Four years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghans express both vast support for the changes that have shaken their country and remarkable optimism for the future, despite the deep challenges they face in economic opportunity, security and basic services alike.
An ABC News poll in Afghanistan -- the first national survey there sponsored by a news organization -- underscores those challenges in a unique portrait of the lives of ordinary Afghans. Poverty is deep, medical care and other basic services lacking, and infrastructure minimal. Nearly six in 10 have no electricity in their homes, and just 3 percent have it around the clock. Seven in 10 Afghan adults have no more than an elementary education; half have no schooling whatsoever. Half have household incomes under $500 a year.
Public Attitudes in Afghanistan
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U.S.-Led Overthrow of Taliban
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Yet despite these and other deprivations, 77 percent of Afghans say their country is headed in the right direction -- compared with 30 percent in the vastly better-off United States. Ninety-one percent prefer the current Afghan government to the Taliban regime, and 87 percent call the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban good for their country. Osama bin Laden, for his part, is as unpopular as the Taliban; nine in 10 view him unfavorably.
Progress fuels these views: Despite the country's continued problems, 85 percent of Afghans say living conditions there are better now than they were under the Taliban. Eighty percent cite improved freedom to express political views. And 75 percent say their security from crime and violence has improved as well. After decades of oppression and war, many Afghans see a better life.
More can be done; most say each of these is better, but not "much" better, than under the Taliban. And in a fourth crucial area -- jobs and economic opportunity -- progress is badly lacking: In this basic building block, just 39 percent see improvement.
In a separate measure, Afghans by nearly 2-1, 64 percent to 34 percent, say their own household's financial situation is bad (most Americans, by contrast, say theirs is good.). Yet that economic discomfort has not produced political dissatisfaction: Ratings of President Hamid Karzai, the current government and the newly elected parliament are all high.
Better hopes for the future are a likely reason. This poll finds broad expectations -- expressed by two-thirds of Afghans -- that life overall will improve in the year ahead. That optimism, while encouraging, also carries the danger of discontent if those expectations go unmet.
This survey was conducted for ABC News by Charney Research of New York with fieldwork by the Afghan Center for Social and Opinion Research in Kabul. Trained Afghan researchers interviewed a randomly selected sample of 1,039 adults across the country.
Some results may raise particular concerns. One is that, despite broadly favorable views of the United States, three in 10 Afghans say attacks against U.S. forces can be justified. There are about 18,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with more than 250 killed to date -- including nearly twice as many in 2005 as in any previous year.
Acceptability of attacks on U.S. forces spikes among disaffected and socially conservative Afghans, who account for about 15 percent of the population. In this group, just 29 percent say such attacks cannot be justified, compared with 60 percent of all Afghans.
At the same time, even among all Afghans, 30 percent say such attacks can be justified. That may reflect social mores in a country where violence is not an uncommon means of settling disputes, and perhaps specific grievances in areas where administrative or legal remedies are lacking.
In another result that may give pause, one in four Afghans say there are circumstances in which it's acceptable to grow poppies for opium production, a trade that's soared since the Taliban were ousted. Acceptance of poppy farming -- if no alternative source of income is available -- reaches 41 percent in the highest opium-producing provinces as identified by the United Nations last year. And acceptability soars in the two provinces that historically have been the country's centers of poppy cultivation, Nangarhar in the East and Helmand in the West. (While cultivation in Nangarhar reportedly is down sharply this year, it appears that attitudes that tolerate it have not followed.)
Many fewer Afghans -- just five percent -- say poppy cultivation is acceptable in all cases; more say, rather, that it's acceptable only if no alternatives are available. That suggests that the opium trade may be vulnerable, to the extent other income-earning opportunities -- such as the cultivation of alternative crops -- can be provided in its place. But it won't be easy: The United Nations estimates that one in 10 Afghans is involved in cultivating opium poppies.
The survey also finds substantial suspicion of cheating in the recent parliamentary elections. Nearly half of Afghans, 46 percent, believe there was vote buying, intimidation of voters or cheating in the vote count in their area. Still, 77 percent are confident nonetheless that the parliament will work for the benefit of the people, although far fewer, 34 percent, are "very" confident that will be the case.
In terms of threats the country faces, most-cited is the Taliban, an insurgent group since it was ousted with the fall of Kandahar on Dec. 7, 2001. Forty-one percent call the Taliban the biggest danger to Afghanistan, 28 percent cite drug traffickers and 22 percent say it's local warlords. (The program to disarm those warlords enjoys vast popular support, detailed below.)
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The survey also finds broad majority support for women's rights in Afghan society, albeit, as in other readings, with more modest strength of commitment behind it. Nine in 10 Afghans support girls' education and women voting, three-quarters support women holding jobs and two-thirds support women holding government office -- remarkable in a country where the Taliban so thoroughly repressed such rights. Perhaps surprisingly, support for most of these is nearly as high among men as it is among women.
At the same time, while 89 percent of Afghans support women voting, fewer, 66 percent, strongly support this right. And only about four in 10 "strongly" support women taking jobs outside the home or holding government office. Even among Afghan women, fewer than half strongly support women working outside the home or holding government office. Personal experience may be a factor: Just 14 percent of Afghan women are employed, compared with about 60 percent of women in the United States.
There is equivocation on some of these issues among Afghan women themselves; fewer than half strongly support women working outside the home or holding government office. Personal experience may be a factor: Just 14 percent of Afghan women are employed, compared with about 60 percent of women in the United States.
There also are ethnic and regional differences, with support for women's rights much lower among Afghanistan's Pashtun population, Sunni Muslims who are dominant in the South and East of the country.
Also, support for women holding political office, in particular, is much weaker in rural as opposed to urban areas, and weakest among rural men.
Afghans give positive reports to several aspects of their daily lives: Eighty-three percent rate their overall living conditions positively, and ratings are nearly as high both for local schools and the availability of food. Just more than seven in 10 likewise say their security from crime and violence is good. In each of these, though, far fewer -- ranging from just 15 percent to 28 percent -- say things are "very" good.
Fewer overall, 59 percent, say clean water is readily available, and other basic conditions -- medical care, jobs and economic opportunity, roads and bridges and power supply -- are rated far worse.
There are significant differences in conditions across the country. Security is better in urban areas (of which the largest by far is Kabul, where about one in seven Afghan adults live); 40 percent in urban areas describe their security as "very good," compared with 24 percent in rural areas.
Both security and economic conditions are notably worse in the Southwest and East (where the Taliban have been active) than elsewhere. And services seem weakest in the Northwest, where fewer than two in 10 report having clean water, good medical care or good roads, bridges and other infrastructure. In Kabul, just 18 percent lack any electrical power; that soars to more than two-thirds in the North and East.
Security is especially critical in a country so long wracked by war. When the 77 percent of Afghans who say the country is headed in the right direction are asked in an open-ended question why they feel that way, three related answers dominate: security, peace or the end of war, and disarmament.
Mentions of freedom, democracy and reconstruction follow; women in particular mention freedom for women, who were repressed under the Taliban regime: Twenty percent of women (compared with 4 percent of men) cite freedom for women as a reason they say the country's going in the right direction.
Similarly, when asked the single most important priority for the country, 40 percent of Afghans say security from crime and violence remains paramount. That's followed fairly closely by creating jobs and economic opportunities, then much more distantly by the need for infrastructure improvements. When first- and second-highest priorities are combined, however, these rank about evenly. There's much to do.
Another expression of the importance of security comes in support for the country's "DDR" -- disarmament, demobilization and reintegration -- program. Largely Japanese-funded, the program is said to have disarmed 70,000 fighters under local warlords, offering them vocational training in exchange for their weapons. Not only do 95 percent of Afghans support the program, but 72 percent "strongly" support it, by far the highest level of strong support for any program, individual or entity measured in this survey.
Eighty-three percent of Afghans express a favorable opinion of the United States overall, similar to the 87 percent who call the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban a good thing. That compares to favorable ratings of a mere 8 percent for the Taliban, and 5 percent for bin Laden. People who are unhappy with their local living conditions are twice as likely to have an unfavorable opinion of the United States.
Support for the United States is less than full-throated. Far fewer, 24 percent, regard it "very" favorably. And while 68 percent rate the work of the United States in Afghanistan positively, that's well below the ratings given to Karzai, the United Nations or the present Afghan government (83 percent, 82 percent and 80 percent positive, respectively).
Still, an 83 percent favorable rating for the United States, and a 68 percent positive work performance rating, are remarkable -- in sharp contrast to negative views of the United States in many other Muslim nations. (Another contrast is Karzai's job rating -- 83 percent positive -- compared with President Bush's in the United States, where 39 percent of Americans approved in the last ABC News/Washington Post poll.)
Given the Afghan public's security concerns -- and distaste for the Taliban -- there is little demand for prompt U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Just 8 percent say the United States should leave now, and another 6 percent say it should withdraw within the next year. The most common answer by far: Sixty-five percent say U.S. forces should leave Afghanistan "only after security is restored."
Notable in this survey is the similarity of views between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the two doctrinal groups so sharply at odds in Iraq. As in most of the Arab world, Sunnis dominate in Afghanistan -- 85 percent of the population is Sunni (including nearly all members of the Pashtun and Tajik ethnic groups) while 15 percent is Shiite (including nearly all ethnic Hazaras).
There are differences: Thirty-two percent of Sunnis say attacks on U.S. forces can be justified, compared with 19 percent of the Shiite minority. And 51 percent of Shiites describe the Taliban (a Sunni group) as the biggest danger facing the country, compared with a (still high) 39 percent of Sunnis.
But few Sunnis or Shiites alike view the Taliban favorably (9 percent and 6 percent, respectively). Their ratings on improved conditions are similar, as are their expectations for the future and their views on Karzai, the current Afghan government, the United Nations, the United States, the "DDR" disarmament program and women's rights.
A simple accounting of household possessions tells volumes about life in Afghanistan. Barely one in 10 households has a refrigerator or a car. Three in 10 have a mobile phone; almost no one has a landline telephone. Nearly everyone has a radio, but barely four in 10 have a TV. About half own a work animal.
Farming is the main occupation; nearly a third of working Afghans are farmers or farm laborers. As befits the low levels of education, illiteracy is high, 42 percent.
The population is largely rural, with 79 percent of Afghans residing in small villages. And it's a young country, with a median age (calculated among adults only) of 32 years, compared with 44 in the United States.
This survey was conducted for ABC News by Charney Research of New York, with fieldwork by the Afghan Center for Social and Opinion Research in Kabul. Interviews were conducted in person, in Dari or Pashto, among a random national sample of 1,039 adults from Oct. 8-18, 2005. Sampling points were selected at random in 31 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, with households selected by random route/random interval procedures. The results have a 3.5-point error margin.