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That Poll in Marja and What It Means for Us

Sina Odugbemi's picture

This is an extended quote from the New York Times of February 19, 2010, from a story titled 'Afghan Push Went Beyond Traditional Military Goals':

"Before 10,000 troops marched through central Helmand Province to wrest control of a small Afghan town from a few hundred entrenched Taliban fighters, American officials did something more typical of political than military campaigns: they took some polls.

Perhaps no other feature of the offensive now under way in and around the town, Marja, speaks so clearly to its central characteristic: it is a campaign meant to shift perceptions as much as to alter the military balance, crush an enemy army or seize some vital crossroads.

The polling was aimed at understanding what local residents wanted; how they viewed local security; what they thought of the Americans, the Taliban and the foreign jihadis fighting for local control; and what might give them confidence in the central government in Kabul.

Whatever the limitations of this opinion sampling — what is the margin of error when there are whole neighborhoods where it is deadly to knock on doors? — what the commanders learned helped shape the entire campaign. Among other things, those living in the area still harbor some friendly feelings for the Americans, remembering how years ago they built dams in the region, and strongly favor an effort to oust the Taliban."

It is too early, of course, to say how events in Afghanistan will turn out-- although all men and women of goodwill pray for peace and stability there - -  one thing is clear from this report: the armed forces of the United States are turning out to be intelligent, adaptable technocracies. The lesson for technocrats in development is simple: if , as is almost always the case, what ordinary citizens or groups of them think or do will significantly affect development outcomes, you need to take public opinion seriously. If you don't, public opinion will turn round to bite you and make impossible the development results you seek. If soldiers are conducting opinion polls before launching an offensive, and they are using the results to shape strategy and tactics, why is the practice not commonplace in the design and implementation of reform programs and initiatives around the world?

 

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