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Afghan people 'losing confidence'



An Afghan man in the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif
Many Afghans are worried about security, violence and corruption

By Ian Pannell
BBC News, northern Afghanistan

Is Afghanistan going in the right or wrong direction?

After more than seven years of blood spilt, sweat poured and billions of dollars spent, it is not an unreasonable question.

This latest poll by the BBC indicates that Afghans are now evenly divided on the issue.

Of those questioned, 40% said the country was going in the right direction, down from nearly 80% just three years ago. Most would interpret that as a cause for real concern.

Publicly, the Afghan government and the international community have long insisted that things have been getting better. There is plenty of evidence to say that.

Though we have lots of food, people can't afford it
Mazar-i-Sharif shopkeeper
I first visited Afghanistan during the American-led war against the Taleban in 2001.

Then it took us six days to travel from the north-east of the country to the outskirts of Kabul. Six days to travel a couple of hundred miles.

There were almost no paved roads and those that did exist were mined; there was no electricity, no telephones, no drinking water, few jobs, no investment and very little expectation that things would improve.

A recent road trip to the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif took us through a very different country.

We drove along decent roads (albeit with some pot-holes), shadowing our every step were giant electricity pylons sending power to the capital. Market stalls were full of fruit and vegetables, there were new schools and hospitals and everywhere were large signs declaring areas cleared of landmines.

And this time it took six hours, not six days.

Endemic corruption

But Afghanistan is still one of the poorest, least developed nations on Earth.

Sayed Omar Shah
Sayed Omar Shah dreams of being able to live "without fear"

Parents struggle to feed and clothe their children, a series of droughts has created terrible hardships, jobs are still scarce and subsistence farming is often the only thing that keeps hunger at bay.

Corruption is endemic and people are suspicious about where all the foreign aid money has gone.

A shopkeeper in the town bazaar expressed a common opinion, when he said: "Though we have lots of food, people can't afford it. If there were more opportunities, more jobs, then life would get better."

This BBC poll shows people have many concerns, but in the north they are primarily economic.

Another trader in the market, who wanted to remain anonymous, told me how he earns up to $6 (4) a day but that he must give the police a $1 bribe. "Why can't the authorities stop this? I can't pay this bribe. Please make our voices heard."

Elsewhere in the country, in large parts of the south, east and west, people are worried more about security and violence.

US 'surge'

Maidan Shahr is the provincial capital of Wardak province. It is only half-an-hour's drive to the south of Kabul, but taking police protection along even for this short journey is advisable.

US troops inspect an ambushed vehicle near Kabul. Photo: February 2009
There has been a surge of violence in Afghanistan over the past three years

Like other surrounding provinces, it has become increasingly infected by a spreading insurgency and rising criminality.

Governor Halim Fedayi flicks his hand as if dismissing some annoying insect when I ask him whether control of some of the districts here has fallen to the Taleban.

"If it bleeds, it leads," he says, accusing the media of an obsession with bad news and a disregard for progress in Wardak.

But America has just deployed an additional 1,500 troops to Wardak, and a new security force - recruited from the local population - is being given a trial-run here.

Clearly, not everyone shares the governor's confidence, and a large-scale spring offensive is expected against the Taleban.

The local bazaar is just five minute's walk from the governor's office but it is tense and full of police.

"People are very worried. They want security. They want to be able to move freely from their homes and villages without fear, to be able to sleep in peace at night," one man tells me.

Another man talks about the growing antipathy to foreign forces, also revealed in the BBC survey.

"It's clear that Afghans don't want them in the country, no matter why they're here. Some people may support them because they're working closely with the government. But ordinary people don't like them."

Almost every year in the past three decades of civil conflict has been important for Afghanistan, but this year stands out.

Thousands of extra US troops are on their way here, a presidential election will be held in the summer and the pressure to produce better results is immense.

This opinion poll shows that Afghans are becoming increasingly pessimistic about the future.

There has been progress but unless the international community can produce real peace and prosperity, then its mission in Afghanistan is in serious danger of running aground.

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