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

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.

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