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Afghan people 'losing confidence'



Scene of Kabul bus bomb
Many Afghans continue to be affected by killings and bombings

ANALYSIS
By Professor Michael Clarke
Director of the Royal United Services Institute

This latest BBC/ABC/ARD poll is a reflection of how difficult a year 2008 proved to be and is a pointer to some of the problems that 2009 is likely to bring in Afghanistan.

Afghans themselves remain determinedly optimistic about their ultimate future but are evidently less hopeful for the next couple of years.

They see foreign intervention in their country - their liberation from a Taleban government - less positively now than at any time in the past five years. A majority are frankly sceptical about the effectiveness of the coalition forces and they worry much more about government corruption at all levels than ever before.

Afghan public attitudes to the United States and its key coalition partners have become steadily adverse over the past five years.

'Overwhelmingly negative'

Perceptions of the "performance" of the US in Afghanistan have gone from being predominantly positive in 2005 by a ratio of around 70:30 to being predominantly negative in 2009 by about the same ratio.

US soldier in Afghanistan
Positive attitudes to the US presence overall have fallen

A similar reversal applies at local as well as at the national level, and positive attitudes to the US presence overall have fallen significantly; where four out of five Afghans previously welcomed it, now only three out of five do so.

Attitudes to US bombing are, not surprisingly, overwhelmingly negative. Most publics in the world, of course, like the US more than they agree with its particular policies, but Afghans have gone from an 85:15 ratio with a "favourable" view of the US in 2005 to one that is just 50:50 now.

Other members of the coalition fare no better in Afghan public opinion. Britain was always less popular than America and regarded as less effective.

Support and popularity for Britain is expressed by fewer than half the respondents polled. Germany comes out only a little better. The greatest proportion of the population want to see the coalition draw down in Afghanistan, even though they worry greatly about security in this event; fewer than one in five would like to see more coalition troops in their country.

This could be significant at a time when the US is planning to build up its troop numbers in Afghanistan quite significantly and is urging its European allies to do a lot more.

'Lack of faith'

According to these polls, the Afghans are generally sceptical about the authority and effectiveness of their own government but have just about kept faith with it and are continuing to do so now.

Afghan street vendor
Afghan people are "patient, stoical, politically realistic and depressed"

There have always been limits to their patience with the government in Kabul and it has not yet run out, but their support is evidently volatile.

On the basis of this series of surveys it seems that conditional support for the Afghan government is partly based on the lack of faith in any alternative.

Warlordism, even if it is a phenomenon Afghans have to live with, is not popular, still less foreign Islamic fighters. Foreigners of any kind are not regarded as much help and attitudes even to the hard-working foreign aid organisations are generally equivocal.

There is minimal support among the respondents for the Taleban; fewer than one in 10 Afghans express any support for them at all, and there is no sign of this growing.

Nor are the Taleban regarded as more influential than before, even if their presence is still evident in terms of the kidnappings, killings and bombings that continue to impact significantly on the lives of ordinary Afghans in many parts of the country.

'Nationalist rhetoric'

Afghans have never liked the Taleban, but they fear them and the decline in public support for the US has not given the Taleban any perceptible boost.

Afghan cricket team supporters
Many Afghans feel there is little to cheer about in the short term

Nor do Afghans seem to feel that the Taleban have reformed, despite the adoption by Taleban leaders of more overtly nationalist rhetoric and a toning down of some of the fundamentalist messages.

The Taleban, al-Qaeda and foreign jihadi fighters are collectively still blamed by most Afghans for the violence the country suffers and while there is growing support (now at 64%) for efforts to negotiate a settlement with them, the caveat that the overwhelming majority would favour this "only if the Taleban first stop fighting" is very significant.

The problems Afghans have is not in deciding what they think about the Taleban but in having much faith in the government, or the coalition, to prevail against them. They see Pakistan as deeply complicit in the problems they face, though are surprisingly neutral over the role Iran plays in the current crisis.

The news from these polls is not all bad. The investment put into infrastructural development over recent years is becoming evident to ordinary Afghans and the visibility of the benefit in terms of schools, roads, water, power and so on, is either increased or at least not diminished from previous polls.

'Critical commodity'

Support remains generally strong for women's rights - a good indicator in the development of civil society as well as for the female population - though these rights will inevitably be expressed in an Afghan way. And there is no intrinsic love for the narcotics business, even if it is ubiquitous in many parts of southern Afghanistan.

Building on the results of last year's polling, the Afghan people emerge from these surveys as patient, stoical, politically realistic and depressed.

The battle for hearts and minds that will ultimately contain the Taleban and chase the jihadis out of Afghanistan is not yet lost, but it is further than ever from being won.

The poll reinforces the idea that the credibility of the Afghan government in the eyes of ordinary people is the most critical commodity at stake.

The military effectiveness of the coalition is secondary to that, though important enough in itself; and the perception of that effectiveness may now have slipped to dangerous levels.

This will be a difficult year in which Afghan elections will also have to take place and be seen to be successful.

The coalition must articulate a new strategy, based around the fresh approach of the Obama administration, emphasising the centrality of governance, training and mentoring and dealing with corruption.

There is still something in the Afghan public's well of patience to work with in these respects, but on the trends presently discernable, it will not last indefinitely.

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