Poll of Afghans Shows Drop In Support for U.S. Mission

By Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A new poll in Afghanistan shows sagging support for U.S. efforts in that country, with airstrikes a chief concern. A quarter of the Afghans polled said that attacks on American or allied forces are justifiable, double the proportion saying so in late 2006.

The poll, the fourth conducted in Afghanistan since 2005 by ABC News and its media partners, also shows plummeting support for President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan government, and a sharp decline in the proportion of people who think the nation is heading in the right direction. The vast majority of Afghans consider public corruption to be a problem, and there are widespread complaints about unemployment, high prices and spotty electrical service.

But security concerns galvanize public opinion most directly.

The proportion of Afghans rating their security positively dipped to 55 percent, from 72 percent in 2005. Seventy percent of those who said the nation is on the wrong track cited security as a central concern.

At the same time, ratings of U.S. forces have declined precipitously; 32 percent said U.S. and coalition forces are performing well, down from 68 percent in 2005. And fewer than half of the respondents, 42 percent, have confidence in coalition forces to provide security in their areas.

Most troubling to the Afghans are U.S. airstrikes and civilian casualties. One in five said coalition forces have killed civilians in their area in the past year, and one in six reported nearby bombing or shelling at the hands of U.S. forces.

About eight in 10 called coalition airstrikes unacceptable, viewing the risk to innocent civilians as greater than the value of these raids in fighting the Taliban and other anti-government insurgents. More blame U.S. and coalition forces for poor targeting than blame the Taliban for keeping assets among civilians (41 percent to 28 percent); 27 percent said both sides shared the blame.

One in four Afghans said attacks on U.S. or other forces can be justified, up significantly from the past couple of years but on par with the level of October 2005.

More also blame the country's current travails on the United States, NATO or the Afghan government than on the Taliban (36 percent to 27 percent), but the Taliban is viewed as a greater long-term threat.

Fewer people say that U.S. or NATO forces have a strong presence in their areas -- 34 percent, compared with 57 percent in 2006. The survey finds these views deeply intertwined with approval ratings for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, suggesting an opportunity to sway public opinion if the proposed increase in U.S. troops boosts the impression of a more effective presence.

And despite the negative turn in public views, most Afghans continue to say the U.S.-led invasion and the ouster of the Taliban were good things for their country, and most want U.S. troops to stay.

As the Obama administration turns its focus to the conflict in Afghanistan, Afghans are ambivalent on what the new leadership will bring. In the poll of 1,534 randomly selected Afghans, conducted in late December through mid-January, about as many said Barack Obama's election will make things worse as said it will improve life there.

Most expect little to change or have yet to form an opinion. Few are hoping for the promised increase in troop levels, however -- 44 percent said they want a decrease in the number of foreign forces in the country, while 18 percent want an increase.

The poll, conducted by the Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research in Kabul for ABC News, the BBC and ARD German television, found that 47 percent hold a favorable view of the United States, down from 83 percent in 2005, with the steepest drop occurring in the past year.

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