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

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.

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