Obama, Karzai and Zardari: Behind the Smiles

May 6, 2009 8:35am

See additional data at the end of this post on the corrosive impact of civilian casualties on Afghan attitudes toward the United States and its allies.

While we can imagine President Karzai and President Zardari will try to make nice at their meeting at the White House today, there’s no love lost between their people – at least from the Afghan side, where Pakistan is viewed with remarkably deep antipathy.

In our national ABC News/BBC/ARD poll in Afghanistan in January, 91 percent of Afghans held an unfavorable opinion of Pakistan – 65 percent, “very” unfavorable. Eighty-six percent said Pakistan is playing a negative role in Afghanistan. And 67 percent said they believe the Pakistan government is allowing the Taliban to operate within its borders – hardly popular, since nearly six in 10 Afghans called the Taliban the single greatest danger to their country.

Compare that to India, seen by many Afghans as a counterweight to Pakistan’s influence: Seventy-four percent of Afghans view India favorably and just 10 percent say it’s playing a negative role in their country.

We don’t find comparable measurements of what Pakistanis think of Afghanistan, but they have plenty else to worry about. Relevant and recent data are scarce, but in a Gallup Pakistan poll in December just 26 percent of Pakistanis were satisfied with the way democracy is working in their country, with unemployment and lack of money for food, housing or medical care the top personal complaints. (Gallup Pakistan is unrelated to Gallup in the United States.)

Back in October Zardari had a 19 percent job approval rating, 66 percent said the country’s leadership was taking Pakistan in the wrong direction and just 22 percent expressed confidence in “the honesty of elections.” That compares with, at the high end, 67 percent confidence in the military, and 81 percent in “religious organizations.”

Karzai’s been far more popular at home, but on the downswing: his 52 percent job approval rating in January was a new low, down 31 points from his peak, 83 percent, in 2005. Ratings of the national government, similarly, at 49 percent positive, were down from a high of 80 percent in 2005.

Our Afghan poll found support for the United States and its NATO allies likewise sharply down, amid widespread strife, a resurgent Taliban, struggling development, soaring corruption and broad complaints about food, fuel, power and prices. Favorable views of the United States have dived from 83 percent in 2005 to 47 percent; ratings of the U.S. performance in Afghanistan, from 68 percent positive in 2005 to 32 percent. Civilian casualties in U.S. or NATO/ISAF air strikes are a key complaint.

As for the view here at home, in our March ABC/Post poll Americans divided essentially evenly, 45-47 percent, on whether or not the United States is making significant progress in Afghanistan. Still, 56 percent saw the war there as “worth fighting,” up 6 points from February.

Fifty-three percent opposed negotiating with elements of the Taliban if they suspended hostilities; fewer, 41 percent, supported it. (In Afghanistan itself, 64 percent said they’d support negotiations with the Taliban if they first put down their arms.)

Americans, underscoring their antipathy toward the group, also said by 51-41 percent that defeating the Taliban should take precedence over efforts to promote economic development in Afghanistan. Democrats were far more apt than Republicans to favor negotiations and to focus on economic development. More independents sided with the predominantly Republican view.)

Back in our February poll, 64 percent of Americans supported Obama’s decision to send 17,000 more U.S. military forces to Afghanistan, with considerable bipartisanship for the deployment, reflecting a convergence of two forces: Republicans’ support for the war and Democrats’ support for Obama.

Obama’s best individual-issue ratings are in the international sphere, including, in our latest ABC/Post poll, 67 percent approval for handling international issues in general, and 63 percent for his work on the situation in Afghanistan. 

He, Karzai and Zardari should have plenty to talk about.

12:45 p.m. addendum: Hillary Clinton's statement of regret today for the latest civilian casualties in Afghanistan underscores the highly corrosive effect of such incidents – a key factor in sharply declining support for the United States and NATO in Afghanistan.

Per our January data:

-Seventy-seven percent of Afghans call such strikes unacceptable, saying the risk to civilians outweighs the value of these raids in fighting insurgents.

-Western forces take most of the blame for such casualties: Forty-one percent of Afghans chiefly blame U.S. or NATO/ISAF forces for poor targeting, vs. 28 percent who mainly blame anti-government insurgents for concealing themselves among civilians.

-More broadly, 36 percent mostly blame U.S., Afghan or NATO forces or the U.S. or Afghan governments for the violence that’s occurring in Afghanistan, up by 10 points from 2007. Fewer, 27 percent, now mainly blame the Taliban, down by 9 points.

Further:

–One in six Afghans report coalition bombardment in their area within the past year, with huge variation; it soars to nearly half in the Southwest and nearly four in 10 in the East. One in five reports civilian casualties caused by U.S. or NATO/ISAF forces, with similar regional variability.

-Among people who report civilian casualties in their area, support for the presence of U.S. forces drops to 47 percent, vs. 70 percent among those who report no such casualties. There's a similar division on the basis of bombing or shelling by U.S. or NATO/ISAF forces – those who report it are 24 points less likely to support the presence of Western forces.

-Similarly, the view that attacks on U.S. and NATO forces can be justified jumps to 41 percent among Afghans who report civilian casualties in their area in the past year, compared with 18 percent where no such casualties have occurred. It's again similar where bombing or shelling have occurred, casualties aside.

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