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Afghan Optimists

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The optimism of ordinary Afghan citizens has taken a dramatic upswing in the past year, if the results of a nationwide poll are to be believed. The December survey of more than 1,500 Afghans nationwide, which was commissioned by the BBC, ABC News and the German television network ARD, found a 30 percent mood swing from 2008 to 2009 on the question, Is Afghanistan headed in the right direction? A year ago the number of Afghans who said "Yes" to that question was 40 percent; in December, 2009 the figure shot up to 70 percent. What's more, President Hamid Karzai's favorability ratings also ballooned, despite the seriously flawed election of last August. Karzai was viewed as "Excellent" or "Good" by 72 percent of his constituents, the same ones who gave him only a 52 percent favorable rating just a year ago (Obama should be so lucky). And the Afghan government, seen by the outside world as one of the most corrupt on the planet, gets a thumbs-up from a robust 60 percent of Afghans.

What's going on here? Has Red Bull arrived in Kandahar and Jalalabad? Or did the Afghans' confidence get a boost from the announcement of the Obama Surge? A year ago, remember, President Barack Obama had just been elected and his policy towards Afghanistan had not taken form; perhaps it was the uncertainty that accompanied "regime change" in the U.S. that worried the Afghans who responded to the previous poll. And just a few months ago there was great uncertainty about the Afghans' own presidential election, and whether the results would lead to civil disorder, as some had speculated. Perhaps the fact that the election, however tainted, produced a president and established the peaceable continuity of the government resulted in a collective exhalation of the stale vapors of worry and an inhalation of fresh air and renewed confidence.

The Afghans are also feeling more positive about their overall standard of living, though they still list the economy, security, and a weak, corrupt government as the Big Three problem areas, although 90 percent said they would choose the present government over the Taliban; 6 percent said the Taliban would be better.

The arrival of U.S. military forces into Afghanistan in 2001 is today viewed as a good thing by more than 80 percent of Afghans, though nearly half say that those forces should withdraw in 18 months or less. The other half say the U.S. forces should either stay longer than 18 months or wait 18 months and see how things are before deciding to withdraw. Just over 40 percent think the Afghan government can defeat the Taliban militarily, even with the help of the U.S. and other foreign forces, and a 65 percent majority favor negotiating a settlement with the Taliban. It is heartening to know that after all the deaths of Afghan civilians, and all the indignities inflicted on the Afghans by house-to-house searches, false arrests and harsh interrogations that there is still substantial support for the U.S. and NATO militaries. One eyebrow-elevating finding of the study was widespread support not only for the Afghan National Army, which is growing in competence, but also the much-reviled national police, who have been almost universally considered corrupt and incompetent. You can read the BBC summary of the poll results, or look at the full survey on the Web.

Meanwhile, the again-popular Karzai continues to stumble in his efforts to form a cabinet. The Afghan parliament rejected 17 of the 24 names Karzai submitted in December. In response, Karzai submitted a new list of 16 nominees, and many in parliament yawned, saying, same-old, same-old. Time and again Karzai seems to broker deals with long-discredited warlords and drug lords in the interest of keeping his hold on power. Those folks are going to continue to be a serious drag on Afghanistan's progress.