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

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.

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