The Misleading Afghan Poll

Quick primer for our readers outside of Canada…. The Canadian military is presently heavily involved in combat operations in Afghanistan, as part of the NATO mission to secure former Taliban-held lands and offer stability in the chaos that resulted after the ill-conceived American invasion. Canadian troops are not (officially) involved in Iraq, so Aghanistan is this country’s major policy excursion in the so-called War on Terror. It’s an unpopular mission –or, more accurately, its popularity is difficult to gauge, since its nature has been miscommunicated to Canadians on many occasions. It’s a combat operation, not a peace-keeping one; and it is being regularly conflated with Canadian health and development aid adventures, as Afghanistan is presently the #1 recipient of Canadian foreign aid. So, supposedly to give some clarity to this issue, the Canadian media commissioned the polling company Environics to survey the Afghan civilian population on their attitudes toward the mission. The results of the study are famously resported on here, with the much quoted excerpt, “60 per cent of Afghans surveyed believe the presence of foreign troops has been good for their country.” Unsurprisingly, the Conservative government, which is a passionate supporter of this mission, is overjoyed at the results. Even Reuters is on board with this interpretation, claiming that “a majority of Afghans support the presence of NATO-led troops and want them to remain in the country to fight the Taliban.” Clearly, this is evidence that the anti-war crowd has been wrong all along, and that Canada’s new militaristic ways are actually a net positivie phenomenon. Right? Well, hold on there, partner. Once more I am disappointed in the West’s journalistic sector, who continue to write articles based on quotations, hyperbole and press releases, rather than on actual source material. A quick visit to the Environics website allows us to examine the company’s summary analysis of the survey, though the actual survey itself remains conspicuously absent. From this summary, it seems that the actual question from which the CBC’s 60% figure is derived does not specifically ask about soldiers or the military. Instead, it asks if the presence of foreign countries on Afghan soil is a good thing; 60% think that yes, it is. But foreign countries is not the same as foreign troops. As mentioned, Afghanistan is the single largest recipient of Canadian development aid. The question conflates (deliberately?) military operations with health, education and development aid. The CBC should be ashamed of falsely reporting that the survey indicates that “60% of Afghans surveyed believe the presence of foreign troops has been good for their country.” It does no such thing. Environics appears to be guilty of a little chicanery, as well. They report that, “a plurality of Afghans say that foreign troops should remain ‘however long it takes to defeat the Taliban and restore order'”, a result jumped on and quoted by the media.

This is true… but the journalists and general public don’t seem to be aware that a “plurality” is not the same as a “majority.” In this case, only 43% reported that they want foreign troops to remain “however long it takes to defeat the Taliban and restore order”. That means that 57% (a true majority) did not give this response. Indeed, the Globe and Mail‘s headline was, “A Majority of Afghans Want Foreign Troops to Stay and Fight.”

This interpretation is by no means suggested by the published results of the Environics poll. The question appears to be broken down a little meaningfully, according to the Environics data which suggest that “foreign presence” is made up of: fighting the Taliban, reconstruction assistance, and training the army and police. In fact, a segment of the Environics summary completely unreported by the media reports that Afghans are only cursorily aware that Canadians are in fact engaged in “fighting the Taliban”. This begs the question, what then do they think Canadians are doing there? Clearly, the answer must be that most Afghans believe the Canadian presence is primarily to provide those non-military services in training and reconstruction. Given this belief, then, of what value –in terms of informing the appropriateness of the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan– is the poll’s conclusion that 60% of Afghans support our “presence”? The answer: there is no value. This study is a complete non-starter and a sham of a public opinion research poll. Thomas Walkom of The Toronto Star notes:

  • “First let us be clear about what the poll did not find. It did not find that a majority of Afghans want foreign troops to stay and fight. It did find that a majority of those polled approved of ‘the presence of foreign countries'”.
  • “[In the poll], India was rated more highly than Canadians… India’s main contribution there is not troops but goods and entrepreneurs.”
  • “In short, the vast majority of Afghans don’t want us to keep fighting in their country until, as Harper puts it, the job is done.”
  • “When Afghans were asked specifically about Canada, most were delightfully complimentary. But first they had to be reminded we were there.”