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.
The provision of security offers a similar payback: Positive ratings for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan are nearly twice as high among Afghans who say their local security is "very good" as among those who say it's bad. And the United States gets far better ratings from Afghans who say it has a "strong presence" in their area (73 percent positive), compared with those who say it has a less strong presence (52 percent positive) or a weak presence if any (among whom just 30 percent rate U.S. efforts positively).
Indeed, among Afghans who report U.S. or allied forces in their own area, 67 percent say those forces have done a good job.
All this means that winning support in the Afghan countryside requires being there -- a problem, in that just 50 percent of Afghans say U.S. or NATO forces have a strong presence in their area, down from 57 percent last year. Twice as many say such forces have no local presence at all as say they have a "very strong" presence. (There are about 26,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, compared with 162,000 in Iraq.)
There's a flipside to these results -- the ill will that results from civilian casualties. Among Afghans who report shelling, bombing or civilian deaths in their area caused by U.S. or NATO forces, approval of U.S. efforts overall drops sharply, to 29 percent. Specifically in the Southwest, among people who report no civilian deaths or injuries caused by coalition forces, 64 percent say people in their area support these forces. Among those who report such casualties, that support is 30 points lower.
LIVING CONDITIONS -- Beyond the fighting are problematic living conditions in this underdeveloped nation. Recent sharp increases in food and fuel prices are a notable concern: With winter approaching, two-thirds of Afghans say they can't afford basic fuel supplies and 54 percent say they can't afford food. (Reflecting its lack of affordability, there's been a 17-point drop in the number who say food is readily available.)
Lack of jobs, electricity and medical care and poor roads, bridges and other infrastructure are other broad and persistent concerns. Nearly half the population is illiterate; six in 10 Afghans have household incomes under $100 a month.
Yet despite these and other difficulties, positive views remain, with a range of basic ratings largely stabilizing after worsening sharply from 2005 to 2006. Whatever their deprivations, 70 percent rate their overall living conditions positively, and 66 percent rate their own local security positively. (But in the Southwest, just 36 percent rate their security positively -- the fewest anywhere.)
Fifty-four percent say the country is going in the right direction -- well down from 77 percent in 2005, but about the same as last year. Sixty-three percent rate Hamid Karzai's work as president positively, vs. 68 percent a year ago and 83 percent in 2005.
Fifty percent of Afghans expect their lives to improve in the year ahead (down from two-thirds in 2005); half, likewise, expect their children's lives to be better than their own. While not broadly positive, compare that to Iraq, where in August only 29 percent expected their lives to improve, and just 33 percent saw their children as doing better.
But here, again, regional differences draw a splintered portrait. In Kandahar, the Taliban's hometown, just 18 percent see a better life for their children; it's a still-low 37 percent in next-door Helmand. That soars, by contrast, to three-quarters in Balkh and two-thirds in Kunduz, two Northern provinces.
This optimism also is higher among Afghanistan's ethnic, northern Tajiks than among its Pashtuns, who dominate in more troubled areas. Pashtuns, in turn, are much more apt to view the United States negatively and to endorse violence against U.S. and NATO forces.
THE TALIBAN -- The Taliban cast a growing shadow; while still deeply unpopular in most of the country, they are seen as advancing. As noted, a plurality of Afghans, 42 percent, say the movement has gained strength in the past year, far surpassing the 24 percent who think it's weakened.
That's hardly desired. Just 13 percent of Afghans express a favorable opinion of the Taliban, essentially the same as last year (and just 10 percent say it has a strong presence in their area, although more, 25 percent, say it has at least some presence). Afghans prefer their current government to the Taliban by 84-4 percent. (It was 91-1 in 2005.)
Asked, in an open-ended question, the prime cause of the violence in their country, 36 percent of Afghans name the Taliban, and an additional 22 percent cite al Qaeda or foreign jihadi fighters. Nineteen percent cite either U.S. or NATO forces or the U.S. government.
Despite the Taliban's very negative reputation -- and partly linked to perceptions of its strength -- 60 percent of Afghans say the Karzai government should negotiate a settlement in which Taliban leaders would be allowed to hold political office in exchange for laying down their arms. Support for a settlement is 16 points higher among those who think the Taliban has grown stronger rather than weaker; and it peaks, at 88 percent, in its home base, Kandahar.
Karzai offered negotiations with the Taliban in September; the Taliban demanded foreign troops first leave the country, a condition Karzai refused.
THE SOUTHWEST -- While views of the Taliban are highly negative overall, in Kandahar, Helmand and surrounding provinces where Taliban activity has been greatest, there are changes -- not much overt sympathy for the Taliban, but lessened rejection.
In 2006, 57 percent in the Southwest called the Taliban the country's greatest threat; now it's 36 percent. Fifty percent in the Southwest say they strongly oppose the presence of the Taliban; that's down from 72 percent last year. There's been a 23-point increase in perceptions in this region that the Taliban has a strong local presence, and a concomitant 29-point decline in perceptions of a strong presence by the Afghan police.
Confidence in the ability of provincial governments in the Southwest to provide security is down by 20 points; confidence in the ability of the Taliban to provide security, while still much lower, is up by 19 points. As noted above, there's been a 29-point drop in the number who say the Taliban has "no significant support at all" in the area. And very unfavorable views of the Taliban have fallen from 62 percent last year to 44 percent now.
There's been no change in views of the strength of U.S. or NATO forces in the region. But as noted, there's been a huge 37-point drop in the number of people in the Southwest who report local support for NATO forces, as well as a 20-point drop in support for U.S. forces.
A year ago 78 percent in the Southwest called it a good thing for the United States to have overthrown the Taliban; today 59 percent say so. And positive ratings of overall living conditions have worsened by 20 points in the Southwest.
In another troubling result, favorable opinions of Osama bin Laden have increased in the Southwest from 1 percent last year to 15 percent now.
TALIBAN ACTIVITY -- While Taliban activity continues, there have been reported declines in three areas -- the burning of schools and government buildings (reported by 33 percent, vs. 45 percent last year), bombings (also now reported by 33 percent, compared with 43 percent) and individual killings (34 percent, vs. 42 percent).
There's been no meaningful change, however, in the number of Afghans who report clashes between Taliban and government or foreign forces in their area, 42 percent; it may be that fighting with these forces has distracted the Taliban from individual-level attacks. There also are, again, broad regional differences. In the Southwest, more, 60 percent, report fighting between Taliban and government forces; so do 63 percent in the Northwest, vs. just 23 percent in the North.
Afghans broadly suspect their neighbor Pakistan of a hand in all this: Sixty-nine percent of Afghans believe Pakistan, a past supporter of the Taliban, is allowing it to operate within Pakistani borders. Indeed just 19 percent of Afghans have a favorable opinion of Pakistan, almost as low as the Taliban itself (13 percent).
OPIUM -- The Taliban and development problems are far from Afghanistan's only difficulties. Opium is a vastly growing problem; the United Nations has reported a 34 percent increase in opium production in Afghanistan this year, making it "practically the exclusive supplier of the world's deadliest drug," with 93 percent of the market.
The center of this activity is the Southwest, where, the U.N. says, "opium cultivation has exploded to unprecedented levels," with just over half the country's crop produced in a single province, Helmand.
Overall, 36 percent of Afghans call it acceptable to grow opium poppy (most, "if there is no other way to earn a living"), about the same as last year. But the regional differences are vast. In the top six opium-producing provinces, 64 percent call it acceptable; in Helmand, it's 81 percent. Elsewhere far fewer, 27 percent, agree.
In Helmand and the other top-producing provinces, two-thirds or more of those who see poppy cultivation as acceptable say that's the case only if there's no other way to earn a living. That suggests people would accept an alternative -- if one were available.
What to do about the crop is a controversial issue in Afghanistan. The United States and others have urged Karzai to allow aerial spraying of herbicides, but he's been resistant, and so is the public. While 84 percent say the government should take measures to kill off poppy fields, far fewer, 13 percent, support spraying herbicides. Forty-five percent are outright opposed, and another quarter are unsure about it.
In the top-producing provinces, nearly three in 10 residents say the government should simply allow the crop to be grown. In the rest of the country, just 7 percent agree.
CORRUPTION -- Corruption is another problem: A quarter of Afghans say police or provincial government officials have demanded a bribe from them or someone they know. For police bribes, that rises to 35 percent among men, vs. 19 percent of women, and it peaks where the central government is seen as weakest.
Afghans are more apt to report demands for bribes by police and provincial authorities than by local militia leaders (18 percent), the Afghan Army (4 percent) or the Taliban (5 percent). That would hardly seem an effective way to win hearts and minds; indeed people who report bribe demands are much more negative in their ratings of the country's direction, the national and provincial governments and U.S. efforts alike.
Overall 72 percent of Afghans call corruption among government officials a problem in their country, little changed from 78 percent last year. There has been a 10-point drop in the number who call it a "big" problem, now 45 percent; it remains to be seen whether that means it's being addressed, or people are accommodating themselves to it.
WITHDRAW/ATTACK –There's been a decline in the number of Afghans who say U.S. forces should remain in their country either until security is restored, or permanently -- now 49 percent, down from 60 percent last year. Just 14 percent desire immediate withdrawal; most of the rest divide between a one- or two-year time frame.
While they remain, these forces clearly face danger -- not just from Taliban and other fighters, but from a substantial segment of the population. Seventeen percent of Afghans say attacks on U.S. forces can be justified. That rises to 26 percent in Southwest overall, peaking at 40 percent in Helmand, and about as high, 38 percent in Nangarhar, in the East. And it's 28 percent among Pashtuns, vs. 10 percent among all other Afghans.
WOMEN'S RIGHTS -- Finally, the poll finds majority support for women's rights, albeit not all at levels that are customary in Western societies -- and with striking differences between the sexes and among other groups, particularly in rural vs. urban areas.
Overall, 68 percent of Afghans support women holding jobs outside the home and 60 percent support women holding government office. But while 81 percent of Afghan women support women working outside the home, that falls to 55 percent of men. And while 74 percent of women support women in government, just 46 percent of men agree.
There are sharp differences in intensity of sentiment among urban and rural groups. Among urban women, 66 percent "strongly" support women holding government office; that falls to just 35 percent of rural women, 32 percent of urban men -- and only 15 percent of rural men.
Similarly, 71 percent of urban women strongly support women working outside the home; that falls to 49 percent of rural women, 37 percent of urban men and 19 percent of rural men. Seventy-six percent of urban women strongly support women voting; at the other extreme, just 48 percent of rural men agree.
In another measure, among urban women, just 28 percent strongly support women wearing the burka, the traditional, full-body cloak; that rises to 46 percent among rural women, and 58 percent among rural men.
There are other differences across groups. Ethnic Tajiks are much more apt than more conservative Pashtuns to support women voting, working and holding government positions. In the capital, Kabul, 96 percent of residents support women voting and 93 percent support women holding jobs; in the Southwest just 66 percent support women voting, and just 48 percent support women holding jobs.
Across the country, 60 percent of Afghans give a positive rating to "the rights of women" in their community. But that's down from 71 percent a year ago, down particularly, by 21 points, among women living in rural areas; and by 22 points among unmarried women.
While the condition of women's rights is rated positively by eight in 10 urban men and women alike, that falls to 58 percent of men in rural areas -- and just 48 percent of rural women. And more than three-quarters of Afghanistan's population is rural.
METHODOLOGY -- This survey was conducted for ABC News, the BBC and ARD by Charney Research of New York, with field work by the Afghan Center for Social and Opinion Research in Kabul. Interviews were conducted in person, in Dari or Pashto, among a random national sample of 1,377 Afghan adults from Oct. 28 to Nov. 7, 2007. The results have a 3-point error margin.