James Robbins: “So what does all this mean for the overarching American, NATO and British strategy in Afghanistan? We’re in the midst after all of a surge in military activity against the Taliban with the increased casualties that brings and yet foreign governments, including the British, have set deadlines for getting their combat forces out in the next five years. So will the Taliban profit from that knowledge and today’s poll findings and simply sit out the next few years before trying to seize control of the country once again?
I’m joined now live from the Foreign Office by the Foreign Secretary William Hague. Well it’s a very complex tapestry of views Foreign Secretary but one stark finding that support for attacks on foreign, including British, troops seems to be rising sharply, triple the eight per cent who supported such action a year ago and that suggests the battle for hearts and minds in Afghanistan is being lost.
William Hague: Well it is a complex tapestry and I think the report that we’ve just listened to did bring that out. There are very many positive indicators that I think we can be very pleased about in this survey. I would draw attention to the fact that what you’re comparing, the particular figure you’ve just mentioned to is a, is a (indistinct) is a survey a year ago that was a bit out of line with all the ones before it and all the others that have been taken, so there may not be as sharp a change here as you are …
JR: Nevertheless you have to go …
WH: … talking about.
JR: … you do, I, sorry to interrupt but …
JR: … you do have to go right back to 2005 to find similarly large support, although minority support for attacks on foreign forces, that must be disturbing and worrying.
WH: Well it is a mixed picture and you would expect that of a mixed pic, of, of what is a mixed situation and very different situations in different parts of Afghan, Afghanistan. Again as the reporting just there brought out the experience of someone in Helmand would be quite different from the experience of an Afghan in Herat, so it’s not an easy country in which to take a representative opinion poll.
But I do think it’s important to point out that even in this survey it says fifty nine per cent of Afghans think their country is going in the right direction, two thirds expect life will be better a year from now, more than half think life will be better for their children than for them, three quarters say their living conditions are the same or getting better. So when you take account of those figures you actually get not so pessimistic a view from this survey.
But it is the, the reality is mixed, you know, we are making progress in Afghanistan but it remains a phenomenally difficult challenge for our troops and our aid workers and our diplomats there and I don’t want to understate that in any way.
JR: There’s evidence from this poll that the Taliban is spread more widely in Afghanistan now and that’s really worrying surely if ordinary Afghans are convinced that the Taliban is gaining ground.
WH: Well again if we look at the figures in the poll it says that those Afghans who’ve actually experienced violence or crime in the last year total about seventeen per cent. So again we should see it in that perspective. But have there been increases in violent incidents in other parts of the country outside the South while the huge ISAF, NATO efforts have been going on in the South? Yes, that has happened and that may be one of the side effects of the military effort going on in the South. But then in that case it is the side effect of the Taliban being under ever increasing pressure in the South and it, it’s the Taliban down to nine per cent, nine per cent support of the population in this survey which, again, is something to take some encouragement from.
JR: I don’t want to get too bogged down in figures but when ordinary Afghans were asked about the United Kingdom’s specific role in Afghanistan only twenty one per cent, one in five, said it was playing a positive role and that’s down seven percentage points. How do you explain that and the overarching finding that more Afghans now consider security to be their greatest worry, not the economy, which actually reverses the position twelve months ago?
WH: Well remember the United Kingdom is only present in a small part of Afghanistan in a big way. Our efforts are concentrated in Helmand, most of the Afghan population would not have direct dealings with representatives of the United Kingdom or with our soldiers, so I think we have to understand that.
And, again, on the overall situation I think there are many encouraging figures so I think we, we should, we should all agree that a survey like this presents a mixed picture of what remains a very difficult situation. But it means we have to continue to intensify our efforts, both in the military progress we make in Afghanistan, the development of the Afghan economy and we need more rapid progress, as I said to the Commons a few weeks ago in my update of the situation there on good governance and getting rid of corruption in Afghanistan. All these things need to happen at the same time.”