POLL: Afghans’ Criticism of U.S. Efforts Rises; In the Southwest, Taliban Support Grows

There's a flipside to these results -- the ill will that results from civilian casualties. Among Afghans who report shelling, bombing or civilian deaths in their area caused by U.S. or NATO forces, approval of U.S. efforts overall drops sharply, to 29 percent. Specifically in the Southwest, among people who report no civilian deaths or injuries caused by coalition forces, 64 percent say people in their area support these forces. Among those who report such casualties, that support is 30 points lower.

LIVING CONDITIONS -- Beyond the fighting are problematic living conditions in this underdeveloped nation. Recent sharp increases in food and fuel prices are a notable concern: With winter approaching, two-thirds of Afghans say they can't afford basic fuel supplies and 54 percent say they can't afford food. (Reflecting its lack of affordability, there's been a 17-point drop in the number who say food is readily available.)

Lack of jobs, electricity and medical care and poor roads, bridges and other infrastructure are other broad and persistent concerns. Nearly half the population is illiterate; six in 10 Afghans have household incomes under $100 a month.

Yet despite these and other difficulties, positive views remain, with a range of basic ratings largely stabilizing after worsening sharply from 2005 to 2006. Whatever their deprivations, 70 percent rate their overall living conditions positively, and 66 percent rate their own local security positively. (But in the Southwest, just 36 percent rate their security positively -- the fewest anywhere.)

Fifty-four percent say the country is going in the right direction -- well down from 77 percent in 2005, but about the same as last year. Sixty-three percent rate Hamid Karzai's work as president positively, vs. 68 percent a year ago and 83 percent in 2005.

Fifty percent of Afghans expect their lives to improve in the year ahead (down from two-thirds in 2005); half, likewise, expect their children's lives to be better than their own. While not broadly positive, compare that to Iraq, where in August only 29 percent expected their lives to improve, and just 33 percent saw their children as doing better.

But here, again, regional differences draw a splintered portrait. In Kandahar, the Taliban's hometown, just 18 percent see a better life for their children; it's a still-low 37 percent in next-door Helmand. That soars, by contrast, to three-quarters in Balkh and two-thirds in Kunduz, two Northern provinces.

This optimism also is higher among Afghanistan's ethnic, northern Tajiks than among its Pashtuns, who dominate in more troubled areas. Pashtuns, in turn, are much more apt to view the United States negatively and to endorse violence against U.S. and NATO forces.

THE TALIBAN -- The Taliban cast a growing shadow; while still deeply unpopular in most of the country, they are seen as advancing. As noted, a plurality of Afghans, 42 percent, say the movement has gained strength in the past year, far surpassing the 24 percent who think it's weakened.

That's hardly desired. Just 13 percent of Afghans express a favorable opinion of the Taliban, essentially the same as last year (and just 10 percent say it has a strong presence in their area, although more, 25 percent, say it has at least some presence). Afghans prefer their current government to the Taliban by 84-4 percent. (It was 91-1 in 2005.)

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