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.