WASHINGTON Despite battlefield gains against insurgents in southern Afghanistan, the United States is failing to win over Afghans in the heartland of the Taliban, a new study shows.
Almost 90 percent of men polled in contested districts in southern Afghanistan believe foreign military operations are bad for them, according to research by the International Council on Security and Development, or ICOS.
Over half the people who took part in the study in southern Afghanistan, where military commanders say President Barack Obama's decision to send an additional 30,000 troops has helped push insurgents out of key areas, said their opinion of foreign troops was more negative than it was a year ago.
The conclusions of the study, conducted in April among some 1,400 fighting-age men in over a dozen areas, raise troubling questions as General David Petraeus, the U.S. and NATO commander, prepares to make recommendations to Obama about how quickly the United States should bring home troops and move toward ending a long, costly and unpopular war.
Support appears to be growing in Washington for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan, where violence has reached a record high after almost 10 years of fighting, following the U.S. raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Yet creating lasting support for the Western vision of Afghanistan's future will be crucial if the United States is to leave behind a modicum of stability as it gradually hands over to Afghan forces and goes home.
"If someone doesn't get on the 'hearts and minds' campaign, the military successes are at risk," said Norine MacDonald, president of ICOS, an independent think tank funded in part by European and Latin American private foundations, the United Nations, the European Union, and several other governments.
MacDonald said the impact of fierce fighting over the past year in southern Afghanistan that has relied heavily on raids and house-to-house searches by foreign troops, had provided ammunition for Taliban efforts to turn Afghans away from the NATO-led fighting force.
That has been exacerbated by difficulties the West has faced in getting civilian assistance to Afghans even in areas where security is improving, ICOS found in the study.
"There is a 'blowback' effect from the negative impacts of the military actions in the contested districts, combined with evidence of a Taliban 'pushback' in which unarmed actors are successfully pushing propaganda points against the foreign presence," MacDonald said.
NORTH, SOUTH DIVIDE
The ICOS study showed a divide between people in southern Afghanistan and other parts of the country -- which have not been a recent focus of NATO operations -- where there are more favorable views about the foreign military presence.
More than 90 percent of southern respondents said they thought foreigners disrespected Islam and Afghan traditions, compared with 47 percent of northerners. The opinions could reflect the struggle that foreign troops, who have been trained primarily to fight, have faced as they seek to communicate NATO's mission to Afghans.
That may have allowed the Taliban to gain an upper hand in the information war, building consensus around its views on issues such as the role of women in society and democracy, the study suggests.
The polling showed that support for educating girls and giving women the right to vote dropped in southern Afghanistan from last fall. Sixty-six percent of those polled in southern Afghanistan said they opposed educating girls and 61 percent opposed the vote for women. Opposition to both measures was at 49 percent last year in the south.
One of Obama's signature initiatives was a 'civilian surge' to complement military efforts, bringing aid workers and diplomats to help build up government institutions and bring growth to desperately poor Afghanistan.
But the program has boasted few major successes so far and many U.S. lawmakers have vowed to cut back funding.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Peter Cooney)