If U.S. President George W. Bush is looking for good news, he should be talking less about Iraq and more about Afghanistan, according to the latest survey results from that country.
Despite grinding poverty, a widening divide between rich and poor, and the continued empowerment of regional warlords, more than four out of five Afghans believe their country is going "in the right direction" and have a favorable opinion of the United States, according to a poll by the Washington-based Program on International Policy Attitudes conducted in late November and early December.
The survey, which interviewed more than 2,000 in Afghans in all but four of the country’s 34 provinces, also found strongly negative attitudes toward both the Taliban, which ruled the country from 1996 until its ouster by rebel and U.S. forces in late 2001, and al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.
Nearly nine out of 10 respondents said they had an unfavorable opinion of the Taliban, the ultra-orthodox Islamist movement whose forces continue to challenge the government of U.S.-backed Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, particularly in predominantly Pashtun areas in the south and along the eastern border with Pakistan.
Only 8 percent of respondents said they had a favorable opinion of their former rulers, while just 5 percent had good things to say about bin Laden. The Taliban’s refusal to turn bin Laden over to the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon resulted in the U.S.-led military campaign that ousted it.
The survey’s findings, which echo those of a somewhat more detailed ABC News poll of just over 1,000 Afghan adults in early October, came as little surprise to Barnett Rubin, an Afghan expert at New York University who has advised the United Nations on its work in the country.
"All the Afghan poll results are somewhat more positive than my own impressions," he said. "People there tend to complain a lot. But the fact is they think [the current situation] is so much better than it used to be [under the Taliban]."
"Afghanistan is not like Iraq," he said, noting that surveys of Iraqi opinion have shown far more hostility toward the U.S. and particularly its military presence there.
While 83 percent of Afghan respondents said they had a favorable opinion of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, nearly two-thirds of Iraqi respondents told an ABC poll in November they opposed the presence of U.S.-led coalition forces there.
According to another poll sponsored by the British Defense Ministry in October, 82 percent of Iraqi respondents said they "strongly oppose" the presence of foreign troops in their country, while 45 percent approved of insurgent attacks against them.
By contrast, nearly 80 percent of Afghan respondents said they approved of U.S. military operations against al-Qaeda. Even in predominantly Pashtun regions, where such operations have sometimes resulted in the killings of innocent civilians, more than two-thirds of respondents voiced support.
Rubin said the foreign presence in Afghanistan is considered significantly more legitimate than in Iraq. "For one thing, the intervention there was based on actual facts; when they invaded Afghanistan, they found that al-Qaeda was actually there."
Moreover, he noted, "the troop presence in Afghanistan is very unobtrusive except in a few provinces. Afghans didn’t feel their country was really sovereign before, because of all of the external interference [by its neighbors] and that this intervention, which is technically under the aegis of the UN, not the U.S., is much better that the troops are there to preserve Afghan sovereignty against outsiders who haven’t respected it."
Indeed, asked about the influence of Pakistan, which had provided strong backing for the Taliban from its rise to power 10 years ago until the Sept. 11 attacks, nearly two-thirds of Afghan respondents called it "negative."
In recent months, tensions between the two countries have risen amid charges by senior Afghan officials that Pakistan continues to harbor Taliban insurgents who infiltrate the border. Only 21 percent said they thought Pakistan "is seriously trying to stop the Taliban from operating in Pakistan."
Asked the same question about Iran’s influence, Afghan respondents split on whether it was positive or negative, although senior officials in Kabul have said recently that in their view, Tehran was not causing problems in the country.
The survey, which was carried out in face-to-face interviews by ACSOR/D3 Systems, sought as representative a sample as possible. Respondents were equally divided between men and women and were proportionately divided between urban and rural-dwellers. Fifty percent were illiterate, 20 percent completed primary school, 26 percent secondary school, and 5 percent had some higher education.
Ethnic Pashtuns, the country’s largest minority, were somewhat underrepresented, accounting for nearly 37 percent of respondents, while Tajiks, the second-largest minority, accounted for nearly 39 percent.
Strong support was expressed for Karzai himself 83 percent expressed a favorable opinion, 68 percent "very favorable." By contrast, 88 percent of respondents expressed an unfavorable opinion of the Taliban, with 62 percent "very unfavorable."
A whopping 91 percent of respondents said they regarded his government as either "very" (55 percent) or "somewhat effective." Local leaders, on the other hand, were not as highly regarded.
Of the 81 percent who expressed a favorable opinion of the United States, half qualified their view as "very favorable." Eighty-three percent said they had a favorable (39 percent "very favorable") view of "the U.S. military forces in our country."
Washington recently launched a plan to gradually reduce its commitments both military and economic in Afghanistan. It plans to cut its troop strength in the country from the current 19,000 to 16,500 and to transfer more responsibility for security in the Pashtun regions to NATO. In addition, it is expected to reduce its development aid from just over $1 billion last year by about $400 million in 2006.
According to the survey, international organizations and agencies are also highly regarded by the population. Ninety-three percent said they had either a "very" or "somewhat favorable" opinion of the United Nations. Eighty-one percent said they considered international agencies providing aid for reconstruction to be either very or somewhat effective; 82 percent characterized the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) as "effective."
Two-thirds said they approved of the deployment of ISAF forces beyond Kabul, although only 48 percent of Uzbeks, who are concentrated in the northern part of the country, said they supported such a move.
More than three-quarters of respondents said they approved of efforts by international military forces to stop the cultivation of opium poppies in Afghanistan, a growing concern of U.S., UN, and European officials there who say that the drug trade now accounts for more than half of the nation’s economy or about $2.7 billion annually.
(Inter Press Service)