Foreign military occupations are known to increase resentment among the local population. After 18years of war, Afghans experience similar levels of fear when encountering American-led international forces as they do Taliban forces. At the same time, they are increasingly optimistic about the prospects for peace but don’t see the foreign forces as important to that process, according to the latest iteration of the Asia Foundation’s Survey of the Afghan People. For the United States, this raises serious questions about the utility of its continued military presence in Afghanistan.
The intent of the survey is to gauge the opinions of the Afghan people over time and provide useful data for policymakers and stakeholders. This year’s survey conducted in-person interviews with over 17,000 Afghans in all 34 provinces from July 11 to August 7 of 2019. Significantly, this year’s survey included, for the first time, questions related to the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban. An overwhelming majority of the Afghan people support the negotiations (89.0 percent) (see Figure 1).
A slight majority of the Afghan people, nearly 52 percent, view the presence of foreign military forces as not important for successful conclusion of these negotiations. Of those issues that the survey covered, the presence of foreign forces was the least important when considering what should be compromised during negotiations. Afghans are more willing to give up the presence of foreign forces than almost everything else. Over 80 percent of Afghans said they would be unwilling to give up the current constitution during any negotiations with the Taliban. Similarly, over 70 percent were unwilling to give up democracy, about 78 percent said they were unwilling to give up freedom of speech and freedom of the press, 82 percent were unwilling to give up a strong central government, and 77 percent were unwilling to compromise on women’s rights. However, when asked how important foreign military forces were, only 17.5 percent said it was very important.
Afghans have been asked over the past few years how fearful they would be when encountering various security forces. When taken as an average score, Afghans experience similar fear when encountering both Taliban forces and international forces. The Taliban have sympathy from only about 13 percent of the population according to this year’s survey and target civilians as a deliberate strategy, and yet, Afghans still fear foreign forces at near similar levels (see figure 2).
The military as a tool in international affairs is a highly specialized one, it is extremely well suited to fighting other militaries and taking territory. However, it is extremely poor at building states, defeating insurgencies, and occupying countries that do not see a value in its presence. In fact, the foreign military forces in Afghanistan are now unintentionally undermining many of the objectives they seek. They want to defeat the Taliban, but in a country where only 13 percent of the population are sympathetic to the movement, the Taliban’s legitimacy comes from the claim of fighting foreign occupiers. In fact, Afghan and international forces in 2019 killed more civilians than did the Taliban. Of those that Afghans would trust to represent them in negotiations, 1 percent selected the Taliban and a mere 0.5 percent selected the U.S.. Conversely, 53.6 percent of Afghans trust the Afghan National Unity Government or current president Ashraf Ghani to represent them in negotiations. Additionally, Afghans increasingly view the presence of foreign forces as the main reason the Taliban are fighting.
Despite a counterinsurgency doctrine predicated on winning hearts and minds to achieve legitimacy, the U.S.’s generational war in Afghanistan has instead produced mixed results. The Afghan population is generally supportive of the central government and the Afghan Army, but is fearful of interactions with foreign forces and is willing to see them leave as part of a peace deal. This is problematic for the prospect that any modification or change to the current U.S. military strategy will produce improved results. Governments are more likely to win against insurgents when they can stand on their own without direct foreign military support. Therefore, U.S. strategy towards Afghanistan should shift away from an over-reliance on military forces and towards diplomatic and economic engagement that works through and with the Afghan government.