Views Improve Sharply in Afghanistan, Though Criticisms of the U.S. Stay High

ABC News/BBC/ARD National Survey of Afghanistan

ByABC News
January 11, 2010, 1:00 AM

Jan. 11, 2010 — -- Hopes for a brighter future have soared in Afghanistan, bolstered by a broad rally in support for the country's re-elected president, improved development efforts and economic gains. Blame on the United States and NATO for violence has eased – but their overall ratings remain weak.

In one key shift, the latest poll by ABC News, the BBC and ARD German TV finds that sharply more Afghans now see the Taliban as the main source of their country's strife, while many fewer blame the United States or its allies – significant progress in a central aim of the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

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Click here for charts on the results.

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Another, basic change is larger still: After steep declines in recent years there's been a 30-point advance in views that the country is headed in the right direction; 70 percent now say so, the most since 2005. Afghans' expectations that their own lives will be better a year from now have jumped by 20 points, to 71 percent, a new high. And there's been a 14-point rise in expectations that the next generation will have a better life, to 61 percent.

Many challenges remain. Complaints about official corruption are higher than ever. Views of the United States and NATO's performance remain poor, with six in 10 rating their work negatively. And accounts of local violence have held steady, with many Afghans still blaming allied forces for civilian casualties. All these raise the question of whether the overall improvements can hold as Hamid Karzai's honeymoon fades and the fighting continues.

There also are significant regional differences. Support for U.S. and NATO efforts are sharply lower in the South and East, where the fighting is heaviest. Local support for the Taliban rises to 27 percent on its home turf, in the country's Southwest, vs. 10 percent in the rest of the country. And views of the country's direction are markedly less bright in some high-conflict areas, such as Helmand, heart of the opium poppy trade.

Critical from the U.S. perspective is that, despite poor views of its performance, 68 percent of Afghans continue to support the presence of U.S. forces in their country – and nearly as many, 61 percent, favor the coming surge of Western troops initiated by President Obama. But support for the surge drops to 42 percent in the South and East; support for the presence of U.S. forces also drops in these regions, and support for attacks on U.S. and NATO forces, while sharply down overall, remains much higher in the restive South.

TURNAROUND – Nonetheless this poll finds turnarounds in several basic measures, a dramatic contrast from a year ago, when public attitudes grew much more negative amid broad violence and corruption, struggling development and political uncertainty.

Resolution of the country's disputed election is one factor in brighter hopes overall. Positive views of Karzai's performance as president have spiked by 19 points, to 71 percent, as he's asserted power for a second full term. Ratings of national institutions have joined along; approval of the Afghan Army is up by 13 points, with very broad confidence (83 percent) in its ability to provide security – potentially an important sign of national cohesion.

The Taliban, for its part, remains vastly unpopular; in addition to taking more blame for the country's strife it's increasingly seen as Afghanistan's greatest threat – 69 percent now say so, a new high. Ninety percent prefer the current government to the Taliban (up 8 points) and there's been a 16-point jump in belief the Taliban's grown weaker during the past year – obviously another of McChrystal's goals. This may stem in part from Pakistan's tougher approach, with a 14-point decline in suspicions it's harboring the Taliban.

Still, whatever their animosity toward the group, 65 percent favor a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, unchanged from last year. And this spikes to nearly three-quarters in the South and 91 percent in the East, the Taliban's strongest areas. One reason: Far fewer in the South and East believe the government and its allies will defeat the Taliban militarily – 18 and 24 percent think so, respectively, vs. 49 percent in the rest of the country.

This poll, the fifth in Afghanistan by ABC News and media partners since 2005, was conducted via face-to-face interviews with 1,534 randomly selected Afghans in all 34 of the country's provinces from Dec. 11-23, with field work by ACSOR, the Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research, in Kabul. See separate report for methodological details.

U.S./NATO EFFORTS – The main changes in views of the United States and NATO reflect diminished blame for their role in violence overall, and to a lesser extent for civilian casualties in particular – the latter a highly sensitive issue. McChrystal has focused on reducing major incidents with civilian casualties, winning praise from Afghan leaders, and the United Nations has reported that most such casualties are caused by the Taliban.

Overall, 42 percent of Afghans now blame the country's violence on the Taliban, up sharply from 27 percent a year ago. Fewer, 17 percent, blame the United States, NATO or the Afghan government or army, well down from 36 percent. While one in six still blames Kabul or the West for the country's strife – plenty to fuel hostility – the shift away is a large one.

Direct blame on the United States and NATO for civilian casualties also has eased, albeit less so. Afghans now divide about evenly, 36-35 percent, on whom they blame more for civilian casualties in air strikes – U.S. and NATO forces, for poor targeting, or anti-government fighters, for being among civilians. (The rest blame both sides equally.) Many do still blame the Western forces; nonetheless, this has eased from 41-28 percent a year ago. While hardly good now, it's better than it's been.