October 06, 2010

Own goals in Pakistan on afpak

A few days old, but my most recent article for the guys at afpak is up on their website.

"The international community uses force in Pakistan and Afghanistan as if there is no other option, when, in fact, there are other largely untried levers. A public opinion survey conducted by the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) shows that militancy has little organic support in the region al Qaeda has made its base, and that the United States' image there is not beyond repair."

I tend to be a bit cautious about surveys. In my experience, the questions asked, the identity of the questioner, the self image of those being questioned and a bundle of other unquantifiables can give you pretty much any result you want. The BBC Panorama documentary I worked on last year highlighting racism was made in response to comments by the head of a UK rights body that in the UK people are "increasingly comfortable with racial diversity". I'm not sure anyone asked the people who repeatedly attacked my co-reporter and I. Maybe they were asked but their idea of what constitutes "a racial background they are comfortable having live next door" didn't extend to two Muslim recent immigrants. Or maybe, the pollsters asked the people who lived a little up the road, where the houses were nicer, the pubs didn't have a weekly Friday night bloody punch up and the kids mostly went to school. Or maybe they asked people in central Bristol and ended up speaking to some of the brightest students in the country.

However, a good survey or poll is worth its weight in gold (and I mean when its printed out and bound up). The New America Foundation's recent public opinion survey for FATA is one such survey. No survey is going to give a foolproof picture of what everyone is thinking in any given area. But in a place like FATA you need to ask some pertinent questions that give an insight into the views that affect a volatile situation. The report does that brilliantly.

Another insightful and useful report was by I to I Research in the UK who launched their Afghan Futures study in the summer. I to I took on the seriously challenging task of looking at what would make Afghans think things were improving; a challenging enough quantifiable to measure within the usual confines of independent surveying without adding all the constraints of asking people questions like that in places where their answers might get them killed. A study worth looking at while I work up to giving it the full review its findings merit.

UPDATE 1: Oh, and as Abu Muqwama has noted, I managed to pay homage to my second most favourite American in the article. So check it out for him if nothing else.