Afghans want their country back - and Americans should listen

By David Ignatius
Sunday, November 21, 2010

America's first problem in Afghanistan is that the Afghan people in the key battleground don't understand why we're there: When pollsters read a simple summary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack and its aftermath to a sample of 1,000 young men in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, only 8 percent said they knew about this event.

The poll results convey a stark reality about this war: People in the Pashtun region of southern Afghanistan resent foreign fighters. Most don't comprehend why they have come or how they might offer a better future than would the Taliban. They feel that America and its allies don't respect their traditions.

When President Hamid Karzai complains about U.S. military tactics, as he did in a recent interview with The Post, he's expressing what many Afghans feel. Rather than getting furious at Karzai's outbursts, which is the normal reaction of U.S. officials, perhaps it's worth listening more carefully. After nine years of war, the Afghans want their country back.

NATO forces have done better over the past six months at winning "hearts and minds" in southern Afghanistan - but probably still not well enough to succeed without some changes in tactics. That's my reading of the new polling by Canadian researcher Norine MacDonald, which she showed me prior to publication.

MacDonald's polls offer a glimpse of some "ground truth" that's easy for visiting journalists, and also perhaps U.S. policymakers, to miss. She has been based in Kandahar and Lashkar Gah for more than five years, doing research for the International Council on Security and Development, a private group that's funded by foundations in Europe. She's a rare independent observer of this conflict.

MacDonald conducted her latest poll in October, following one she did in the two southern provinces in June. This time, she doubled the interviews to get a statistically reliable sample. On many issues, she got much more favorable responses than in June. But a majority of respondents still didn't support the U.S. mission or understand its rationale.

The numbers show that Afghans remain wary, even as U.S. troops pound the Taliban: 50 percent of those polled in October think recent military operations are bad for the Afghan people; 58 percent think it's wrong to work with foreign forces; 55 percent oppose military operations against the Taliban in their area; 72 percent say that foreigners disrespect their religion.

President Obama premised his strategy last December on the idea that as U.S. forces drove the Taliban from Kandahar and Helmand, local governance would improve and support for the insurgency would dry up in these key provinces. There has been some movement in that direction in recent months.

Here are some indications that Obama's core assumptions are still unproven: Only 31 percent of those polled believe that NATO forces are protecting the population; 51 percent say that their view of NATO forces is either more negative or the same compared to a year ago; 65 percent say that foreign forces kill more civilians than do the Taliban.

Perceptions of the Afghan army and police are improving in Helmand and Kandahar, but not sufficiently that people are confident they can take control. Fifty-two percent say the Afghan army is effective, and 39 percent say that about the police. But on the big question of transferring power, 61 percent believe that the Afghan security forces will be unable to provide security in areas from which foreign forces are withdrawing.

And here are the most chilling numbers of all: In the region that was Osama bin Laden's stronghold, 81 percent say that al-Qaeda will come back if the Taliban returns to power, and 72 percent say that al-Qaeda will then use Afghanistan as a base for attacks against the West.

MacDonald thinks it's not too late to turn these trends around. She argues that the United States and its allies need to make clear why they've come and explain why Afghans will have a better future working with the coalition and the Afghan government.

People want electricity, for example, so she suggests a simple choice: Future with us, lights on; future with Taliban, lights off.

To improve the U.S. image with young Afghans, MacDonald has an innovative plan for a "marriage allowance" scheme to help them finance their most passionate ambition.

Gen. David Petraeus has stepped up the "enemy-centric" side of counterinsurgency, tripling the number of U.S. Special Operations raids from a year ago. But MacDonald's polling data make clear that the "protect the population" side isn't succeeding yet. The trends are improving, but not enough.

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