Views Improve Sharply in Afghanistan, Though Criticisms of the U.S. Stay High

Photo: Afghanistan, where things standABC News Photo Illustration

Hopes for a brighter future have soared in Afghanistan, bolstered by a broad rally in support for the country's re-elected president, improved development efforts and economic gains. Blame on the United States and NATO for violence has eased – but their overall ratings remain weak.

In one key shift, the latest poll by ABC News, the BBC and ARD German TV finds that sharply more Afghans now see the Taliban as the main source of their country's strife, while many fewer blame the United States or its allies – significant progress in a central aim of the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

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SLIDESHOW: ABC News/BBC/ARD National Survey of Afghanistan

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Another, basic change is larger still: After steep declines in recent years there's been a 30-point advance in views that the country is headed in the right direction; 70 percent now say so, the most since 2005. Afghans' expectations that their own lives will be better a year from now have jumped by 20 points, to 71 percent, a new high. And there's been a 14-point rise in expectations that the next generation will have a better life, to 61 percent.

SLIDESHOW: CHARTS: Afghanistan: Where Things Stand

Many challenges remain. Complaints about official corruption are higher than ever. Views of the United States and NATO's performance remain poor, with six in 10 rating their work negatively. And accounts of local violence have held steady, with many Afghans still blaming allied forces for civilian casualties. All these raise the question of whether the overall improvements can hold as Hamid Karzai's honeymoon fades and the fighting continues.

There also are significant regional differences. Support for U.S. and NATO efforts are sharply lower in the South and East, where the fighting is heaviest. Local support for the Taliban rises to 27 percent on its home turf, in the country's Southwest, vs. 10 percent in the rest of the country. And views of the country's direction are markedly less bright in some high-conflict areas, such as Helmand, heart of the opium poppy trade.

Critical from the U.S. perspective is that, despite poor views of its performance, 68 percent of Afghans continue to support the presence of U.S. forces in their country – and nearly as many, 61 percent, favor the coming surge of Western troops initiated by President Obama. But support for the surge drops to 42 percent in the South and East; support for the presence of U.S. forces also drops in these regions, and support for attacks on U.S. and NATO forces, while sharply down overall, remains much higher in the restive South.

TURNAROUND – Nonetheless this poll finds turnarounds in several basic measures, a dramatic contrast from a year ago, when public attitudes grew much more negative amid broad violence and corruption, struggling development and political uncertainty.

Resolution of the country's disputed election is one factor in brighter hopes overall. Positive views of Karzai's performance as president have spiked by 19 points, to 71 percent, as he's asserted power for a second full term. Ratings of national institutions have joined along; approval of the Afghan Army is up by 13 points, with very broad confidence (83 percent) in its ability to provide security – potentially an important sign of national cohesion.

The Taliban, for its part, remains vastly unpopular; in addition to taking more blame for the country's strife it's increasingly seen as Afghanistan's greatest threat – 69 percent now say so, a new high. Ninety percent prefer the current government to the Taliban (up 8 points) and there's been a 16-point jump in belief the Taliban's grown weaker during the past year – obviously another of McChrystal's goals. This may stem in part from Pakistan's tougher approach, with a 14-point decline in suspicions it's harboring the Taliban.

Still, whatever their animosity toward the group, 65 percent favor a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, unchanged from last year. And this spikes to nearly three-quarters in the South and 91 percent in the East, the Taliban's strongest areas. One reason: Far fewer in the South and East believe the government and its allies will defeat the Taliban militarily – 18 and 24 percent think so, respectively, vs. 49 percent in the rest of the country.

This poll, the fifth in Afghanistan by ABC News and media partners since 2005, was conducted via face-to-face interviews with 1,534 randomly selected Afghans in all 34 of the country's provinces from Dec. 11-23, with field work by ACSOR, the Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research, in Kabul. See separate report for methodological details.

U.S./NATO EFFORTS – The main changes in views of the United States and NATO reflect diminished blame for their role in violence overall, and to a lesser extent for civilian casualties in particular – the latter a highly sensitive issue. McChrystal has focused on reducing major incidents with civilian casualties, winning praise from Afghan leaders, and the United Nations has reported that most such casualties are caused by the Taliban.

Overall, 42 percent of Afghans now blame the country's violence on the Taliban, up sharply from 27 percent a year ago. Fewer, 17 percent, blame the United States, NATO or the Afghan government or army, well down from 36 percent. While one in six still blames Kabul or the West for the country's strife – plenty to fuel hostility – the shift away is a large one.

Direct blame on the United States and NATO for civilian casualties also has eased, albeit less so. Afghans now divide about evenly, 36-35 percent, on whom they blame more for civilian casualties in air strikes – U.S. and NATO forces, for poor targeting, or anti-government fighters, for being among civilians. (The rest blame both sides equally.) Many do still blame the Western forces; nonetheless, this has eased from 41-28 percent a year ago. While hardly good now, it's better than it's been.

Views of U.S., Taliban, Security, Corruption

Most Afghans also continue to call allied air strikes unacceptable – 66 percent, but down from 77 percent last year.

There is one conflicting result; more Afghans also say the United States and NATO are doing worse, not better, in avoiding civilian casualties, by 43-24 percent. This may reflect dismay over widely publicized individual incidents, such as the bombing of a pair of hijacked fuel tankers in September that killed scores of civilians in Kunduz province. It's another measure the allies want to move their way if their basic support is to rise.

BOTTOM LINES – Fundamentally, just 38 percent rate the work of the United States in Afghanistan positively – up 6 points in the past year, but far below its peak, 68 percent, in 2005. (NATO's ratings are as low, and flat.) Fifty-one percent have a favorable view of the United States overall – vastly below its high point, 83 percent, in 2005. And U.S. favorability drops to 35 percent in the East and 29 percent in the South (vs. 59 percent in the rest of the country) – again, plummeting where the United States is most actively engaged in combat.

While its performance is rated poorly, most Afghans nonetheless see a need for the United States' presence in Afghanistan – a view probably informed by very broad rejection of the likely alternative, the Taliban. As noted, more than two-thirds of Afghans support the presence of U.S. forces in their country, slightly up from last year although still below its peak. (Most Afghans last year opposed a troop increase in the abstract; the shift from those views to support for Obama's surge is mirrored in U.S. public opinion as well.)

Support for the planned increase in U.S. and NATO forces is accompanied by majority belief the United States will accomplish the goals set out by Obama – for example, training Afghan forces to take over security, strengthening the Kabul government, preventing the Taliban from retaking control, preventing al Qaeda from re-establishing a base of operation and reducing corruption. But fewer, ranging from 22 to 33 percent, are "very" confident these will happen.

The commitment expressed by the planned surge may be another factor bolstering public hopes. There are, in any case, other signs of improved views of the West: There's been a 14-point gain from last year, to 83 percent, in the view among Afghans that it was right for the United States to invade and overthrow the Taliban just more than eight years ago. And the number of Afghans who say attacking Western forces can be justified has dropped sharply, from 25 percent a year ago to 8 percent, a new low. (It jumps to 22 percent in the South – but that's half of what it was there a year ago.)

CHALLENGES – There clearly are many other remaining challenges for Afghanistan and its Western allies alike. In addition to their weak overall ratings and the issue of civilian casualties, 40 percent say U.S. or NATO forces have a strong presence in their area – up 6 points from a year ago, but well below its peak. And just under half, 48 percent, are confident in the ability of these Western forces to provide security and stability – again up a bit, but far below its level in 2006, 67 percent.

Internally, meanwhile, corruption is a very prominent threat to hopes for progress. Nearly all Afghans – 95 percent – now say official corruption is a problem in their area, up 23 points since 2007. Seventy-six percent say it's a big problem; both are new highs.

Outside their immediate area, 90 percent see official corruption as a problem at the provincial level, and 83 percent call it a problem in the national government in Kabul – both vast numbers – with nearly two-thirds saying it's a big problem at both these levels of government.

Security, naturally, remains a critical concern. Fewer than half of Afghans, 47 percent, rate their security from the Taliban and other armed groups positively, essentially unchanged from a year ago. And it's notably lower in the South and East, where the fighting has been most intense.

Experience of violence remains problematic, but at least has not worsened in the past year. A fifth of Afghans report civilians hurt or killed in their area in the past year as a result of U.S. or NATO action, a quarter as a result of action by anti-government forces. A quarter also report car bombs or suicide attacks; nearly as many, snipers or crossfire; 29 percent, kidnappings for ransom; and 16 percent, bombing or shelling by U.S. or NATO/ISAF forces. All are very similar to last year's levels. (ISAF is the International Security Assistance Force, the U.N.-mandated, NATO-led multinational force in Afghanistan.)

There are sharp regional variations, with greater violence reported particularly in the South; 45 percent there report car bombs and suicide attacks in the past year, and 37 percent say there've been sniper attacks and crossfire in their area. Reports of NATO/ISAF bombing or shelling soar to 60 percent in Helmand and 45 percent in neighboring Kandahar, the Taliban's home province.

HEARTS and MINDS – The poll shows again the challenge McChrystal and his forces face winning hearts and minds where the fighting is toughest, as well as the strong association between positive results on the ground and support for U.S. and NATO forces.

Strikingly, just 42 percent in the South and East support the presence of U.S. forces in their area, compared with 78 percent in the rest of the country. Positive ratings of the U.S. performance dive to 16 percent in the South and 28 percent in the East, vs. 45 percent in the rest of the country. And just 26 percent in these two regions are confident in the ability of U.S. and NATO forces to provide security, compared with 56 percent elsewhere.

Afghan Election, Economy, Living Conditions

More generally, support for the presence of U.S. and NATO forces is 18 points higher among people who rate their local security positively, 26 points higher where reports of violence are lower and also 26 points higher where there's no coalition bombing reported. Similarly, where the presence of U.S. and NATO forces is seen as strong, 67 percent report confidence in the ability of these forces to provide security, 73 percent rate their performance positively and fewer blame Kabul or the West for the country's violence.

BEHIND IT – Given the continued challenges, a fundamental question is what's behind the improvements in Afghans' attitudes about their country's direction and leadership. The answer appears to be a variety of elements rather than one silver bullet.

As noted, relief in the election's end is a strong factor; the promise of stability can be appealing, fears of civil unrest after the disputed election were not realized and Karzai's endorsement by several of his leading opponents may have carried weight.

Karzai may also be experiencing a typical winner's rally, often seen in U.S. elections; indeed, beyond presidential approval, Americans' views of the United States' direction improved after Obama's election – in still-challenging times – just as they've now soared in Afghanistan. A question is to what extent support may fade (as has Obama's), especially if Karzai's campaign promises are unmet.

ELECTION – On the Afghan election itself, this poll finds majority suspicion of fraud in voting and vote counting alike – 56 and 60 percent, respectively, think these occurred. But far fewer (three in 10) see it as widespread fraud; 82 percent express confidence that "a system of freely voting for leaders" will work in Afghanistan; and 75 percent say they're satisfied with the election's outcome. Karzai's favorability rating, in this hierarchical society, is a towering 82 percent.

Positive views of the election are a clear factor in Afghans' brighter hopes for the future; among those who say they're satisfied with the outcome, 78 percent say the country's headed in the right direction; among those who are dissatisfied this dives to 45 percent.

Positive views of the country's direction likewise are dramatically higher among people who are confident democracy can work in Afghanistan, as well as among those who rate Karzai's performance positively. Those who suspect widespread fraud, on the other hand, are considerably less sanguine about the country's direction overall.

Karzai, for his part, is not immune from the country's geographical divisions. His performance rating drops to 40 percent in Helmand vs. 72 percent in the rest of the country. And underscoring the impact of development, his rating is 18 points higher in areas where people give a positive rating to the availability of jobs and economic opportunity.

Another result on elections may not be one that Western governments would prefer: Forty-three percent of Afghans say their preferred form of government is an Islamic state, rather than a democracy (32 percent) or strongman rule (23 percent). Support for an Islamic state spikes to 56 percent in the East, bordering Pakistan's tribal areas. But elsewhere such views have changed; in Iraq, support for democracy ultimately soared after a series of successful elections.

ECONOMY/DEVELOPMENT – Economic and development advances are additional factors. After long delay, there are positive reports of development in this impoverished country. Fifty-five percent of Afghans now say they have electricity, up 15 points since 2007. From its low in 2007, there's been a 24-point gain in the number who rate their electrical supply positively – albeit just to 38 percent, indicating the continued need to develop power supply and delivery.

Fifty-six percent report new or rebuilt roads in their area in the past five years, up 21 points from 2007; the number who rate their local infrastructure positively has more than doubled since first measured in 2005. While access to medical care remains a problem, half report new or rebuilt health clinics, up 13 points from 2007. And, in a largely rural nation with heavy reliance on subsistence farming, positive ratings of support for agriculture – availability of seed, fertilizer and equipment – is up by 9 points in the past year, albeit just to 45 percent.

On the economy, while affordability of food and fuel remain significant problems, 45 percent of Afghans rate the national economy positively, up 12 points from a year ago. Fewer, 39 percent, rate their own financial situation positively, but that too is up, by 7 points. The availability of jobs and economic opportunities is still a challenge, rated positively by just four in 10, but that's up by 11 points in the past year.

Part of the improvement in economic attitudes may reflect aspirations; the Karzai government has announced a plan to raise teachers' salaries, encouraging some speculation that other public sector raises – army, police – may follow. Again, if they don't, positive views could be at risk.

In one sign of consumer advances – small in the grand scheme, but potentially powerful in its personal impact – the number of Afghans who report having a cell phone in their household has essentially doubled since 2005, from 31 percent then to 60 percent now.

SECURITY/LIVING CONDITIONS – There's also a continued sense that, whatever the problems, living conditions are better now than they were under the Taliban – 70 percent say so. Two-thirds also say the rights of women have improved; six in 10 report greater freedom to express political views. But fewer than half report better economic opportunities or security from crime and violence than in the Taliban days, underscoring these continued challenges.

Security, Opium, Women's Rights

Another result on security points the same way. In 2005, 72 percent of Afghans rated their personal security from crime and violence positively. A year ago that fell to 55 percent. Today it's still at 55 percent – stabilized, at least, but still well below its best, or where millions of Afghans clearly want it to be.

Afghans' better hopes for the future, as noted, could also reflect hopes that the renewed Western commitment will ultimately resolve their country's strife. Moreover, in addition to the U.S./NATO efforts, this poll find a 12-point rise in confidence in local commanders and their militia to provide security – a result that may reflect efforts by some local militia, called arbakai, to oppose the Taliban.

OPIUM – On another front, the poll documents a dramatic change in attitudes on the cultivation of opium poppy, particularly in Helmand province, the world's leading producer of the drug. A year ago 88 percent in Helmand called it acceptable to grow poppy, at least if there were no other way to earn a living. That's dropped sharply, to 59 percent, today – still a majority, but well down. On the other side, the number in Helmand who call it unacceptable to grow opium poppy has jumped from 12 percent then to 41 percent now.

The change in attitudes comports with findings of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which reported in September that cultivation of opium poppy in Afghanistan fell by 22 percent in 2009, led by a drop of one-third in Helmand. (Production of the drug itself was down by just 10 percent, because of more efficient extraction.) The U.N. credited political leadership, better enforcement and promotion of alternative crops.

The change is not limited to Helmand. In the next six top-producing provinces the number who call it acceptable to grow poppy fell from 58 percent a year ago to 36 percent now. It remained at its already much lower level, 29 percent, in the rest of the country.

WOMEN'S RIGHTS – Another social issue in Afghanistan is the role of women. On one hand, significant majorities of Afghans support the rights of women to vote and of girls to be educated (88 percent in both cases), to hold jobs outside the home (74 percent) and to hold government offices (68 percent).

But there's more of a division on another question: Afghans divide evenly on who should make the choice to wear the burka, the traditional full-body covering worn by some Muslim women – the woman herself (47 percent) or her father or husband (50 percent). Fifty-five percent of women say the woman should decide (rising to 62 percent of urban women); but 58 percent of men say it should be up to the husband or father.

Also, support for some women's roles is weaker than the overall results suggest; just 41 percent of Afghans "strongly" support women holding jobs outside the home and 38 percent strongly support women holding government office. (Voting and educating girls get much higher strong support.) Among men, just 33 percent strongly support women holding jobs or government office; perhaps surprisingly from a Western perspective, these also win strong support from just 50 and 43 percent of women, respectively.

City living is a big factor. Among urban women, 73 and 69 percent, respectively, are strongly in favor of women holding jobs and serving in government. It's 50 and 47 percent among urban men, then declines to 43 and 36 percent among rural women – and bottoms out at 29 percent strong support, on both questions, among rural men.

Eighty percent of Afghans live in rural areas.

HURDLES AHEAD – Beyond the issues of the day, Afghanistan faces basic hurdles of poverty, infrastructure and education. Nearly four in 10 in this survey were illiterate. Fifty-six percent reported no formal schooling whatsoever; just a quarter have more than a primary school education. Among those with an occupation, nearly half are farmers, farm laborers or other unskilled workers. Forty-four percent own a work animal, but just 13 percent a refrigerator. And nearly six in 10 report monthly incomes under $100.

Beyond the public's attitudes, these basic measures say much about the road ahead: Even beyond its current strife, Afghanistan's problems clearly will not be easily solved.

METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/BBC/ARD poll is based on in-person interviews with a random national sample of 1,534 Afghan adults from Dec. 11-23, 2009. The results have a 3-point error margin. Field work by ACSOR, the Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research in Kabul, a subsidiary of D3 Systems Inc. of Vienna, Va.

Click here for details on the survey methodology, here for charts on the results, here for photos from the field and here for a summary of all polls in ABC's ongoing "Where Things Stand" series in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Click here for PDF with charts and full questionnaire.