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Misunderstanding Afghanistan

By Craig Charney and Gary Langer
Sunday, December 17, 2006

There is a note of panic in American views of Afghanistan today. "All the indicators for Afghanistan have headed south," the Los Angeles Times editorialized. Outside Kabul, "much of the rest of Afghanistan appears to be failing again," Newsweek reported. Sen. John Kerry warned: We are "losing Afghanistan."

These views reflect the belief that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government is hemorrhaging support as the Taliban makes a comeback. Karzai is called the "mayor of Kabul," his government lacking authority outside the capital and plagued by corruption. Western troops backing him are said to face widespread hostility.

Yet the full picture in Afghanistan's rugged terrain is more complex. A nationwide ABC News/BBC World Service survey of 1,036 Afghans last month found both good signs and bad.

The Taliban, while active, lacks popular support. Though Karzai's honeymoon is over, he retains majority backing. The Afghan state is relatively weak, but it is present -- and popular -- in most of the country. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is a country where the populace favors the U.S. and allied military presence.

There's no upsurge of support for the Taliban. Just 10 percent of Afghans hold a favorable opinion of the Muslim extremists, almost unchanged from 2005 and 2004. Taliban supporters are concentrated in the southeast and east, conservative regions bordering ethnically similar parts of Pakistan, where the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies have moved their camps and leaders.

This year Taliban forces, flush with trainees, materiel, and bomb designs and tactics learned from al-Qaeda in Iraq, surged into nearby regions -- the southwest, heart of the illegal opium trade; the center-east, which includes Kabul; and the warlord-ridden northwest. Today 64 percent of Afghans report some Taliban activity in their own area. While 58 percent still call security better now than before the Taliban's ouster in 2001, this figure has fallen by 17 points since last year.

The Taliban's reappearance is cause for grave concern -- and not only to Americans. Afghans overwhelmingly prefer Karzai's government to the Taliban, 88 percent to 3 percent. But 57 percent call the Taliban the biggest danger facing the country -- up sharply from 41 percent last year. Its growing presence is broadly unwanted.

Weak state institutions are indeed a key Afghan problem. Where government agencies are strongest, 71 percent of Afghans say things are going in the right direction. Where they are weakest, only 39 percent do. As Gen. Karl Eikenberry, U.S. commander in Kabul, says, the main challenge is not the enemy's strength but the state's weakness.

Yet, even after 33 years of coups and war, reports of the demise of the Afghan state are exaggerated. Seven in 10 Afghans say Karzai's government has a strong presence where they live; even more say this of provincial governments and the police.

While corruption is common -- 55 percent call it a big problem -- the state is functioning and appreciated in key respects. Big majorities trust it to provide security. Seven in 10 Afghans live within two miles of a school and a clinic. Three in five boys are in school, as are two in five girls.

Despite criticism of police corruption and training, the police, too, are making an impact. The Taliban are reported present only half as often where the force is strong as where it is weak. Most Afghans say they'd report crimes to the police.

The foreign soldiers supporting local police and troops are widely appreciated. Three Afghans in four are grateful for the American, British and Canadian troops in their country. An overwhelming majority (88 percent) say the U.S. invasion that overthrew the Taliban was a good thing. And three out of five Afghans want U.S. troops to stay until security is restored (though that's down from 70 percent last year). Approval for U.S. forces and Karzai has to be seen in the context of what came before: They may not be so great, but the Taliban were so bad. Nonetheless, the 77 percent U.S. approval rate in Afghanistan can hardly be described as flat-out failure.

But the negatives cannot be minimized. Worsening security and a moribund economy have hammered the optimism that followed peace, reconstruction and Afghanistan's first democratic elections, in 2004. Last year 77 percent said their country was headed in the right direction; now 55 percent do. Karzai's approval rating has dropped from 83 percent to 68 percent. Reflecting painfully slow growth, acceptance of opium poppy cultivation jumped in the past year.

Afghanistan's problems are real and deepening. They demand major military, reconstruction and diplomatic efforts before dashed expectations turn into active discontent. But the situation is hardly catastrophic. Enough positives remain to serve as a foundation for success. If America is to succeed in Afghanistan, however, we will have to understand it first.

Craig Charney is president of Charney Research, the polling firm that conducted the poll discussed here. Gary Langer is director of polling for ABC News.

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