Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Friday, November 16, 2007

"Polling Afghanistan: Questions and Contradictions," Canadian Peace Alliance, October 22, 2007.

The Environics poll, conducted by D3 Systems in Afghanistan is being touted as "groundbreaking" research into the views of the Afghan people about the NATO occupation. The reality is that there are as many questions as answers arising from the poll results.

This new poll is not the first of its kind to be done in Afghanistan, but the results are striking because they contradict dozens of comprehensive studies conducted by other agencies. For example a remarkable 73 per cent of respondents in the D3 Systems study said that women's rights were improving in Afghanistan. This contradicts the NGO Womenkind Worldwide which found that attacks against women have actually been on the rise since 2001 and that there had been no improvement in the lives of Afghan women as a whole.

Likewise, a whopping 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). This contradicts countless documents from groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch who have consistently found that a majority of Afghans cite the Army and ANP as a chief source of violence. In fact, poll results from December 2006 found 78 per cent of Afghan people believed that the ANP was corrupt and one in four Afghans had to pay bribes to local police for protection. So therefore, the numbers from D3 Systems either represent an astounding turnaround in public opinion or there was some type of flaw in the research.

These strange results aren't surprising given the history of the D3 Systems polling firm. The group, whose former clients include NATO and the RAND Corporation (a virtual who's who of the military industrial complex) is notorious for providing the results that are needed to advance a political agenda.

Tellingly, D3 Systems is the only polling form in the world that was able to consistently show that a majority of Iraqis felt their lives had improved since the invasion of 2003. In 2004 and 2005, D3 conducted polls for media outlets based in the US and found more than 50 per cent of Iraqis were exited about their future. As late as 2006 D3 found a miraculous 64 per cent of Iraqis who felt that their lives were improving.

There are still many other unanswered questions about this survey. For example, did security or military contingents escort the survey teams around the country? If so the results will be terribly skewed, as these types of escorts would have destroyed the impartiality of the surveyors. Also, if 75 per cent of respondents called for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban (a number that has been omitted from most media reports on the survey) how do we reconcile that with the 64 per cent who want us to continue to fight the Taliban. Furthermore, if only 2 per cent of respondents knew that Canada was fighting the Taliban, how did that 64 per cent think that we were doing a good job.

This survey has come out at a particularly fortuitous time for the Conservative government, days after a throne speech advocating and extension of Canada's war in Afghanistan and a week before a pan-Canadian day of action against the war. But as with most of what we hear from the Conservatives, the numbers just don't add up.

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Sarah Kamal said...

Sorry, I know this is ages after the fact, but I just wanted to respond to your comments about the CBC/Environics poll, which has raised concern among people who have worked in Afghanistan. I was on a trip to Afghanistan when it was released, hence this timelag.

If you're still interested, here are some points that I think bear some discussion on the poll's methodology:

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.


Sarah Kamal
2007 Trudeau Scholar
PhD Candidate, London School of Economics