It is true that Afghans probably have the highest “Islamism Quotient” in the world. Support for sharia, as Steve Sailer reminds us, is basically universal. He refers to a 2013 PEW poll, which Razib Khan and I had covered a few years back. Furthermore, 79% of Afghans who support sharia also support the death penalty for apostasy. In between that and its dysfunction and lack of state capacity and unfortunate location next to Pakistan, if any country was to fall to an Islamist insurgency, Afghanistan was the prime candidate.
Given that, and the swiftness of the Taliban takeover, it certainly feels weird to write a post against the idea that Taliban rule enjoys broad-based support across Afghanistan.
But that is precisely what one can conclude from a comprehensive series of surveys of Afghan opinion by an outfit called the Asia Foundation during the 2010s, which showed that popular “sympathy” for the Taliban was both low and in decline.
The last report was from 2019:
This year, the proportion who say they have no sympathy with the Taliban has grown by almost 3 percentage points, from 82.4% in 2018 to 85.1% this year. The proportion of respondents who have a lot or a little sympathy for the Taliban is 13.4%, similar to 2018. But among respondents who express sympathy for the Taliban, the proportion who say they don’t know why they feel this sympathy has increased four-fold, from 6.2% in 2018 to 28.6% in 2019.
You can explore the detailed data for yourself here.
Note from the outset: The Asia Foundation, was originally founded in 1954 as a CIA-backed outfit. Personally, I think it’s quite hard to get dozens of researchers to closely cooperate in inventing polling data, especially at such a granular level, and in any case the CIA has produced a lot of useful and non-partisan material (e.g. the CIA World Factbook was one of the few easily-accessible and comprehensive sources of comparative national statistics during the 1990s). Apart from seeing the raw results to various questions, many of which actually don’t reflect all that well on the results of the occupation (e.g. only 44% of Afghans say they have access to main grid power), you can also break it down by multiple variables including region, age, sex, and ethnic group. The results stay internally consistent, adding up to and closely tallying with what one might “expect” to see based on anecdotal data (e.g. the Pashtuns, who have a number of colorful sayings about women, are systemically more “conservative” than Hazara). Nor have I seen it cited almost anywhere; if it’s actually meant to be used for Western propaganda, then it seems that Western journalists haven’t gotten the memo. That said, if the CIA connection is a deal-breaker, I suppose you might as well stop reading this now.
According to the poll, Taliban support peaks in the Pashtun heartlands of the South-West (27%), but is much lower in the territories of the old Northern Alliance (10-11%) and in Kabul (8%). In Bamiyan, the Hazara-dominated province famous for the eponymous Buddhist statues blown up by the old Taliban – and where yet another statue, to a local leader who was tortured to death by the Taliban in 1995, was blown up just today – Taliban sympathy plummets to just 0.8%. Across ethnic lines, 21% of ethnic Pashtuns are sympathizers, falling to 14% amongst Uzbeks, and 7% amongst Tajiks and the Hazara. Incidentally, this reflects a general conservative/”liberal” (by Afghan standards) skew across those ethnic groups, with the Pashtuns being systemically more “conservative” and the Hazara being the most “liberal” groups across most social issues. Finally, the mainstream narrative that the Taliban are bad for women, and that women want even less to do with it than men, is borne out by the numbers. Only 10% of women sympathize with the Taliban vs. 17% of men. Unsurprisingly, given its evolution from a war-torn ruinscape of 0.5 million people in the mid-1990s into a cosmopolitan megapolis approaching 5 million people, the gap is widest in Kabul itself (3% women; 12% men).
Conversely, though – and this is where media caricatures of the Taliban actually are wrong – there are no major differences between age groups, and Taliban support actually goes up with income (at least until you get to the very rich):
This is unusual in the modern world, where “progressive” attitudes tend to go up with income and education (though a necessary caveat is that in Afghanistan, “progressive” = not a religious zealot, as opposed to the connotations it has taken on in the West). But this is perhaps not too surprising in light of the core of the Taliban (lit., “students”) having been educated in Pakistani madrassas, some of which had extremely stringent acceptance rates. Incidentally, this immediately answers one obvious criticism of the poll – namely, given that it was conducted by cell phone, that it would leave out a large chunk of the more illiterate and non/cell phone using population. But the assumption that these more “backward” people would be greater supporters of the Taliban seems wrong, both according to the responses themselves and to logic. After all, it would make sense for illiterate peasants to care less about the Koran than students who had studied it for years; conversely, they may feel they missed out on many opportunities in life on account of their illiteracy, and wouldn’t wish the same on their daughters. This is not a supposition – close to 90% of Afghans say that women should have the same opportunities as men as regards primary and high school education
Furthermore, when Taliban sympathizers were asked why they sympathized with them, the most common answer by far was that “they are Afghans” (45%). The second most popular answer (29%) was “I don’t know”. Only something like 5% gave answers touching on “Islamic law” and the like. My interpretation of this is that, to the extent that some Afghans do support the Taliban, it was primarily for quasi-nationalist reasons (getting rid of what they viewed as a puppet regime) as opposed to installing a totalitarian theocracy. One thing that many people seem to elide over is that the pre-Taliban polity is (or was) called the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and that sharia played a major role in its jurisprudence. Its not as if it was ruled by apostates forcing secularizing policies on a recalcitrant peasantry, as happened under the Soviet policy of “unveiling” (Hujum) and emancipation of women in Central Asia from the 1920s, and as was briefly attempted in Afghanistan itself in the 1980s, and is now being attempted by China with respect to the Uyghurs. But that doesn’t describe the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. If it did, it would have seen some of the world’s highest immigration rates during the 2000s as Afghans displaced by the Soviet-Afghan War repatriated.
Browsing through the polls, one interesting thing I noted – and one which lends credence to the idea that the Taliban wasn’t all that popular – is that normie Afghans seemed considerably less regressive than Taliban 2.0, let alone their predecessors. Close to 90% say that women should have the same opportunities as men for primary and high school education, and 75% hold the same view for university education. Probably this at least as much as “optics” explains why Taliban 2.0 have, at least for now, promised not to roll back progress in those spheres. Regardless of its overall record, one thing that did happen under the American intervention is an increase in primary school enrollment from 21% to close to universal levels (a statistic that is, incidentally, borne out by another poll – 82% of Afghans say all of the boys in their household attend school, and 75% say that all of the girls do so), so at a minimum shutting down girls’ schools would be vastly more disruptive than in the late 1990s, when very few children were going to school anyway. Less than 2% think women shouldn’t be allowed to work outside the home. Again, regardless of their internal views, this is presumably something that Taliban 2.0 will just have to accept as a done deal at this point.
There is an overwhelming endorsement of female suffrage, with only 10% of both men and women opposing it. Even more remarkably, and that is something I certainly did not expect to see, is that there is even net marginal support for women being able to run for the Presidency (49% support, 46% oppose).
— Marina Medvin 🇺🇸 (@MarinaMedvin) August 15, 2021
This clip from a Vice documentary on the Taliban was widely RT’ed a few days ago by outraged liberal and normie conservatives, as well as Alt Righters fawning over how absolutely BASED and REDPILLED the Taliban are. But the actual reality is that the bearded fellows giggling at Hind Hassan’s question on whether Afghans would be able to vote in female politicians under their rule are actually likely a minority even within their own country (e.g. 55% support for women being allowed to be governors).
I am not going to expound on this much further, though I would note that Noah Carl independently came to much the same conclusions on his Substack:
The Asia Foundation’s survey also asked Afghans about the criteria for an ideal president. By far the most popular response, given by 36% of respondents, was “an honest, just and fair person”. By contrast, only 18% said “a pious, devout Muslim”. When asked about female participation in politics, 59% said “women should decide for themselves”, whereas only 17% said “men should decide for women” (the remaining 23% said “women should decide … in consultation with men”). Although a majority of Afghans identified the burka or niqab as the most appropriate dress for women in public, 87% said that women should have the same opportunities in education as men. On the other hand, a slight plurality said that political leaders should be “mostly men”.
Of course, there could be some social desirability bias in respondents’ answers (i.e., Afghans telling interviewers what they wanted to hear), and this bias may have increased over time, as people became more familiar with the values of their Western occupiers. Hence one might want to adjust the numbers from the Asia Foundation Survey in a more “traditional” direction. However, even if the 85% figure were adjusted down by, say, 15 percentage points, that’s still 70% of Afghans who have no sympathy for the Taliban. Interestingly, the survey also revealed that 97% of Afghans believe corruption is a problem in their country.
Indeed, to the extent that Afghans had grievances with the regime, the poll suggests it largely touch on much the same “boring”, non-ideological issues that worry normies everywhere around the world – things like employment, crime and security, problems with utilities and infrastructure. Tellingly, since 2014, more Afghans have thought things were going in the “wrong” direction, a turn that coincided with a sharp stall in the GDP growth rate after a doubling during the 2000s. Nonetheless, it is telling that “foreign intervention” was only cited as a reason things were going in the wrong direction by 7% of Afghans, while concerns with “morality/religious direction” concerned less than 1% of them (!). Afghans were, at least as of 2019, singularly uninterested in Taliban wedge issues.
Perhaps the single most telling result here is that 13% of Afghans said they experienced “a lot of fear” when encountering the National Police and 11% on encountering the ANA versus 73% on encountering the Taliban (only slightly lower than 83% for ISIS/Daesh). This suggests that whereas normie Afghans did view certain factions in their civil war as occupiers or terrorists, it wasn’t the actual national security services of the supposed “puppet” regime, regardless of their oft-reported deficiencies and venality.
Could Taliban sympathizers have feared to respond with their true sentiments? This general criticism is one I have come across frequently in my career as Russia watcher, observing how Westerners often cope with Putin’s high approval ratings by positing that Russians were simply too fearful to truthfully answer pollsters. This is self-evidently ridiculous both to anyone who lives in Russia or even anyone who has substantive dealings with or experience in Russia. However, as it so happens, that particular theory was demolished by Timothy Frye et al. in 2015, who used a double list experiment – a clever way of gauging attitudes towards a potentially controversial topic without respondents having to answer it directly – to confirm that Putin’s approval ratings as measured by mainstream pollsters were indeed accurate to at least within 10 percentage points. Now most democracy/freedom indices, admittedly for what dubious value they are worth, tend to define Afghanistan as some kind of “hybrid democracy” like Russia. Be that as it may, it was not a crime to sympathize with the Taliban, and in fact in other questions on this poll, the great majority of Afghans supported pursuing a peace deal with them (though almost 70% opposed ceding the governorship of any provinces to them). Furthermore, we should also bear in mind that substantial numbers of people have expressed “incorrect” opinions in places far more extreme and dangerous to have them. In one notable 2012 poll, some 5% of polled Saudis said they were atheists (a position that theoretically carries the death penalty). Substantial numbers of Arabs, most of whom live in illiberal states, have historically expressed support for Islamic State in opinion polls, including those living in dictatorships. According to a Syria-wide poll by ORB International in July 2015, some 25% of the residents of Al Raqqa said that the influence of the Islamic State under which they lived was either “somewhat” or “completely” negative while about 20% of the residents of “core” regime territory (Tartus, Latakia, Damascus) expressed similar sentiments about Bashar al-Assad. So even in literal “Extremistan” territory, it seems that people are surprisingly honest in responding to polls. By extension, there needs to be really good evidence to give us cause to think otherwise as regards Afghanistan.
Historically, there is nothing unprecedented with more fanatical groups overrunning much bigger states with bigger armies (at least on paper), even if their denizens don’t particularly want them in charge. The Bolsheviks, who only gained 24% of the vote in their only free and fair elections in 1917, imposed themselves on the rest of Russia by the use of force (largely with the help of Latvian riflemen in the critical early months). Still, the question remains – if the Taliban really were unpopular, why did ANA crumple so quickly?
James Thompson cites low Afghan IQ. This is probably a factor. Lower IQ people, some of them illiterate (recall that universal primary enrollment was only achieved quite recently), can’t use complex weaponry, which annuls their main advantage against insurgents who make up for material inadequacies with zeal. Still, Afghan IQ was no higher in the late 1980s, and yet Najibullah’s regime managed to last a bit more than three years, mounting multi-division offensives against the jihadists so long as Soviet aid continued pouring in.
But there were many other factors to this:
- President Ghani and his circle being convinced that the US would never leave. When Biden called their bluff and withdrew anyway, they were caught with their pants down.
- The US never actually trained ANA to operate independently as an Army, so they were left in the lurch when the US abruptly cut out air support.
- The Big Brain idea of spreading your military across the entire country, as opposed to concentrating it around Kabul and the north, where anti-Taliban sentiment was highest.
- The Taliban appear to have reached behind the scenes deals with some of the generals or even members of the government. There are widespread rumors that many troops were ordered to stand down and not offer resistance.
- Whereas the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan fielded a conscript army, the ANA was an army of volunteers scraped from the bottom of the barrel of Afghan society. You’d have to be pretty desperate to sign up, given its lack of prestige and poor (and unreliable) pay.
- Conversely, the Taliban forces were volunteers and self-selected for ideological zeal. Given their madrassa background and the positive correlations between income and Taliban support, their human capital was very likely higher than that of the ANA.
- The ineptness and cowardice of President Ghani himself, who spent most of his career in the academic/NGO “democracy promotion”/Peace Studies circuit. Highlights include a TED talk called “how to rebuild a broken state” and the book Fixing Failed States. However, his ideas failed when they clashed against gritty reality, as he was unable to satisfy the most basic function of a state – maintaining the loyalty of the armed men defending it. It is said that many of the ANA soldiers hadn’t been paid in 6-9 months, though on the plus side, was at least successful with making good his escape (with wads of banknotes if Russian accounts are to be believed).
Even all these factors aside, it does seem fair to say that the vast majority of Afghans didn’t identify strongly enough with their state to offer up serious resistance to the Taliban. Still, this isn’t grounds to claim that Afghans wanted the Taliban in charge, much less that they deserved the Taliban, and to dehumanize them on this account. There has been a fair amount of that across distinct ideological clusters. One of them are the anti-interventionists who view this as an opportunity to discredit the neocons and future wars of choice by extension, which at least is a good and legitimate cause. Others are less wholesome, such as knee-jerk anti-Americans who are using the opportunity to troll the US on account of a PR humiliation but one that is actually not even all that relevant to its world power status. And then there are some which are actively misanthropic, such as a subset of the Alt Right who, enraged by their powerlessness in Western society, seem to be getting a kind of vicarious self-satisfaction from anticipating the brutal punishment that Taliban “thot patrols” are about to mete out to blue-haired feminists and GloboHomo agents (never mind that SJWs as such practically don’t exist even in Kabul, that the people who are most closely associated with the targets of their rage in Washington D.C. are first in line to be evacuated, that the great bulk of Taliban oppression will befall the most culturally Europeanized Afghans, and that it will provoke a new wave of Afghan immigration into their country which they supposedly oppose).
Anyhow, even if history doesn’t repeat, it does rhyme. Afghanistan is an extremely fractious country, and the fact that not that that many Afghans like the Taliban means that it only has a very limited window to reach a national consensus before it begins to face challenges to its authority across the country. Two days in, there is already a counter-Taliban insurgency starting up in Panjshir, and it will probably neither be the only one, nor the last. So long as the Taliban’s authority is disputed, it is unlikely to be widely recognized by the international community; its “brand” is near globally toxic. As a country heavily dependent on foreign aid, where budget expenditures exceed revenues by a factor of three, its hard to see how Afghanistan can avoid economic collapse (at least short of China funneling in tens of billions of yuan). Afghanistan’s population has quadrupled since the late 1980s. The world should prepare for refugees flows rivaling or exceeding those of the 1980s.
Panjshir Addendum (08/11)
Many people have predictably been dismissing the results from this poll, reasons ranging from good (“can you successfully poll Afghans”) to bad (“but outfit in question got money from the CIA… half a century back”).
Yet even so, it is displaying predictive power even as we speak.
Panjshir . I just looked up Taliban sympathy in Panjshir. 96.3% no sympathy (84 people), 2.8% little sympathy (2 people), one person who “didn’t know”), and nobody with “a lot of” sympathy.
The single most anti-Taliban province in Afghanistan minus a few lightly populated central regions largely populated by Hazaras has become the focal point of a spreading anti-Taliban insurgency. I wonder why, and not, say, neighboring Nuristan – which is just as mountainous and even more inaccessible.