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December 2010, Week 2

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Mon, 13 Dec 2010 22:35:57 -0500
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Afghans Overwhelmingly Want US Troops Out - and Soon

Thursday 09 December 2010

by: Jean MacKenzie  |  GlobalPost | Report

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/afghanistan/public-opinion-turns-sharply-against-us-forces

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.

There is, of course, some doubt as to the validity of
any public opinion surveys in a country with a largely
uneducated and unsophisticated population, suspicious
of strangers and unwilling to share personal
information for fear of possible consequences.

But to the extent that ACSOR's data is deemed reliable,
it paints a fairly depressing picture for the
international community hoping to gain public support
in their struggle with a surprisingly resilient
insurgency.

Fewer than half of respondents -- 49 percent -- support
the U.S. troop surge that added 30,000 pairs of boots
on the ground over the past year. The same number
opposed the surge.

More troops almost always means more violence; 39
percent of respondents said that civilian casualties
had increased over the past 12 months; 30 percent
thought they had decreased, while 31 percent said there
had been no change.

In fact, civilian casualties are up sharply, according
to a United Nations report released in August. And the
poll shows that Afghans primarily blame the
international forces, rather than the Taliban, when
innocent people are caught in the crossfire.

Of those polled, 35 percent said that U.S. and NATO
troops bore responsibility, 32 percent blamed the
"anti-government forces," and an equal number assigned
blame to both.

As the recent WikiLeaks revelations have shown, Karzai
is not the U.S. government's favorite international
partner. He is seen as weak, unpredictable, often
paranoid and incapable of effective governance,
according to the leaked cables.

None of that holds sway with the Afghan people, though,
82 percent of whom judged Karzai favorably. Only 62
percent gave his government as a whole such high marks,
however.

Perhaps most striking is the sense of lost opportunity
revealed in the poll. While the vast majority of
Afghans -- 74 percent -- still support the U.S.-led
invasion that toppled the Taliban, they are now
convinced that they would be better off alone.

This, according to Western observers, is part and
parcel of Afghan psychology.

"They just do not want us here," said one foreign
diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The
Western troops, when they came here [in 2001] said 'the
Soviets were invaders, we are liberators. But for
Afghans it is all the same -- we are all 'foreigners.'
They will fight anyone who comes here."

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