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by Jim Lobe

U.S. Spends Millions Building Afghan Road To Nowhere

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Five years after the ouster of the Taliban, Afghans remain broadly supportive of their government and the western forces that protect it, but that support appears to be slipping due primarily to frustration with the pace of reconstruction, according to a new survey released here this week.

That slippage is reflected in part in a sharp rise in the percentage of Afghans who have become more pessimistic over just the past year, according to the poll of more than 2,000 Afghans carried out last month by (WPO), a project of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).

Indeed, the percentage of Afghans who said that the country was going in the "wrong direction" rose three-fold since November 2005 -- from 11 percent to 35 percent. Sixty-two percent said they believed the country was going in the "right direction," down from 83 percent one year ago.

The growing pessimism has not, however, translated into growing support for the Taliban whose military resurgence over the past year has provoked growing concern here, among Washington's partners in NATO, as well as in Kabul itself.

On the contrary, the fundamentalist movement is regarded even more unfavorably by the vast majority of the population than it was in 2005, according to the poll, which covered 32 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

Seventy-one percent of respondents said they held "very unfavorable views of the Taliban in the latest poll, compared to 62 percent one year ago. Moreover, the great majority of Afghans (86 percent) said they believe that the group's overthrow was a "good thing" for Afghanistan, compared to 82 percent who took that position last year.

Nonetheless, as in many of the issues raised in the survey, there were important regional differences.

In southwestern Afghanistan, the Pashtun heartland of Kandahar and Helmand provinces, 43 percent of respondents said the group's ouster was a "bad thing," up 30 points from 13 percent one year ago.

That percentage may have been higher had the survey been able to poll the two provinces -- Uruzgan and Zabul -- that lie in the same area. Comprising about 2.3 percent of the total Afghan population, they have been infiltrated by Taliban forces over the past year.

"In some areas, where the Taliban has been active, they feel better about the Taliban," noted PIPA director Steven Kull. "There may be a subtle realignment as (Afghans) perceive the Taliban gaining strength."

The survey also suggested the growing popularity of the Taliban in some key regions may also be related to their protection of opium poppy production, which is believed to account for more than half of Afghanistan's gross domestic product (GDP) and last year yielded 92 percent of total global output.

While a third of Afghans said they "disapproved" of NATO forces' efforts to stop the growing of opium poppies in Afghanistan -- up from 15 percent in 2005 -- that percentage rose to one half in areas in which the Taliban have exerted a stronger presence.

That statistic is likely to fuel a growing debate here between the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and lawmakers who support stronger drug eradication efforts and the Pentagon whose roughly 20,000 troops in Afghanistan have generally tried to avoid involvement in eradication efforts.

The latest survey results come amid rising concern here about the resurgence of the Taliban movement and how best to counter it. A growing number of foreign policy and regional specialists here have argued with growing intensity that Afghanistan -- which has long been overshadowed by Iraq -- needs much more attention and resources, both for security and, more importantly, for economic development.

In the past year, the areas in which the Taliban and its allies have operated have increased four-fold over the previous year, according to recently declassified intelligence reports. They also noted a five-fold increase in suicide bombings, some of which took the lives of the nearly 200 U.S. and NATO troops killed in Afghanistan this year, by far the worst since the 2001 U.S.-led military campaign that ousted the Taliban.

With most of the entire Pakistani side of the border transformed into a virtual safe haven for the Taliban and its allies over the past two years, western and U.S. experts are bracing for an even greater penetration by Taliban forces next year.

"The NATO allies must provide stronger and better-equipped forces that will join the fight and go where they are most needed," warned Anthony Cordesman, a military specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) here, in a column in the New York Times entitled "One War We Can Still Win" this week. He also argued for major boosts in U.S. and NATO economic assistance, as well.

The latest survey results suggest that Karzai and NATO still command strong popular support, particularly compared to the Taliban, but that they are losing ground in the battle to retain Afghan hearts and minds.

Karzai himself earned a 55 percent approval rating from all Afghan respondents in the latest poll -- a standing that President George W. Bush would find enviable -- but down from 68 percent a year ago. Similarly, U.S. forces received a favorable rating of 75 percent, down from 83 percent last year. Those who said their view of U.S. forces in Afghanistan was "very favourable" fell from 39 percent to 28 percent. These findings were very similar to those of another poll by ABC and BBC carried out in October..

As to reconstruction, however, only 42 percent rated progress in that area either "excellent" or "good," while a majority of 58 percent described it as "fair" or "poor."

On another key issue, nearly one in four Afghans said they or someone in their family had been "personally affected by an act of corruption by governments" in the past year. The percentage, however, was significantly higher in the southern and eastern Pashtun areas (38 percent) than in the central area around Kabul or in northern Afghanistan.

Asked to choose between whether they thought Afghanistan needed more economic or more military assistance, 50 percent chose the former, while 13 percent chose the latter. A third, however, insisted that both were needed. In areas where the Taliban has asserted the strongest presence, however, support for military aid was stronger than elsewhere in the country.

More than four out of five respondents (82 percent) said it was either "not at all likely" (48 percent) or "not very likely" (34 percent) that the Taliban would ever return to power in Afghanistan. Another 12 percent said it was "somewhat likely." Even in the border regions where the Taliban has asserted its strongest presence, a more than two-to-one-majority said a Taliban victory was unlikely.

Remarking on the poll results, Seema Patel, a South Asia specialist at CSIS who has conducted extensive interviews in Afghanistan over the last two years, agreed that "Afghan optimism is declining" due mainly to frustration over progress in reconstruction, particularly in the south and the east. "Our findings show a much bleaker outlook," she said, noting in particular, that "a sense of insecurity is spreading across the country."

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Albion Monitor   December 18, 2006   (

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