The United States, its NATO allies and the government of Hamid Karzai are losing not just ground in Afghanistan – but also the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
A new national public opinion poll in Afghanistan by ABC News, the BBC and ARD German TV finds that performance ratings and support levels for the Kabul government and its Western allies have plummeted from their peaks, particularly in the past year. Widespread strife, a resurgent Taliban, struggling development, soaring corruption and broad complaints about food, fuel, power and prices all play a role.
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The effects are remarkable: With expectations for security and economic development unmet, the number of Afghans who say their country is headed in the right direction has dived from 77 percent in 2005 to 40 percent now – fewer than half for the first time in these polls.
In 2005, moreover, 83 percent of Afghans expressed a favorable opinion of the United States – unheard of in a Muslim nation. Today just 47 percent still hold that view, down 36 points, accelerating with an 18-point drop in U.S. favorability this year alone. For the first time slightly more Afghans now see the United States unfavorably than favorably.
The number who say the United States has performed well in Afghanistan has been more than halved, from 68 percent in 2005 to 32 percent now. Ratings of NATO/ISAF forces are no better. Just 37 percent of Afghans now say most people in their area support Western forces; it was 67 percent in 2006. And 25 percent now say attacks on U.S. or NATO/ISAF forces can be justified, double the level, 13 percent, in 2006.
Nor does the election of Barack Obama hold much promise in the eyes of the Afghan public: While two in 10 think he'll make things better for their country, nearly as many think he'll make things worse. The rest either expect no change, or are waiting to see.
This survey is ABC's fourth in Afghanistan since 2005, part of its ongoing "Where Things Stand" series there and in Iraq. It was conducted in late December and early January via face-to-face interviews with a random national sample of 1,534 Afghan adults in all 34 of the country's provinces, with field work by the Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research in Kabul.
The survey comes at a critical time for the conflict in Afghanistan, as the United States begins nearly to double its deployment of troops there, adding as many as 30,000 to the 32,000 already present, and, under the new Obama administration, to rethink its troubled strategy. (Said Vice President Joe Biden: "We've inherited a real mess.")
While Afghans likely will welcome a new strategy, they're far cooler on new troops: Contrary to Washington's plans, just 18 percent say the number of U.S. and NATO/ISAF forces in Afghanistan should be increased. Far more, 44 percent, want the opposite – a decrease in the level of these forces. (ISAF stands for International Security Assistance Force, the U.N.-mandated, NATO-led multinational force in Afghanistan.)
SECURITY – The failures to date to hold ground and provide effective security are powerful factors in Afghan public opinion. Far fewer than in past years say Western forces have a strong presence in their area (34 percent, down from 57 percent in 2006), or – crucially – see them as effective in providing security (42 percent, down from 67 percent).
Amid widespread experience of warfare – gun battles, bombings and air strikes among them – the number of Afghans who rate their own security positively has dropped from 72 percent in 2005 to 55 percent today – and it goes far lower in high-conflict provinces. In the country's beleaguered Southwest (Helmand, Kandahar, Nimroz, Uruzgan and Zabul provinces) only 26 percent feel secure from crime and violence; in Helmand alone, just 14 percent feel safe.
Civilian casualties in U.S. or NATO/ISAF air strikes are a key complaint. Seventy-seven percent of Afghans call such strikes unacceptable, saying the risk to civilians outweighs the value of these raids in fighting insurgents. And Western forces take more of the blame for such casualties, a public relations advantage for anti-government forces: Forty-one percent of Afghans chiefly blame U.S. or NATO/ISAF forces for poor targeting, vs. 28 percent who mainly blame the insurgents for concealing themselves among civilians.
Given that view, more Afghans now blame the country's strife on the United States and its allies than on the Taliban. Thirty-six percent mostly blame U.S., Afghan or NATO forces or the U.S. or Afghan governments for the violence that's occurring, up by 10 points from 2007. Fewer, 27 percent, now mainly blame the Taliban, down by 9 points.
Afghanistan's central and provincial governments have a stronger presence and greater public confidence than Western forces – but they, too, have suffered. In 2005, still celebrating the Taliban's ouster in November 2001, 83 percent of Afghans approved of the work of President Karzai and 80 percent approved of the national government overall. Today those have slid to 52 and 49 percent respectively. (Karzai's expected to run for re-election in August.) And fewer than half rate their provincial government positively.
IMPACT – Crucially, the Kabul government and its Western allies do better where they are seen as having a strong presence and as being effective in providing security, as well as in areas where reported conflict is lower. Where security is weaker or these groups have less presence, their ratings decline sharply.
For example, among people who say the central government, the provincial government or Western forces have a strong local presence, 58, 57 and 46 percent, respectively, approve of their performance. Where the presence of these entities is seen as weak, however, their respective approval ratings drop to just 31, 22 and 25 percent.
Similarly, Afghans who feel secure are 19 points more apt to say the country's headed in the right direction, as well as 13 to 17 points more likely to express confidence in the national and provincial governments, the Afghan police and U.S./NATO forces.
The flip side – the association of conflict with opposition to Western forces – is especially striking. Among people who report bombing or shelling by U.S. or NATO/ISAF forces in their area, support for the presence of U.S. forces drops to 46 percent, vs. 70 percent among those who report no such activity.
There's a similar pattern in support for retribution against U.S. or NATO/ISAF forces. While 25 percent of all Afghans now say violence against such forces can be justified, that jumps to 44 percent among those who report air strikes or shelling in their area. It's a similar 45 percent in the South and East, where the fighting has been most intense.
By contrast, support for attacks on Western forces drops to 18 percent where no bombing or shelling has occurred, and to 15 percent in the provinces where conflict has been lowest, roughly the northern half of the country.
VIOLENCE LEVELS – All told, one in six Afghans report coalition bombardment in their area within the past year, but with huge variation; it soars to nearly half in the Southwest and nearly four in 10 in the East.
Among other violence, a quarter report car bombs or suicide attacks in their area in the past year; three in 10, kidnappings for ransom. Thirty-eight percent report civilian casualties in the past year, attributed about equally either to U.S./NATO/ISAF or to anti-government forces, and somewhat less so to Afghan government forces.
Given these and their many other challenges, the number of Afghans who expect their lives to improve in the year ahead has dropped from a peak of 67 percent in 2005 to 51 percent today. And just under half, 47 percent, expect a better life for their children, hardly a ringing endorsement of the country's prospects.
TALIBAN – The resurgence of the Taliban is a key element of the public's alarm: Fifty-eight percent of Afghans see the Taliban as the biggest danger to the country, measured against local warlords, drug traffickers or the U.S. or Afghan governments. And 43 percent say the Taliban have grown stronger in the past year, well more than the 24 percent who think the movement has weakened.
Notably more in the South – 55 percent – say the Taliban have grown stronger. And in Helmand province, the heart of the opium trade that's said to finance the group, 63 percent say the Taliban have gained strength. In the more peaceful North, the opposite: Slightly more there say the Taliban have weakened.
The Taliban are far from achieving popular support – across a range of measures the group still is shunned by large majorities of Afghans. But 22 percent say it has at least some support in their area, and this soars to 57 percent in the Southwest overall, including 64 percent in its home base, Kandahar. That's up sharply from 44 percent in the Southwest last year, and up from 41 percent in Kandahar.
There's also evidence the Taliban have made some progress rebranding themselves. Twenty-four percent of Afghans say it's their impression the Taliban "have changed and become more moderate" – far from a majority, but one in four. And that view spikes in some provinces – most notably, to 58 percent in Wardak and 53 percent in Nangarhar, bordering Kabul to the west and east, respectively. People who see the Taliban as more moderate are 20 points more likely to favor negotiating with the movement, and less supportive of the U.S. and NATO/ISAF presence in Afghanistan.
Another result indicates a possible change in tactics. Twenty-six percent of Afghans report bombings by the Taliban in their area; that's down from 43 percent in 2006. Thirty-two percent report murders by the Taliban – down by 10 points from 2006 (though level with 2007).
Reports of Taliban engagements with government or foreign troops is down by 12 points (with enormous regional variability); arson attacks on school or government buildings, down by 18 points from the 2006 peak. Some of this, however, could relate to lessened activity in the midst of winter; the 2006 and 2007 polls were conducted in late fall, while this poll was conducted in late December and early January.
In any case there's been a significant drop in the number of Afghans who call the U.S.-led invasion and overthrow of the Taliban a good thing for their country – 69 percent, still a substantial majority but well below the 88 percent who said so in 2006. And while 63 percent still support the presence of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, that's down from 78 percent in 2006, with "strong" support for the U.S. presence down from 30 percent then to just 12 percent now. It's similar now for NATO/ISAF forces.
CONDITIONS – Afghanistan's problems range far beyond security in general and the Taliban in particular. For one, official corruption has swelled; 85 percent of Afghans call it a problem and 63 percent call it a big problem – the latter up from 45 percent last year. And half say corruption has increased in the past year, more than twice as many as say it's subsided.
It takes a toll: Ratings for the Afghan government and Karzai personally run anywhere from 9 to 15 points lower among people who call corruption a major problem, compared with those who call it a less serious concern.
The cost of corruption may be a particular burden in a country so poor, its population strikingly ill-educated, with extraordinarily difficult living conditions. Fifty-five percent have no electricity whatsoever in their homes; just one in 20 has power all day. More than half report incomes less than the equivalent of $100 a month; 93 percent, under $300. Fifty-nine percent have no formal education. Forty-eight percent cannot read.
The affordability of food is worsening: Sixty-three percent of Afghans say they cannot afford to buy all or even "some but not all" of the food they need, up 9 points from late 2007. And while 63 percent report adequate availability of food (regardless of affordability), that's down from 82 percent in 2006.
Fuel prices, likewise, are a major problem; 68 percent say they can't afford the fuel they need for cooking or heat, a serious issue in the cold Afghan winter.
Other ratings of local conditions tell a mixed story – some better, others worse – but some of the most basic measures have weakened. While 62 percent of Afghans rate their overall living conditions positively, that's declined steadily from 83 percent in 2005. Just 29 percent say there's a good supply of jobs or economic opportunities in their area. And the number who characterize their economic opportunities as "very bad" has doubled since 2006 – from 17 percent then to 33 percent now, one in three Afghans.
Electricity supply is steadily the single biggest complaint, along with economic opportunity and prices. Another poorly rated area is support for agriculture, such as the availability of seed, fertilizer and farm equipment, a central concern in a country that's three-quarters rural, with food prices so problematic.
In other areas, barely over half rate their access to medical care positively. Just under half positively rate their protection from the Taliban and other armed groups. While 61 percent say they can move about safely, that's down 10 points from 2007, and leaves four in 10 without such freedom of movement. And beyond food and fuel, in terms of prices overall, 58 percent report difficulty being able to afford things they want and need.
As noted, two chief forces are at play in deteriorating public sentiment in Afghanistan – security and development alike. Of these, security is a stronger factor in views of the United States and its NATO/ISAF allies. But development is about as strong as security in views of Karzai and the Afghan government. That suggests that for public sentiment to stabilize, both problems need to be addressed.
PROGRESS and AID – There has been significant progress in some areas. Seventy-two percent of Afghans say schools have been rebuilt or reopened in their area in the past five years (up 7 points from 2007); 53 percent, mosques; 47 percent, roads (up 12 points); 45 percent, health clinics (up 8 points); and 44 percent, police stations.
That work is reflected in some related attitudes: While fewer than half, 42 percent, say they have good roads, bridges and other infrastructure in their area, that's up sharply from 24 percent in 2005. Seventy-seven percent rate their local schools positively; 65 percent say they have clean water, up 12 points compared with 2007 and a new high. And 73 percent support the presence of foreign aid organizations in Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, given the continued challenges, fewer, 51 percent, say foreign aid groups are making progress in providing a better life for Afghans. And fewer still, 30 percent of Afghans, say foreign development aid has benefited them personally. There's also concern about its future: Nearly three-quarters are worried about the impact of the global financial crisis on aid to their country.
WAYS FORWARD – As noted, even with their approval ratings down, Afghanistan's own institutions have substantially greater public confidence than Western efforts. Fifty-nine percent think the Afghan government is making progress in providing a better life for Afghans, 75 percent express confidence in its ability to provide security and stability, as many express confidence in their local police, and nearly as many in their provincial government.
Anywhere from 63 to 66 percent report support for these entities among people in their area. And even though support for the central government has declined from 81 percent in 2007 to 65 percent now, these levels remain far higher than support for other players – U.S. or NATO/ISAF forces (as reported above, 37 percent); local commanders, 17 percent; foreign jihadis, 14 percent; the Taliban, 9 percent; and drug traffickers, 7 percent.
In another measure, 57 percent of Afghans rate the performance of the police positively, and ditto for the Afghan Army – not overwhelmingly positive measures, but the best out there. (Again as noted, just 32 rate the performance of the United States positively; 33 percent, NATO/ISAF forces.) Given Afghan institutions' support, it could prove more popular to put their imprint – rather than a Western face – on anti-insurgent efforts.
Another result, supporting this direction, backs up the notion of a national identity in Afghanistan, which some observers have questioned. Asked if they think of themselves more as Afghans, or more as members of their ethnic group (Pashtun and Tajik are the largest), most by far – 72 percent – say they're Afghans first.
Negotiations are another way forward – one with public support, but with preconditions. All told, 64 percent of Afghans say the government should negotiate a settlement with the Taliban in which they're allowed to hold political offices if they agree to stop fighting. But among those who support negotiations, most by far, seven in 10, say talks should occur only if the Taliban stop fighting first.
As for the likely outcome, expectations are fractured – but in a telling result, few Afghans, 33 percent, think the government, with foreign support, will defeat the Taliban outright. Another 33 percent expect a negotiated settlement; 19 percent, continued fighting. Just 8 percent foresee an outright Taliban victory.
NEIGHBORS and OTHERS – All this comes against the backdrop of marked discomfort with neighboring Pakistan. Reflecting long-tense relations, a near-unanimous 91 percent of Afghans have an unfavorable opinion of Pakistan (up 11 points from last year), 86 percent say Pakistan is playing a negative role in Afghanistan and 67 percent think Pakistan is allowing the Taliban to operate within its borders.
In sharp contrast, India's tensions with Pakistan make it broadly appealing in Afghanistan: Seventy-four percent of Afghans see India favorably. Fewer but a majority, 57 percent, also have a favorable view of Iran, Afghanistan's neighbor to the west.
Among Western countries, Germany's favorability is high, at 61 percent; its NATO/ISAF troops in Afghanistan have been in the North, away from the heaviest fighting. Favorable views of Great Britain are much lower, 39 percent; of the United States, as noted, they've dropped steadily to 47 percent, from a high of 83 percent in 2005.
OPIUM – Another problem, for Afghanistan and the world alike, is its production of opium poppy – and this poll finds continued support for such cultivation in the provinces where it occurs. (The United Nations estimates that Afghanistan produces 93 percent of the world's opium poppy, despite a 6 percent drop in production in 2008.)
In the country as a whole, 63 percent of Afghans call raising opium poppy "unacceptable in all cases." But in the six top-producing provinces that dives to 31 percent – and in Helmand, source of two-thirds of Afghanistan's opium poppy, to just 12 percent. Instead 66 percent in the top-producing provinces (Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Nimroz and Zabul in the Southwest, and Farah in the West), call it acceptable to cultivate the crop. That peaks at 88 percent in Helmand.
Most who say it's acceptable say that's the case only if there's no other way to earn a living, suggesting openness to alternatives. But the high prices for opium poppy may make alternatives a hard sell. Another challenge: Even nationally, few Afghans, just 13 percent, support spraying pesticides as a way to eradicate the crop.
WOMEN – In another area, this poll finds continued broad support for women's rights, which were denied under the Taliban. Ninety-two percent support girls' schools and 91 percent favor women voting – near-unanimous majorities. Fewer but still most support women working outside the home, 77 percent; or holding government office, 69 percent.
Support for women working or holding office is about 20 points lower among Pashtuns, who predominate in the South and East, than among less-conservative Tajiks. It's lower among men (especially rural men) than among women. And it's far lower in the South than in the rest of Afghanistan.
But tensions in the South extend even to this issue – in this case, between men and women. Just 41 percent of men there say women should be able to hold jobs outside the home; among women that jumps to 66 percent. And just 36 percent of men in the South favor women holding political office. Among women themselves, it's 60 percent.
REGIONS and POLICY – A striking factor across all these results is the wide range of concerns and priorities in regions and individual provinces of Afghanistan. While overall national trends are telling in terms of the broad course of public views, the differences by locale suggest policymakers will need flexible approaches.
In the country's Northeast, for example, the economy outstrips security as the main complaint by more than a 2-1 margin; in the South, it's security by 3-1. Clean water's an issue in the Northwest, far less so in the East. Medical care's much better-rated in the North than in the southern provinces. Eighty-five percent in Kabul have electricity – but in neighboring Wardak, just 13 percent. And the affordability of food is a particular problem in far-flung places such as Logar, Herat, and Balkh; far less so in some other, equally scattered, provinces.
Whatever the differences, the two main themes stand out: Security and the promise of redevelopment in creating economic opportunity. When Afghans are asked the single biggest problem facing their country overall, these two – security and the economy – run about evenly, and far outstrip all others.
METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/BBC/ARD poll is based on in-person interviews with a random national sample of 1,534 Afghan adults from Dec. 30, 2008 to Jan. 12, 2009. The results have a 2.5-point error margin. Field work by the Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research in Kabul, a subsidiary of D3 Systems Inc. of Vienna, Va.
Click here for details on the survey methodology, here for charts on the results, here for photos from the field and here for a summary of all polls in ABC's ongoing "Where Things Stand" series in Iraq and Afghanistan.