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Big Drop in Support for the United States Among Afghans

Take a look at this new ABC/BBC/ARD poll of Afghan public opinion. (Via The Washington Post.) The topline is that public support for the U.S. presence is dropping. Asked if there’s “support in your area” for troops from the U.S./NATO/International Security Assistance Force (ISAF — the official name for the NATO mission in Afghanistan), 67 percent said yes in 2006, but only 37 percent do so today. Still, the poll doesn’t indicate that the Afghans view the United States as an illegitimate force, which would be the game-ender.

Basically, the poll has no shortage of evidence that Afghans are dissatisfied with the way things are. Only 42 percent say the United States and its allies are effective in providing security — 67 percent said so in 2006 — and that’s pretty understandable: violence in Afghanistan has crested over the past 18 months. Most say that the Taliban has gotten stronger, especially in strongholds like Kandahar province (49 percent) and Herat province (63 percent). Lopsided majorities call corruption a problem. There’s been a 20-point drop in the percentage of people who are satisfied with their living conditions since 2005. In short, while some bigoted columnists entertain cliches about the inscrutability of the Afghans, they appear to be a reality-based community.

What’s surprising about the poll is that the Afghans don’t appear to take the jump from “everything sucks and I don’t trust the United States to keep me safe” to “the United States is an illegitimate occupying force that I will not support.” Nearly 60 percent say the Taliban is the biggest threat to Afghanistan, but only eight percent say U.S. forces are. Support for attacks on U.S. troops are transactional, dependent on where there haven’t been airstrikes that kill civilians: it’s 44 percent in areas where the United States has recently launched airstrikes, and 18 percent where it hasn’t.

None of this is to say the poll is good news. It’s not. Clearly the Afghan people — the center of gravity of the war — believe that the United States isn’t meeting their needs. But the poll isn’t apocalyptic news, either. I don’t want to be glib and say the absence of apocalypse is as good as news gets from Afghanistan these days. But the poll indicates that there’s still a window of opportunity: stop the airstrikes, provide for the population (is this too far into Central-Asian-Valhalla territory?) and exploit the greater negative sentiment against the Taliban.

Will it work? That’s not answerable, but the poll doesn’t indicate that the Afghans would say the effort comes too late.

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