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Afghanistan War: Public opinion turns sharply against US forces

Analysis: New poll says US has all but lost battle for hearts and minds in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan War
A group of Afghans outside a market in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan, on June 8, 2008. Public opinion polls show that support for the U.S. military is only slightly higher than support for Osama bin Laden. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

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KABUL, Afghanistan — First the good news: U.S. forces are still more popular in Afghanistan than Osama bin Laden. Fully 6 percent of respondents in a new poll expressed a “very favorable” opinion of American troops, versus just 2 percent for the fugitive Al Qaeda leader.

To be fair, the United States scored much higher in the more grudging “somewhat favorable” category, outstripping the world’s most wanted man by 36 percent to just 4. But more than half of all Afghans — 55 percent — want U.S. forces out of their country, and the sooner the better.

Add it all up, and it is pretty bad news for the U.S. military as it examines its options ahead of next week’s Afghanistan strategy review.

During U.S. President Barack Obama’s lightening visit to Kabul on Dec. 3, White House aides said confidently that no major adjustments were expected to the present strategy, which, in the minds and words of most military leaders, is now firmly on course.

That strategy has foreign troops in Afghanistan for at least another four years, while the focus turns to training and equipping Afghan forces to handle their own security, the much-vaunted “transition” to full Afghan sovereignty.

But the poll, commissioned by The Washington Post, ABC, the BBC and Germany’s ARD, and conducted by the perennial survey organization ACSOR (Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research), shows a nation yearning for an end to hostilities.

While human rights organizations and women’s advocacy groups mount a spirited campaign against any accommodation with the Taliban, 73 percent of those polled said it was time to negotiate with the insurgents. While the Taliban do not enjoy much popularity in the country — only 9 percent said they would prefer them to the current government — it seems that the appetite for conflict has waned among Afghans, who mainly just want to get on with their lives.

Those who moan about the lack of readiness among the Afghan National Security Forces might be surprised to learn that more than twice as many Afghans think the police are better able to provide security in their areas than U.S. or NATO forces. Of those polled, only 36 percent said they trusted the foreigners to protect them, while 77 percent voted for their local police.

They show a lot more optimism than Gen. David Petraeus, who told ABC news over the weekend that it was far from a sure thing that Afghan troops would be able to take over from the United States and NATO by 2014, the new target date set by the NATO summit in Lisbon last month.

“I don't know that you say confident. I think no commander ever is going to come out and say 'I'm confident that we can do this,'" Petraeus said in answer to a question about the likelihood that Afghan forces would be competent to assume the burden four years from now.

Consistency is not a particularly strong suit among Afghans, if the poll data is to be trusted. The same respondents who lauded the Afghan troops complained bitterly about corruption in the police, with 85 percent of respondents saying it was a big or moderate problem in their area.

Polls are tricky tools, especially in conflict zones. ACSOR itself freely acknowledges that there were many areas it could not go to because of security concerns. That real estate would, of course, include the south, where U.S. and NATO forces are now battling the Taliban.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the popularity of U.S. forces would be even lower in these areas, given the higher incidence of civilian casualties from airstrikes, and the greater frequency of night raids, in which U.S. Special Forces descend on housing compounds, often with a mission to kill or capture alleged Taliban fighters.

The latter was a bitterly disputed topic last month, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai told the media that he wanted the night raids stopped, prompting Petraeus to say that such an attitude risked making his own position “untenable.”

The poll shows that Afghans are implacably against airstrikes by U.S. or NATO troops, with 73 percent saying that they opposed them even if they help to defeat the Taliban.