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

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.

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