As Iraq slowly moves into stability and democracy, much attention has turned to Afghanistan, and on Obama’s yet-to-be-made decision on troops. Public opinion has also slowly turned sour, in part to rising U.S. casualties. October 2009 was the deadliest month for the United States in Afghanistan since the invasion in 2001. But what does the war look like from the eyes of Afghans? A recent poll by the Asia Foundation looked at Afghan public opinion on reconstruction, security, U.S. presence, governance, and the role of women in society. FPIF spoke with Mariam Nawabi, an attorney, activist, and founding member of the Afghanistan Advocacy Group, to better understand Afghan public opinion on the conflict, and how the country can move towards a stable democracy. Nawabi also previously worked at the Embassy of Afghanistan as Commercial and Trade Counsel, and has also traveled to Afghanistan.

GABRIELA CAMPOS: There has recently been a lot of debate on a troop surge in Afghanistan, and yet, Obama still needs to make a decision. In your opinion, will more troops make a difference? What will be the effects if more troops are sent?

MARIAM NAWABI: We really have to look at the underlying causes of instability in Afghanistan. A lot of it is due to a continued cycle of poverty. If you look at U.S. foreign assistance, far too little is being spent on development. Sending more troops is costly. There have been some figures quoted that it takes $250,000 a year to maintain one troop in Afghanistan. Now, if we are training more Afghan soldiers that cost comes down considerably. So there definitely needs to be more training of Afghans.

More troops may actually cause more conflict. If Afghan people see more tanks and individuals in uniform, but they aren’t seeing tangible differences in their lives, they may start questioning U.S. presence. There may be areas in the south where there is a need for more troops, due to the cross-border. But to send a large contingent of troops in the current situation, where there is a need for more development assistance, is not the right strategy at this time.

CAMPOS: According to The Asia Foundation’s recent survey on Afghan people, insecurity is identified as the biggest problem in Afghanistan, especially in the southeast, west, and Southwest regions. Is security, in your opinion, the biggest problem? How can it be made better?

NAWABI: Of course with insecurities it is difficult for progress to take place. It is hard for parents to send their children to school, for people to do business, and for the economy to improve. You have to have peace if there is going to be development. This has been lacking in Afghanistan for many years. Even after the U.S. first entered Afghanistan, Afghan people at that time wanted there to be more troops. Not only U.S. troops, but also through the international security assistance force, which has more than 40 nations participating. There needs to be more Afghan police and more of an Afghan national army that fills that roll.

However, ways to resolve the security situation can take many different forms. I have read recent reports that say that access to land is contributing to insecurity. There was a report done by a local Afghan think tank that said that in the south there were more land disputes that were causing actual conflict than there were insurgents. So when we talk about insecurity, identifying the causes is critical because that will let us know what kind of solution is needed. We need to define more broadly because insecurity is also related to other factors besides insurgencies.

CAMPOS: According to the survey, 42% of the population believes that Afghanistan is moving towards the right direction. That is almost half of the Afghan population. Do you think that the country is progressing positively?
NAWABI: I think everything is relative to what we are comparing it to. If we look back at the period of the Taliban, then, yes, things have been progressing. There have been amazing transformations in many sectors in Afghanistan. If we look at the private sector and what services they are providing with telecommunications, banking, restaurants, and private universities, there definitely have been changes in people’s lives.

In some areas though, where there are problems with insecurity or the lack of electricity, it is difficult to bring about change because you don’t have the fundamental building blocks upon which to build. Those areas still need economic and social assistance and if that is given there is a great opportunity to propel change into those areas as well. So yes, there has been great change, but there have also been a lot of missed opportunities based on how we spend our foreign assistance dollars. Spending it mainly on military assistance does not address the actual needs. So although there has been change I think that given the amount of money that was allocated there could have been more change.

CAMPOS: Has the U.S. military and civilian improved or worsened conditions and life for Afghans? What about for Afghan women?

NAWABI: Life has definitely improved for the Afghans. Of course there are improvements in U.S. foreign assistance that are needed. But there also have been good initiatives that can be used as a model. For example, Afghan First made an effort for the U.S. military to procure more goods and services locally. This dramatically increased the number of contracts that went to local companies.

Overall the USAID program and other agency programs have helped in various sectors, but a lot of money still has been wasted. But if you ask Afghans if things have gotten better since the Taliban, the majority would say yes.

CAMPOS: The survey results show that there is a significant decline in support for female representation in government compared to previous years. What needs to change so women can be a part of governance?

NAWABI: The fact that there were women at the peace table was a significant step. In times of change you have opportunities to bring about social change as well. Afghan women were pretty strong with their viewpoints and with wanting to participate as compared to other countries in the region. The quota in parliament definitely helped. Some people are against quota systems for ideological reasons, but I think that for a practical measure having women there helps them send a message that women should be part of decision making. There have been women who have worked in a variety of capacities in government, but to increase women’s role in the government, Afghan leaders need to make sure that that is an important part of the agenda.

The Taliban and other terrorist groups have caused insecurity in the south, where women have been killed for serving in government. There was a woman police officer in Kandahar who was gunned down; another woman who worked for a government ministry was killed as well. That sends a chilling effect, causing Afghan women to be fearful of participating in government. Of course it goes back to an issue of security and who can help provide security so those attacks can be minimized. Also, it certainly helps if there is more assistance from the donor community to give Afghan women the opportunity to be educated, learn the tools they need to run businesses, and be trained to serve leadership roles.

CAMPOS: It is alarming that 33% of the Afghan population lacks access to electricity. Why is it that there is such a lack of electricity?

NAWABI: The access in Kabul has gone up because the line between Kazakhstan and Kabul was completed. Electricity is difficult because of all the infrastructure and investment needed to generate it and transmit it, but also because of so much damage caused by war. Much capacity was destroyed and in some cases that capacity was never there. Now there is an opportunity to look at alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydro. I think that poor decisions were made not to utilize more alternative energies even though it might be a little more expensive to start up. Over time, alternative energy solutions in Afghanistan are more viable because it does have a lot of days of sun, and there are rivers that can be used to generate electricity to villages. It is an issue of strategic planning.

CAMPOS: What do you believe is most important in Afghanistan? What should the new administration do in order to be successful?

NAWABI: Of course there are a lot of interrelated issues. When you look at the post conflict country that has seen so much war and has challenges with neighbors, security is a prime concern. Without it, it is hard for other areas of society to function. How that security is provided and by who is one of the key issues the administration needs to be looking at. There is the increase focus on training the Afghan army and policy, but then we are also hearing talks of sending more U.S. soldiers. This shows that we are not meeting the goal of training Afghans.

Beyond increasing security, meeting basic needs is critical at the moment. Food security and basic elements of survival is what has been missing. There have been so many villages and communities that have been totally ignored. No one is really reaching out to them. If we lose the support of those people, it is going to make everything else more difficult.
The winter is coming up and there are a lot of communities that risk starving. The UN World Food Program is not getting to many communities and there are basic food and shelter issues that cause people to become desperate. If they become desperate they are more likely to support insurgents.

Finally, there needs to be an increase in overall social economic assistance. I think that more resources are still being spent on military combat operations, which are fueling more conflict. If we put more of that money towards education and basic programs for the Afghan people, there will be more benefits.

CAMPOS: In your experience, what is the Afghan view of U.S. involvement in their country?

NAWABI: In 2002, most Afghans were very happy to see the United States coming in because they suffered from the Taliban and from regional interference in their country. They saw the U.S. role as very important. But support has gone down somewhat because of civilian casualties, which has to be addressed. It has also been 8 years since the war began and people’s patience is starting to wearing. But even with those challenges, I believe the majority still support U.S. engagement in their country, because they know that if the U.S. is not there the regional powers can very easily influence matters and could propel another civil war. Support for the United States mission is still there, and it will continue over the next few years, but the U.S. and NATO need to look at their own programs and improve them if there is to be a lasting peace.

, Gabriela Campos is an intern with the Foreign Policy In Focus project at the Institute for Policy Studies.