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Last Updated: Monday, 3 December 2007, 11:02 GMT
Afghan optimism for future fading
By David Loyn
BBC News, Kabul

Afghan women leave their tents to bring water on the outskirts of Kabul
Key concerns for Afghanis remain jobs, food and clean water
It was ex-US President Bill Clinton back in 1992 who popularised a simple political truth with the slogan: "It's the economy stupid."

It is a good starting point for analysts wondering how to move Afghanistan on, six years after the fall of the Taleban.

Digging into what the latest opinion poll really means, security still came out as the main concern, but of those polled who said things were moving in the wrong direction, the economy was at the top of their list.

The population of Kabul has quadrupled since the Taleban fell, and the key concerns across Afghanistan are classic bread-and-butter issues - jobs, food, and clean water.

Every evening on TV there is an announcement reminding people to boil or add chlorine to tap water, and neither the international community nor the government has the same excuse here as in Baghdad that insurgents are targeting the infrastructure in the capital.

International failure

Billions of dollars have been spent, but problems with jobs, clean water and electricity are beginning to erode support for those who came to liberate Afghanistan from the Taleban.

The Afghan MP Shukria Barakzai blames the international failure to invest in Afghanistan for continuing economic problems.

We have already done a lot to change the bad picture of the past... We cannot finish corruption with words - systems need to be built and filled with qualified people
Zamari Basheri
Ministry of the interior

"The international community and our donors decide things for us.

"How can the private sector work when contracts are going from donors back to international companies. They are not trusting Afghan companies."

The poll records better schools and health care, but these improvements did not lift the gloom caused by wider concerns.

About a third of the population had a direct experience of violence in their area, and the same figure knew of civilians killed by the international forces - not far behind the number who knew of civilians killed by Taleban and foreign jihadis.

Support for Taleban

It is hardly surprising that the main factor cited by those who resent foreign forces was the number of civilian casualties.

The most marked drop in support for foreign forces was in the east, where US troops have been trying to disrupt smuggling routes; and the south-west, where mainly British, Canadian and Dutch forces have been fighting a more intense conflict against the Taleban since early 2006.

Although support for the Taleban was very low across the country, it was highest, and rising in the south-west.

A US soldier prepares for battle against the Taleban in eastern Afghanistan (25 November)
The most marked drop in support for foreign forces was in the east
And a reasonable assessment of the results would give them more support than they polled.

Even in the strictest of polling conditions, it is hard for those questioned to announce their support for an illegal insurgent group.

Beyond the small but growing bedrock of genuine support for the Taleban, there is a much larger group of people, particularly in the south, who are prepared to give them food and shelter, waiting to see whether the national government and international forces will prevail or not.

The intensive conflict in the south-west, that has left some towns in ruins, means that living conditions there are clearly becoming very difficult.

There are large numbers of displaced people, now dependent only on food aid.

The marked increase in concern about food supplies across the country is a reflection not just of the worsening conflict and the failure of development but another year of a drought, a period that began, by grim bad luck, in the year that the Taleban fell.

And this makes it even harder for those trying to bring stability to the provinces around Helmand to convince people that they are really there to build.

Unpopular Britain

Again in the south-west, the poll recorded a big reduction in the number of people in this region who own work animals, like mules, and a big increase in the number saying they had no electricity.

Members of an Afghan National Army commando during their graduation ceremony  (file pic)
The US has the lead role in modernising the Afghan army
Alongside these results, it is not surprising that in this region there was the highest rise for support for attacks on international troops.

People did feel that they could distinguish between foreign countries who influence Afghanistan.

There was a very hostile response to Pakistan, seen to harbour and train Afghan insurgents.

For historical reasons that go back to suspicion left over from the centuries of empire, Britain is more unpopular than any of the other countries fielding forces in Afghanistan.

A desire for an Afghan solution came out strongly in the poll, with clear support for negotiations with the Taleban.

Western officials are now moving in this direction, seeking to work with traditional leaders, and realising that the democratic structure imposed on Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban has not delivered results.

At the same time there is impatience among the key Western countries to hand over the war to Afghan forces.

Growing impatience

The Afghan army will be 70,000 strong by end of this year, although police reforms have been very slow in coming, with key changes made only in the last 18 months.

An Afghan boy in Kabul holds his mother's hand
People are still optimistic for themselves and their children
It is only in the last month that police salaries have risen to the level of the army, reducing the need for police to supplement low income by extorting bribes.

The police came out as the most corrupt institution in the country in the poll.

Interior ministry spokesman Zamari Basheri said: "We have already done a lot to change the bad picture of the past.

"The Afghan government did not have the resources before. Let's be practical. We cannot finish corruption with words. Systems need to be built, and filled with qualified people."

The poll shows a marked contrast with Iraq in that Afghans are far more optimistic for themselves and their children, and believe reconstruction to be effective in their area.

But this is from a very low base, and impatience is growing.

These results are not at all discouraging either for the government of President Hamid Karzai or the international community, but support for both is eroding, and time is now short.

The Afghan Centre for Social and Opinion Research in Kabul carried out the fieldwork, via face-to-face interviews with 1377 randomly-selected Afghan adults between October 28 and November 17 2007. Poll by Charney Research of New York, commissioned by the BBC, ABC News of America and ARD of Germany.

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