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

ABC News/BBC/ARD National Survey of Afghanistan

ByABC News
February 4, 2009, 1:59 PM

Dec. 3, 2007 — -- Frustrated by ongoing violence and uneven development, Afghans have grown sharply more critical of U.S. efforts in their country and in the beleaguered southwest, support for the Taliban, ousted from power six years ago, is on the rise.

Overall, 42 percent of Afghans rate U.S. efforts in Afghanistan positively, down steeply from 68 percent in 2005, and 57 percent last year. For the first time, this national ABC News/BBC/ARD survey finds that more than half of Afghans disapprove of U.S. efforts.

Afghans' confidence in the ability of U.S. and NATO forces to provide security also has dropped, from two-thirds a year ago to just over half now. And there's been a similar, 15-point decline in the number who say people in their area support these forces.

The problem is not the United States and NATO's alone: Ratings of the strength and effectiveness of the Afghan police, and their level of local support, also have declined. Meanwhile 42 percent of Afghans say the Taliban has gained strength in the past year -- far more than say it's weakened.

Many such views are worse in the Southwest, the main Taliban hotspot. There, nearly two-thirds rate U.S. efforts negatively, confidence in local authorities is down sharply -- and opposition to the Taliban has weakened substantially. Twenty-three percent in the Southwest say people in their area support the Taliban, triple what it was last year, and compared to just 8 percent nationally.

Further, a year ago 81 percent in the Southwest said the Taliban had "no significant support at all" in their area; now just 52 percent say so. Preference in the Southwest for the current government rather than the Taliban has declined from 90 percent then to 77 percent now. And in the single biggest change, just 45 percent in the Southwest now support the presence of NATO forces there -- dramatically down from 83 percent a year ago. Civilian casualties blamed on these forces is a prime complaint.

POSITIVES -- Not all trends are negative; many Afghans in this national poll express forbearance, and half retain optimism, in the face of the country's difficulties. And criticism of the United States is largely focused on its performance, not its presence. Seventy-one percent of Afghans support the United States' presence in Afghanistan -- and where the U.S. is seen as strongest, its approval ratings peak.

Despite some deterioration, most Afghans continue to see the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban as a good thing -- 76 percent, although down from 88 percent last year -- and to support U.S. forces remaining in their country. And 65 percent of Afghans still view the United States favorably overall, down from a peak of 83 percent in 2005 but still remarkable compared with America's image in most other Muslim countries.

This survey, the third in Afghanistan sponsored by ABC News and other media partners, marks the anniversary of the fall of the Taliban six years ago this week. It was conducted via face-to-face interviews with 1,377 Afghans in each of the country's 34 provinces.

CHALLENGES -- The results find a range of challenges: a resurgent Taliban, associated violence, still-deep economic difficulties and very different experiences across regions. Attitudes are far more negative in high-conflict areas, particularly the Southwest provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, but also in western Herat and other areas that have seen Taliban attacks. Views are far more positive in the more peaceful North.

Regardless of regional differences, violence is widespread. Thirty-seven percent of Afghans say car bombings or suicide attacks have occurred in their area, as many report civilians hurt or killed by Taliban or al Qaeda fighters and 34 percent report civilian casualties caused by U.S. or NATO forces. A quarter say such casualties have occurred within the past year.

These numbers spike in the embattled Southwest, where 60 percent report civilians killed or injured by U.S. or NATO forces, 55 percent report bombing or shelling by such forces, and as many, 55 percent, report civilian casualties at the hands of the Taliban, al Qaeda or foreign jihadi fighters. Reports of such violence are vastly lower in the North and Northeast.

SECURE/REBUILD -- The survey's results underscore the critical role of a strong presence, the provision of security and effective reconstruction in the country -- factors that may ultimately lead to success or failure in Afghanistan. Positive impressions of each of these are associated with positive views of the country's direction, its government and the U.S. and allied role there.

Overall, 63 percent of Afghans say reconstruction in their area has been effective (although that includes far fewer, 15 percent, who call it "very" effective). The contrast with attitudes in Iraq is remarkable; there just 23 percent call reconstruction effective.

It matters: Among Afghans who see reconstruction as very effective, 67 percent say their country's headed in the right direction overall; among those who say it's been ineffective, that drops to 40 percent. People who say reconstruction is going well, similarly, are 24 points more apt to rate the Afghan government positively and 24 points more apt to hold a favorable opinion of the United States.