What do the Afghan people think? For a country whose political space underwent a rapid and tumultuous change in August 2021, it’s perhaps little surprise that Afghans hold a variety of views. But rarely do we get a glimpse of the nuances highlighting Afghan opinions. A new survey report, the Survey of Socio-political Norms and Values of People in Rural and Urban Afghanistan, authored by Maryam Baryalay of the Organization for Social Research and Analysis, maps Afghan public opinion. The recently released survey, which was conducted in April 2021 — just four months before the Taliban came to power — builds on a 2020 survey, giving us a glimpse of how Afghan opinions shifted as the war approached its conclusion.
Baryalay spoke with The Diplomat about the survey’s results, which showed the urban-rural divide to be less stark than imagined and Afghan opinions on women’s place in society more progressive than often is acknowledged.
Can you tell me about the timing and conduct of the survey?
With a sample size of 5,213 respondents in 2020, and 4,012 respondents in 2021, from all 34 provinces, the survey was conducted via mobile-phone interviews from a pool of almost 22.7 million mobile-phone subscribers using a random number-generating algorithm. The survey was based on the probabilistic sampling approach, conducted among large rural and urban populations, guided by cultural and linguistic sensitivities to ensure honest replies, and, avoid social-desirability and urban bias. The surveys covered three thematic areas: (1) government system, governance, and security forces; (2) questions related to Afghan women; and (3) questions related to Afghan media.
Is the rural-urban divide evident in the survey results? In what way? Is the long focus on the rural-urban divide as a source of political tension warranted or is it overblown?
The rural-urban divide is evident; however, it’s not as wide anymore as many continue to believe. It’s critical to understand that most of our present-day knowledge of rural Afghanistan remains largely based on written accounts dating back to before the Soviet invasion, meaning more than 43 years, when traveling to remote areas and conducting research was possible. So, while the long focus [on old research] certainly was justified until the mid-2000s, it is not anymore.
With almost 23 million mobile-phone subscribers by the mid-2010s, the extensive penetration and build-out of the Afghan telecommunication sector, the fiber optic network, as well as growth in the numbers of TV channels and radio stations, largely enabled by Western and other donor counties, the gap between the rural and urban population in terms of perception, thinking, and evaluating events shrunk. What happened in major cities like Kabul or Herat, be it fashion, music, or political thought and critique, could be replicated in real-time in small towns and villages. This continues to be the case; however, now it’s not fashion, music, satire, or political commentary but information of atrocities and systemic discrimination of the Taliban. This is unprecedented for Afghanistan.
It is therefore critical that policymakers and regional stakeholders not fall into the binary trap of assuming rural Afghanistan (73.9 percent of the population) somehow continues to support Islamist and extremist forces, while the urban population (26.1 percent of the total population) remains the center of modern and progressive forces. There are a lot of nuances, especially when the data is broken down along to ethnic and geographic lines.
One of the main findings highlighted that between 2020 and 2021 support for the Ashraf Ghani government dropped from 71 percent to 46.9 percent. While support for the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate rose from 4.6 to 6.4 percent, the greatest gain was those who chose a third option. To what can we attribute that shift?
The 24.1 percent drop in support for the Ghani-led Islamic Republic and the two-fold increase for a third option, a compromise solution between the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban, is related to the deterioration in the security situation between February 2020 and April 2021 on the one hand, and the belief that a political compromise solution would ultimately bring and mean peace on the other. Deteriorating security conditions shortly after the U.S.-Taliban agreement, which were directly linked to changes in the rules of engagement for Afghan and U.S. militaries after the deal, combined with widespread corruption, dissipating international aid, a roll-back in development projects, and subsequent rise in unemployment and poverty led Afghans to believe that the Ghani-led Islamic Republic could not solve the country’s problems.
This, however, did not result in any significant rise in public support for the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban. Contrary to common assumption that Taliban enjoy support among the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, a rejection of the Taliban moral police saw a significant 20 percent rise in the Pashtun-majority provinces of southern and eastern Afghanistan from 2020 to 2021. It is the Taliban moral police or the Amr-bil-Maroof, a signature feature of Taliban rule, that regulates day-to-day lives of ordinary Afghans and passes decrees like face-veils for women, banning school education for girls, compulsion of beard and only traditional clothing for men, ban music, ban long-distance travel for women and etc.
The Taliban’s policies regarding women are one of the more difficult sticking points when it comes to international engagement. It’s interesting that while the survey finds support for gender segregation in higher education, it also reveals an appreciation for the role and presence of women in politics and the security forces. What do you think these results say about how average Afghans view the role of women in society?
This shows that the majority of Afghans do not see any contradiction in intellectual and societal development of girls and women as educated and active members of the Afghan society while wanting to maintain separation between genders, especially when it comes to young people of marrying age. This example is well demonstrated in the oil-rich Gulf states, where fiscal surplus allowed them to invest in physical infrastructure like gender-segregated universities, recreational spaces and even office spaces. While most Muslim-majority countries have other urgencies than to built “women-only” shopping malls or universities, Afghans, as Muslims, are no exceptions in that regard, as in they prefer the segregation but not the stagnation that often comes along with it.
However, I prefer to see the glass half-full. Forty-nine percent of the urban population do not want to see gender segregation in higher education and 36 percent of the rural population are against it. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Afghan Mujahideen burned down girls-schools that were built by the then Soviet-backed Afghan government with local support (by their own accounts). Now, girls’ education is not only a given right for most Afghans, the majority of the population support Afghan women’s presence and role in politics, as judges, in the media, and in the security forces. When we see it like that, I think we have come a long way.
The survey’s findings, you note in the executive summary, “revealed a broad normative gap between Taliban principles and values and the vast majority of Afghanistan’s population, whether rural or urban.” Why is it important for the Taliban to pay attention to this gap?
Afghanistan’s history has shown time and again that when the ruling family/party/group deviates in its principles, norms, and values from the vast majority of the population, the people ultimately rise against them, guaranteeing their downfall. This has happened several times in 20th century Afghanistan. The result is continuous conflicts, innocents dying, instability, and only few and far chances of development in between. When studied carefully, one will find a correlation between the type of principles governing the center of power in Kabul and the duration of every regime that has come and gone in Afghanistan.
For the Taliban this is important because it is an indicator of how long they will be able to maintain power. The wider the gap grows, the sooner and more widespread the resistance against them will grow. The narrower the gap, the longer they can hope to remain in power.
It’s clear from the survey that Afghans hold a variety of views on the full spectrum of possible topics, from politics to entertainment media. Was there anything in the survey that surprised you?
Like most people, I was surprised at the not-so-wide rural-urban gap, widespread existing support among Afghan men with no or little formal education (illiterate or only primary school education) for Afghan women and girls to have an active role in society, and the sharp increase in rejection of Taliban moral police. But what surprised me the most was that women and men, rural or urban, educated or illiterate, especially the older they got, were very vocal, opinionated, and eager to share their opinion. Overall, conducting research and collecting reliable data was not difficult if researchers could communicate in the various local languages and dialects, and paid attention to the sensitivities that govern the lives of ordinary people in the high-context culture of Afghanistan.