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

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.

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