A glimmer of good news this morning for the White House Afghan war strategy team: an extensive new poll finds that in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where Gen. David Petraeus has focused his forces, Afghan residents say their security has improved dramatically.
More than two-thirds of residents in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban-led insurgency has been the strongest and most violent, now say their security is "good'' -- a dramatic leap from the 14 percent who thought so a year ago.
But as President Obama's national security team prepares to roll out its long-awaited Afghan war strategy review, the news from the rest of the war-weary country is unrelenting, according to the poll. Fewer than one in five Afghans agree that the war should continue, and 73 percent want to stop and negotiate a settlement with the Taliban. The proportion of Afghans who view the U.S. presence positively continues to sag, from a high of 68 percent in 2005 to 32 percent at present.
, commissioned by the Washington Post, ABC News, the British Broadcasting Corp and ARD television of Germany, confirmed the grim findings of other recent assessments
of the war a year after President Obama announced a shift in strategy and a "surge'' of 30,000 additional troops to carry it out. The White House review, portions of which are expected to be made public later this month, is intended to judge progress toward Obama's goal of beginning next July to bring U.S. troops home.
Some 61 percent of Afghans at first approved Obama's decision to send the troops reinforcements. But with the increased pace of fighting and rising civilian casualties, Afghans are now split on the wisdom of accelerating the war, with 49 percent in favor of the "surge'' and 49 percent opposed.
Petraeus, who assumed command of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan last July, said in an interview with ABC News Sunday that he is encouraged by the poll, but he stressed the counterinsurgency campaign "clearly'' must continue on all fronts.
But across Afghanistan's 34 provinces, the random sampling of almost 1,700 adults found more than half said U.S. and other foreign military forces should begin to leave Afghanistan by next July or sooner.
As previous polls and other reporting have found, most Afghans don't want the Taliban in power and still approve of the U.S. intervention in 2001 to topple the extremist Islamist regime. Most believe that President Hamid Karzai is doing "a good job'' and believe the country is headed in the right direction.
Yet the poll found a deep yearning, after decades of war, for peace. Almost two thirds -- 65percent -- say they would be willing to accept a peace deal between the government and the Taliban. But almost as many, 61 percent, said they were opposed to a deal that would cede control of parts of Afghanistan to the Taliban.
The poll also showed that the vast amount of reconstruction money pouring into Afghanistan, including $4 billion from the U.S. alone this year, is feeding at least the public perception of corruption. Two-thirds of respondents said the money is just going to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan officials.
Residents of Helmand and Kandahar provinces in southern Afghanistan, where most of the 30,000 "surge'' troops are operating, say their own safety and Afghan government services, including medical care and clean water, have improved significantly. That should cheer U.S. and allied officials who have pushed to bring government services close in behind improvements in security.
In Helmand, a former Taliban stronghold and poppy-growing region where U.S. Marines have been fighting hard for two years, 71 percent of poll respondents said living conditions are "good,'' an increase from 44 percent last year, and 59 percent say jobs are now available, up from 14 percent.
Security has increased also in neighboring Kandahar Province, the former home of the Taliban and the place where Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda operatives hatched and planned the 9/11 plot. Residents said the number of Taliban ''night letters'' warning residents against cooperating with the U.S. has dropped to half of last year's levels.
But the poll also found that in Kandahar, where the Taliban still provides "shadow'' government services such as courts and primitive social services, 45 percent hold "favorable'' views of the Taliban.