In anticipation of the new Environics poll of Afghans I engaged in my biannual ceremonial watching of the CBC news. This poll is groundbreaking stuff since, until now, we’ve had very little data on what Afghans think. What is interesting about the poll isn’t the results per say, but the strength of the results. Equally interesting is the impact this could have politically here at home.
For example, people’s opinion of Canadian troops in Kandahar is remarkably positive, with 60% having a favourable opinion.
In addition – given the press reports we receive here in Canada – Afghans are actually comparatively upbeat about the effectiveness of the mission is itself.
I’d encourage everyone to take a look at the raw results yourself, they can be found on the Environics webpage.
The political impact
Before we begin, a caveat. I’m sure there are those who are thinking: this poll was commissioned by Conservatives and was rigged to ensure a desirable outcome. This could not be further from the truth. This poll is the brain child of Environics which wanted to bring the Afghan perspective into the debate. It is important to note that Environics is the same company that brought us Fire and Ice, a book that presents a rather unflattering picture of America and argues Americans and Canadians are becoming more different. This is no right wing organization – if anything it leans the opposite way.
I argued earlier in the week that the Liberal position on Afghan has been pretty suspect. This poll makes things worse. To be blunt, it’s a disaster for the NDP and damaging for the Liberals.
The NDP position has been based on the assumption that the mission is a mess. Now we have evidence that Afghans actually want Canadians there, they don’t like the Taliban and they believe we are doing a relatively good job. We can no longer claim we’d be leaving a divided country that doesn’t want us.
For the Liberals the problem is similar – this is the party that spent two decades constructing a foreign policy around the human security agenda. More importantly, it has always wanted Canada’s foreign policy resources to “do good.” It would appear that the Afghans believe we are doing just that. In addition, if we left, we would jeopardizes this success. Both the NDP and the Liberals now have to explain why we should leave and risk abandoning the Afghans.
However, the poll creates a nuanced public policy challenge – one the Conservatives are susceptible to succumbing to. The danger is this poll will eliminate the option to leave Afghanistan under any conditions. This would be a grave mistake. There are a number of things that could dramatically alter the conditions that created this poll’s results. For example, spraying the opium fields with pesticides could turn significant parts of the population against both the international force and the Karzai government. Making the assumption that these polling numbers would be the same under such conditions could trap us in a rapidly deteriorating situation. For the time being, it appears the locals believe we are effective, and are grateful. If our allies take actions that would create a new set of conditions that threaten to destabilize the current environment then we should be prepared to announce we too will take action, including the possibility of pulling out.