News Fail: Reporting Afghan public opinion

By Scott Bohlinger (in London, UK)

A recent story on Aljazeera reminded me how difficult it is to gauge public opinion and its potential consequences in Afghanistan.  While such stories may be accurate on the protest’s specific details or the immediate impetus, they fail to contextualize the story in such a way that non-expert readers can appreciate its implications.  The greater issue with Afghan public opinion on any issue is how disjointed it is and how it is intertwined with events that may or may not have happened.

Afghans protest over many topics.  Amongst those topics can be found real, unsubstantiated, and untrue events. The potential discrepancy between actual and perceived is the result of how information flows and how protests are organized.

Whatever the medium, most Afghans do not get their news directly from a formal source but by word of mouth.  This means that by the time the story reaches an individual the narrative has passed through and been reinterpreted by several narrators.  Afghans are aware of the unreliability of such information and it’s one of the things that encourages political passivity.  Political sentiments come to the fore when they are organized in the form of rallies.  I’ve seen very few spontaneous rallies and quite a lot that had been bought and paid for with benefits such as transportation and food (a villager can come to town, do some shopping, and get a free lunch).  Such events allow the rallies’ organizers to demonstrate their power and influence, both to those attending the rally and to the target audience of the rally.  The thousands of people who recently protested against Iran’s execution of imprisoned Afghans in front of the Iranian Embassy in Kabul turned out to have been sponsored and organized by one MP, and the issue has aroused very little domestic attention otherwise.

Unlike in Iraq, in Afghanistan civilian casualties by either the Taliban or international military forces are rare enough (though any amount is too high) that not everybody knows somebody who has been killed by the groups or even had any personal contact with them.  Like everywhere else, in Afghanistan politics is local and reflects local dynamics.  People transpose broader narratives into what they perceive happening to be around them.  In a recent interview with NPR, New York Times writer David Rhode explained how his captors in North Waziristan had heard about a killing spree in the US and assumed it must have something to do with their own struggle and that it portended a decisive moment in their jihad.

Narratives relying upon the notion of public opinion in Afghanistan need to take into account that although individual Afghans have many and valid opinions, these opinions do not often reflect much about the fractured and disaggregated “public”.  It also implies that no strategy beyond painstaking development and reduction of violence levels is likely to influence Afghans in the long run.

Scott Bohlinger is a politics and security analyst focusing on Afghanistan, Iran, and the wider Middle East.  He is currently based in London.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.