Five years after the fall of the Taliban, public optimism has declined sharply across Afghanistan, pushed by a host of fresh difficulties: Worsening security, rising concerns about a resurgent Taliban, troubled development efforts, widespread perceptions of corruption and reduced faith in the government's effectiveness in facing these challenges.
The U.S.-led invasion remains highly popular, the Taliban intensely unpopular, and the current Afghan government retains broad support. Yet this extensive ABC News/BBC World Service survey makes clear the country's profound problems, including renewed Taliban activities five years after the fall of their last redoubt, Kandahar, on Dec. 7, 2001:
Sixty-four percent of Afghans report some Taliban activity in their own local area, including killings, bombings, torching of schools or government buildings and armed conflict with government or foreign troops. Security is worst -- rated negatively by 80 percent -- in the stricken southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.
One in six Afghans say people in their area provide Taliban fighters with food or money -- and that number jumps to more than a third in the northwest, nearly half in the country's southwest provinces overall, and two-thirds specifically in Helmand and Kandahar.
Most Afghans -- 57 percent -- now call the Taliban the single greatest danger to their country, up 16 points from the first ABC News poll in Afghanistan a year ago. Only in the eastern provinces does the Taliban have a rival threat, drug traffickers.
Views on the drug front also are not promising. Signaling frustration with the slow pace of development, there's been a jump in the acceptance of growing opium poppies, the country's illicit cash crop. Nationally, 40 percent now call it acceptable if there's no other way to earn a living, up sharply from 26 percent last year. And in the top-producing opium provinces, more -- a 59 percent majority -- endorse poppy cultivation.
Despite eradication efforts, Afghanistan is the world's top opium poppy producer -- and nearly three-quarters of Afghans suspect the Taliban is protecting the trade.
Compared to a year ago, this poll finds deterioration in a range of public perceptions about the country's condition: a 22-point drop in views that it's headed in the right direction, a 17-point drop in the belief security has improved since the Taliban was in control and a 13-point drop in personal optimism for the year ahead. Trust in parliament is down 18 points while approval of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is down 15 points.
Some of these ratings, to be fair, have fallen from probably unsustainable levels. Sixty-eight percent approve of Karzai's work -- down from 83 percent last year, but still a level most national leaders would envy. Fifty-nine percent think the parliament is working for the benefit of the Afghan people, down from 77 percent but still far better than American approval ratings of the U.S. Congress.
Others are lower: Positive ratings of the performance of the United States in Afghanistan are down by 11 points, to 57 percent. Provincial governments are rated positively by 52 percent.
Perhaps most troubling in terms of governance: 78 percent of Afghans call official corruption a problem in the area where they live -- and 55 percent call it a big problem. One in four report that they or someone they know has had to pay a bribe to receive proper service from the government -- and that jumps to four in 10 in the country's northwest, where corruption is particularly severe.
There are, however, positives. Most Afghans say the government and local police alike have a strong presence in their area. Few say so of the Taliban -- and trust the current authorities, at least somewhat, to provide security. Again, likely reflecting the Taliban's broad unpopularity, big majorities continue to call the U.S.-led invasion a good thing for their country (88 percent), to express a favorable opinion of the United States (74 percent) and to prefer the current Afghan government to Taliban rule (88 percent).
Indeed eight in 10 Afghans support the presence of U.S., British and other international forces on their soil; that compares with 5 percent support for Taliban fighters and 11 percent for jihadi fighters from other countries. In the south, however, just three in 10 say international forces have a strong presence. And while just a quarter overall say U.S. forces should leave within a year, that is up from 14 percent a year ago.
Fifty-five percent of Afghans still say the country's going in the right direction, but that number is down sharply from 77 percent last year. Fifty-four percent remain optimistic rather than pessimistic about their future, but that's down from 67 percent. Hopes for a better future can provide an important element of social stability; a decline is cause for concern.
In one sense, optimism at all is remarkable in Afghanistan, given the security problems and deep poverty. (Barely two in 10 Afghans, for example, live in homes that receive electricity from power lines.) But, again, views of today's conditions are balanced by recollections of the repressive Taliban regime. Whatever the current problems, 74 percent say their living conditions today are better now than they were under the Taliban.
That rating, however, is 11 points lower now than it was a year ago.While 58 percent say security, in particular, is better than it was under the Taliban, that's down from 75 percent a year ago. And fewer than half -- 43 percent, about the same as last year -- say the availability of jobs and economic opportunity has improved.
On the local level, 69 percent say their own security from crime and violence is good, but just two in 10 say it's "very good." Worst-rated locally are other basics like the availability of medical care, economic opportunities, the condition of infrastructure such as roads and bridges, and electrical supply. Fewer than half -- in most cases much less than half -- rate any of these as adequate.
Views differ sharply across regional lines, with attitudes most negative overall -- and security concerns greatest -- in the south, where the Taliban is strongest (particularly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the southwest), and in the northwest provinces, where its activity has been on the rise.
Majorities in the northwest and southwest call security the biggest problem in Afghanistan. That drops to a third in Kabul, three in 10 in central Afghanistan and about two in 10 in the north and east.
Just a third in the southwest, and one in four in the northwest, say security is better now than under the Taliban, compared with majorities elsewhere. And just a third in the southwest say security in their area is good, compared with broad majorities elsewhere. (Indeed, two southwest provinces, Uruzgan and Zabul, were excluded from the sample because of security concerns. Both are sparsely populated: Zabul is home to an estimated 1.2 percent of the country's population; Uruzgan, 1.1 percent.)
Life is especially difficult in Helmand and Kandahar. A year ago, 78 percent in these two provinces said things were going in the right direction; today, just 43 percent still say so, a precipitous 35-point drop. Not only do eight in 10 there rate their security as bad, but six in 10 say it's worse now than it was under the Taliban.
Insecurity coincides with a relative lack of government or international troop presence in these regions. The Karzai government's presence is viewed as weakest in the south (47 percent call it weak there), northwest (43 percent) and east (40 percent). Similarly, U.S. or other international forces are perceived as weakest in the south (68 percent weak) and northwest (52 percent).
But, especially in the south, negative ratings are not limited to security. Availability of medical care ranges from seven in 10 in Kabul to just 37 percent in the south. Positive local school ratings range from nine in 10 in Kabul down to 44 percent in the southwest.
And relatively few in the northwest or south anticipate things will get better soon. Just 35 percent in the northwest and 39 percent in the south expect things in their life to be better in a year; it bottoms out at 27 percent in a group of provinces from the southeast to the Kabul border. By contrast, about seven in 10 are optimistic in Kabul itself, and eight in 10 in the northern provinces.
Widespread corruption may be one factor causing dour views in the northwest, where corruption is called a big problem more than in any other region. Nearly nine in 10 -- 88 percent -- in the northwest call corruption a big problem in their area. As noted, more than four in 10 in the northwest know someone who's had to bribe a government official.
The number of Afghans who say the country's going in the right direction ranges from 71 percent in the central region to 51 percent in the south. But the decline in this measure from last year is not limited to the highest-conflict areas; it's down sharply in Kabul, the north and the east as well as in the south.
While Taliban activities are broadly felt, it's far from a strong or popular movement. Just 7 percent of Afghans call the Taliban a strong presence in their area, and 6 percent say it has substantial local support.
Intensity of sentiment is strongly against the Taliban as well. Not only do 89 percent view it unfavorably overall, but 76 percent rate it "very" unfavorably. (Osama bin Laden is even more unpopular.) And not only do 93 percent doubt the Taliban's ability to provide security, but 84 percent have no confidence in it at all. Seventy-four percent say it has no presence in their area whatsoever.
Still, 24 percent, one in four Afghans, say the Taliban has some presence in their area when those who say it has a "fairly weak" presence are included. And when "fairly weak" support is included, 19 percent say the Taliban has at least some local support.
In Helmand and Kandahar, far more -- 22 percent -- report a strong Taliban presence, and nearly two-thirds report at least some Taliban presence, even if a fairly weak one. Again, this presence is not popular. Even in Helmand and Kandahar, just 7 percent say that they themselves support the Taliban, and 9 percent say others in the area support it.
Violence may well be one reason. About six in 10 Afghans in Helmand and Kandahar say there have been Taliban bombings, killings and the delivery of threatening "night letters" in their area; seven in 10 say the Taliban has burned buildings; more than eight in 10 report fighting; and two-thirds say people in their area have given the Taliban food or money.
Nationally, individual mentions include burning schools or buildings, 45 percent; nearby fighting, also 45 percent; bombings, 43 percent; and Taliban-inspired murders, 42 percent. Sixty-four percent report any one or more of the total items listed.
Support for the Taliban is highest in a group of six provinces in the southeast of the country, from Paktika and Khost on the Pakistan border up to Paktia and in to Ghazni, Logar and Wardak. There, while just 10 percent say they themselves support the Taliban, 22 percent say others in the area support it at least fairly strongly, and 45 percent give it some support, even if "fairly weak."
Afghans give a range of reasons why some people in their area support the Taliban -- for example, as a religious duty (23 percent), because they agree with its goals (14 percent) or because they were forced to (12 percent). But the largest share, 30 percent, give another reason: People who support the Taliban, they say, think it can improve security. In Helmand and Kandahar, that rises to 46 percent.
Some Afghans are squeezed between Taliban on one side and local commanders -- often described as warlords -- on the other. Twenty-eight percent call local commanders a strong presence in their area, and two in 10 say these forces have significant local support (both levels are higher in rural areas).
At the same time, the number of Afghans who call local warlords the country's biggest danger has subsided from 22 percent last year to 9 percent now, as concern about the Taliban has risen.
Nearly six in 10 Afghans (57 percent) say U.S., NATO or United Nations ISAF forces have a strong presence in their area, considerably more than they claim about the Taliban or local commanders. But the strong presence of international forces ranges from 83 percent in the north to just 29 percent in the south. Confidence in these international forces to provide security, 67 percent overall, likewise ranges widely, from 83 percent in the north to 47 percent in the south.
Seven in 10 say the central government has a strong presence in their area, again with a wide range, from 84 percent in Kabul and the north down to 57 percent in the northwest and 53 percent in the south. Eight in 10 nationally are confident in the central government to provide security, but this ranges as low as 55 percent in the south.
Still, two-thirds in the south, and 78 percent nationally, say the central government enjoys substantial support in their area. But, given the alternatives, that could be as much an expression of hope as an evaluation of the government's performance. Indeed, far fewer nationally, 28 percent, say the government has "very strong" support in their area.
People who live in areas where the government, police or international forces are very strong are anywhere from 15 to 30 points more likely to express positive views of the country's direction, their living conditions and their future over the next year. That could be an endorsement of these institutions, but it also could just reflect that where they're strong, there's less conflict.
Fifty-five percent say U.S. forces should remain, not on a specific timetable, but until security in the country has been achieved. That's down from 65 percent last year; as noted, there's been a 10-point increase in the number who want the U.S. to withdraw within the next year.
Desire for U.S. forces to stay in place until security is restored is highest, at nearly seven in 10, in the capital, Kabul; it drops dramatically, to four in 10, in the east and northeast.
Seven in 10 or more Afghans say they're "grateful" rather than "unhappy" with the presence of American, British and Canadian soldiers in the country. Perhaps in reaction to increased violence, there's been a drop in belief that attacks on U.S. forces can be justified -- 13 percent say so, down from 30 percent last year. (The number who say such attacks can be justified soars, to 51 percent, among the one in 10 who say the United States was wrong to invade.)
There is very broad opposition to other kinds of attacks: Majorities from 94 to 97 percent say attacking government officials, police, schools, teachers and other civilians cannot be justified. Eighty-nine percent say there can be no justification for suicide bombings.
Politically disaffected Afghans -- the one in eight who think the country's going in the wrong direction and lack confidence in its government -- are much more likely than others to think attacks against U.S. forces can be justified; 35 percent say so. They're also much less likely to say the U.S.-led invasion was a good thing (though most still do), to support the continued presence of U.S. forces or to view the United States favorably.
The politically disaffected are much less apt than others to see the Taliban as the country's biggest danger -- 28 percent do, compared with 57 percent among all Afghans. Nonetheless, even in this group, just 14 percent say they themselves support the presence of Taliban fighters in the country, compared with 5 percent among all Afghans.
Seventy-nine percent of Afghans say women's rights are better now than under the Taliban, and seven in 10, men and women alike, rate the state of women's rights in their area positively. But that does not mean Western standards hold sway. Most Afghans balk at women holding supervisory work positions, and most favor arranged marriages.
Six in 10, including nearly as many women as men, call it unacceptable for women to hold jobs in which they supervise men. And six in 10 endorse the practice of arranged marriages, in which the woman is told whom she must marry and when. Afghan women are even more apt than men to call arranged marriages an acceptable practice, 67 percent to 54 percent.
Afghans overwhelmingly reject hitting or beating women, an issue that's received some news coverage. Nine in 10 call this unacceptable.
In addition to regional differences, there are big gaps between urban and rural Afghans. In the area of women's rights, for example, 85 percent in urban areas say they're good; that falls to 68 percent of rural residents (again, about equal numbers of women and men alike).
Other progress, to the extent it's occurred, also has been uneven. Local medical services are rated positively by 71 percent of urban residents, up from 54 percent last year -- but there's been essentially no change among the nearly 80 percent of Afghans who live in rural areas. Ratings of infrastructure are up, likewise, among the urban minority, but less so in rural areas. Conversely, ratings of electrical supply are up modestly among rural Afghans, apparently thanks to the increased provision of generators. Among city dwellers, however, electricity complaints have slightly worsened.
Attitudinally, urban residents are more distressed politically -- just 45 percent say the country's going in the right direction, compared to 58 percent in rural areas.
Economy and Demographics
On top of their other woes, there's been a 10-point drop in the number of Afghans who say the economy's in good shape -- now at 31 percent. And just 34 percent give a positive rating to the availability of jobs and economic opportunity where they live, unchanged from last year.
There have been some development gains. While just 31 percent rate the local roads, bridges and infrastructure positively, that's up somewhat from 24 percent last year. And 34 percent report owning an electric generator, well up from 20 percent last year.
Indeed, the provision of at least some power is a major accomplishment. While 41 percent of Afghans report having no electrical power whatsoever (rising to 52 percent in rural areas), that's down from 58 percent last year. But even this pace is grating: Most power is from generators -- just two in 10 get it from power lines -- and of all local services, power supply continues to be the single biggest complaint. Just 21 percent rate theirs as good.
There's also been little advance in the presence of household appliances or other goods in the past year. Just one in 100 Afghans has a land line telephone; 38 percent live in a household with a mobile phone, but a wide majority remains phone-free.
Urban/rural divides mark these: Eight in 10 city-dwellers have a mobile phone, compared with 27 percent in rural areas. Ninety-six percent of city residents have a television, compared with 32 percent in rural areas. In urban areas, 52 percent own a refrigerator; in rural areas (again, home to eight in 10 Afghans) that dives to six percent.
Just 13 percent of Afghan households have a car, while 43 percent own a work animal.
The median age (among adults only) is 32, compared with 44 in the United States. Four in 10 Afghans are illiterate, 47 percent have had no formal education whatsoever, barely over four in 10 have completed primary school, just 18 percent are high school graduates and a bare 3 percent have had a university education.
Leading occupations among the employed are skilled workers or artisans (23 percent of those who are working), farmers (20 percent) and laborers (15 percent), with an additional 14 percent identifying themselves as managers. Evidencing the deep poverty in which Afghans live, nearly three-quarters report monthly household incomes of fewer than 12,000 Afghanis -- the equivalent of $244, or less.
Afghanistan is divided by ethnic or tribal groups: About four in 10 are Pashtuns, concentrated in the east and south, a bit fewer are Tajiks, mostly in the center and north, and just over one in 10 are Hazaras, in the central Hazarjat region. Pashtuns dominate the Taliban. Indeed, 18 percent of Pashtuns express a favorable view of the Taliban, compared with 4 percent of other Afghans.
Far fewer Pashtuns describe the Taliban as the country's greatest danger -- 46 percent, compared with 74 percent of Hazaras and 61 percent of Tajiks. Pashtuns also are more conservative socially -- seven in 10 call it unacceptable for women to supervise men at work -- and less optimistic than other Afghans.
Afghanistan is not driven by the Sunni/Shiite sectarian divisions seen in Iraq. One difference is that Afghanistan's population is more homogenous -- 87 percent Sunni, 12 percent Shiite. Shiites, naturally, express greater concern about the Taliban, a fundamentalist Sunni movement. Shiites are 22 points more likely than Afghan Sunnis to call the Taliban the country's biggest threat -- and concomitantly 26 points more apt to call the U.S.-led invasion that overthrew the Taliban five years ago a "very good" thing for the country.
This survey was conducted for ABC News and the BBC World Service by Charney Research of New York, with field work 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 1,036 Afghan adults from Oct. 14-19, 2006. The results have a 3.5-point error margin.
For details about the methodology, click here.
For a pdf version of the report with full questionnaire and results, click here.
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