Frustration With War, Problems in Daily Life Send Afghans' Support for U.S. Efforts Tumbling

ABC News/BBC/ARD National Survey of Afghanistan

ByABC News
February 4, 2009, 10:12 AM

Feb. 9, 2009 — -- 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.

Click here for PDF of analysis with charts and full questionnaire.

Click here for charts on the results.

Click here for photos from the field.

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.