Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, November 26, 2007

"Focus on Afghanistan," November 27, 2007.

This week is bounded by two dates I'd like to call your attention to. The first is November 25th. Sunday was the International Day Against Violence Against Women. In 1991, participants in the first Women's Global Leadership Institute sponsored by the Center for Women's Global Leadership chose November 25 as the annual starting date for the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign. The campaign runs until December 10 which is International Human Rights Day. That day was chosen to underscore that violence against women is a violation of human rights.

The 16-day period also embraces other significant dates including November 29, International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, December 1, World AIDS Day, and December 6, which marks the Anniversary of the Montreal Massacre.

Since 1991, approximately 1,700 organizations in 130 countries have participated in the 16 Days Campaign.

openDemocracy blogs against gender violence.

At the other end of this week is December 1st which is the last day for public input into the Independent Panel on Canada's Future Role in Afghanistan. Stephen Harper created the Panel on October 12, 2007 to consider four options, including:

1.To continue training the Afghan army and police so that Canada can begin withdrawing its forces in February 2009;

2.To focus on reconstruction and have forces from another country take over security in Kandahar;

The Independent Panel on Canada's Future Role in Afghanistan is Seeking Your Feedback

3.To shift Canadian security and reconstruction efforts to another region in Afghanistan; and

4.To withdraw all Canadian military personnel except a minimal force to protect aid workers and diplomats.

The panel may also identify and pursue additional options.

Back in September 2007, the Munk Centre for International Studies, the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, CBC, the Globe and Mail and La Presse commissioned a poll of Afghan public opinion by the Canadian company Environics. Environics subcontracted data collection to the Afghan Center for Social and Opinion Research (ACSOR) in Kabul, which is a subsidiary of the American company, D3 Systems Inc. (at The results were released on October 18.

73 per cent of those polled said they thought women's rights were improving. 76 per cent of people said that they have "a lot" or "some" confidence in the Afghan National Army and 60 per cent have faith in the Afghan National Police (ANP). These were surprising results and drew criticisms from several sources including the Canadian Peace Alliance and Michael Skinner of the Afghan Canada Research Group.

Skinner spent five weeks in June and July of 2007 travelling throughout Afghanistan with his Afghan born research partner. He says, quote “The quantitative analysis of the Environics poll fails to capture the kinds of complexly nuanced responses we heard from Afghans.” endquote

Sarah Kamal has spent 7 years working in and around Afghanistan as an academic, a development practitioner, and what she calls an "undercover Afghan."
As a Dari-speaking Afghan-looking woman she says, she finds that “after you scratch the surface of Afghan discourse, something else comes out that could never adequately be captured in as blunt and culturally unfamiliar a tool as a western poll.“

I spoke to her over the phone in Montreal. The text below duplicates her comment on the World Report blog:

Concerns with Validity

Methodology involves entering people's homes and ask people's opinions on the military, especially the Afghan National Army/Afghan National Police. While the ANA/ANP are not quite like the militia in Iraq yet, they (esp the ANP) are very corrupt and often seen as dangerous to civilians.

Poll was conducted from September 17-24th, right at the beginning of the Holy month of Ramadan, which for many Muslims represents a period of charity and goodwill, and when the good that is done by fasting can be considered void is one speaks ill of others behind their backs.

Afghans' oral culture and hospitable nature makes the linearity, aggressively direct, and confinement of responses into five categories of intensity (highly agree, somewhat agree, etc) bewildering. My own direct attempts at conducting quantitative research in Afghanistan are written up here (Kish grid, audience research survey):, pages 42-3, 81-3. The problems I've listed in my Master's thesis barely skim the surface of the research challenges I've continued to have while conducting my PhD.

I have spent 7 years working in and around Afghanistan as an academic, development practitioner, and "undercover Afghan." As a Dari-speaking Afghan-looking woman, I have tended to find that after you scratch the surface of Afghan discourse, something else comes out that could never adequately be captured in as blunt and culturally unfamiliar a tool as a western poll. I usually find that people from other cultures tend not to appreciate the underlying resentment or suspicion felt by many Muslims towards the powerful West, and how quickly it can bubble up over a quiet discussion over a cup of tea.

Finding a good facilitator for polling is hard in Afghanistan. ACSOR has done polls for organizations like the Asia Foundation (said to have been founded with CIA funding) and the US state department, and their polls tend to have eyebrow raising results which run counter to other research but are advantageous for suggesting the military operations are running well. The Environics poll is not the first strange public opinion poll coming out of Afghanistan by ACSOR.

Sometimes the timing of the release of such polls is telling. I did a survey of publicly available public opinion in Afghanistan in Dec 2005, it is available here: . The studies that I looked at are listed in the appendix. Shortly after I finished this study (which found sharp pessimism and a downturn in public opinion), a new quantitative survey was released that claimed that Afghans were very pleased with the reconstruction process and international presence, released right before a major donor conference. This was in the same year that friends of mine were chased out of a UN compound in Jalalabad by angry mobs, who set fire to the compound. Also the same year as the Koran riots and Afghan Minister of Planning Bashardoost winning major public support in demanding that NGOs leave the country.

Methodology doesn't state how questions were piloted. Were there ways of triangulating responses? For instance, if people are so positive about the future, why is it that in the Environics poll only 40% think the government and foreigners will prevail in the current conflict? (20% believe the Taliban will win, 40% don't know). 20% believe Al Qaida is a positive force in the country - how does that mesh with other responses?

Concerns with Generalizability

Poor to non-existent communications and road infrastructure in rural areas, inadequate mapping, lack of security, illiteracy, widely divergent population estimates and shifting displaced populations hamper statistical generalizability of their poll of about 1,500 Afghans.


I have been in Afghanistan many times in the last 6 years, and in my three visits this year I found the security situation to be the worst I have ever seen. I first entered Afghanistan during the time of the Taliban, and even then did not feel as threatened as I did in my most recent journey in October 2007. There is no sense of safety anywhere, and even longtime Afghan friends of mine now feel uncomfortable entering downtown Kabul. Such fears could only have worsened with the Nov 6th suicide bomb killing children and MPs in Baghlan, formerly considered a "safe" area.

I have been wrong more times than I can count when it comes to Afghanistan, which I find a fascinating and unendingly complicated space. I don't object to surprising research findings, but I do object to bad science that run counter to common sense. The Environics poll runs counter to what I and other longtime development workers have found to be the mood in the country (including a practitioner who has lived for 6 years in Kandahar). The poll is also dangerous, in my opinion, because the word for expressing the public's mood that is more and more being bandied about in expert circles, and among Afghans, is "occupation." I was a panelist at the Middle East Studies Association annual conference this weekend, and everybody there agreed with that framing. So I believe it is particularly important to not allow a poll (which, as we understand, even in the best of situations is just a poll and not reflective of anything other than what people choose to say to a pollster) to be taken as more than it is.

This article is published by James Terral under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. Commercial media must contact me for permission and fees. Some postings on this site are published under different terms.

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