a bias -- is taken into account and does not overturn the major findings. The survey's sampling error is +/- 5%.
What is most striking in this latest survey is that 52% of the respondents -- up from 46% in 2011 -- believe that Afghanistan is moving in the right direction. 93% have a positive view of the Afghan armed forces (although many have doubts about the ability of the Afghan army and police to operate today without the support of foreign troops). 89% give their government good marks for the provision of educational services. 72% say their national legislature is addressing the problems of ordinary citizens. 50% believe their financial wellbeing has improved in the last 12 months. The performance of the Afghan central government gets a positive rating of 75%. Indeed in several substantive areas, Afghans' positive assessment of government performance is at its highest point in years, including in education (89%), security (70%) and healthcare (66%).
The survey does, as one would expect, reveal some negatives. Insecurity, lack of employment opportunities, and corruption are major issues for most Afghans. Fear for personal safety has declined in the last year from 56% to 48%, but is still high and varies among secure and less-secure regions. 70% say the unemployment situation is bad. 79% think corruption is a major problem.
The survey did not ask specific questions about the post-2014 outlook, but some future concerns and aspirations were revealed nevertheless. 81% hope for peace and reconciliation - an overwhelming proportion of Afghans want a political solution to the conflict in the country, rather than merely a military one. 84% believe elections are the right way to choose their leaders. 87% think women should have the same educational opportunities as men. 83% percent agree that everyone should have equal rights under law, regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion.
Understandably, Afghans often compare the present with the pre-1978 era, when war and destruction had yet to begin. And they have seen enormous strides since 2001. 8 million children, including almost 3 million girls, are now in school. 80% of Afghans have radios, 52% have television, and 71% have mobile phones. A new American University in Afghanistan graduated its second class last spring and is now establishing a business school.
Despite the substantial problems that still confront the Afghans, they now stand on more solid footing than they have at any time in the last three decades. But they are also aware that they are in the midst of three transitions that will determine whether the gains of recent years will be lasting: a security transition as American and NATO combat forces depart; an economic transition as foreign assistance levels decline; and a political transition in the run-up to presidential elections now scheduled for April 2014, and the post-Karzai era begins.
Each of these transitions will need to be successful for Afghanistan to proceed to a more secure and prosperous future. And while it is true that most of the responsibility here lies with the Afghans, foreigners can help.
The Obama administration's strategy includes a strategic partnership with Afghanistan that is set to last through 2024. America's NATO allies and the larger international community remain committed to assisting Afghanistan's economy and security. These pledges are consistent with the following recommendation made almost a decade ago by the 9/11 Commission in its 2004 final report, which remains valid today.
"The United States and the international community should make a long-term commitment to a secure and stable Afghanistan, in order to give the government a reasonable opportunity to improve the life of the Afghan people. Afghanistan must not again become a sanctuary for international crime and terrorism."
Theodore L. Eliot, Jr., U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 1973 to 1978, is dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Karl F. Inderfurth, assistant U.S. secretary of state for South Asian affairs from 1997 to 2001, is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Both are trustees of The Asia Foundation. This year's survey can be found at www.asiafoundation.org.