5 NATO troops killed in Afghanistan; poll says Afghans think Taliban insurgency is weakening

By Deb Riechmann, AP
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

5 Western troops killed in Afghanistan

KABUL — Five NATO service members, including three Americans, were killed in Afghanistan on Monday, underscoring fears that casualties will rise as more foreign troops stream into the country.

Nevertheless, a new poll says Afghans are more optimistic than a year ago and think the Taliban are losing momentum.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said he believed the rising presence of international forces was blunting the militants. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said the international force is on its way to convincing the Afghan people that it was there to protect them.

“When I sit in an area that the Taliban controlled only seven months ago and now you meet with … elders and they describe with considerable optimism the future, you sense the tide is turning,” he told ABC News about a recent trip to Helmand province where many of the U.S. reinforcements will be sent.

Afghans also think better days are ahead, according to the opinion poll, conducted last month before the suicide bombing that killed seven employees at a CIA base. About 40 percent of Afghans believe the Taliban insurgency is weaker than it was a year ago; 30 percent think it has gotten stronger and 25 percent believe the strength of the insurgency remains the same.

Nearly seven in 10 Afghans support the presence of U.S. forces and 61 percent favor the military buildup, according to the survey, the fifth commissioned by ABC, the BBC and ARD German TV since 2005. President Barack Obama announced last month that the U.S. is sending 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to nearly 98,000. NATO is sending 7,000 reinforcements.

Although polling in a war zone is often problematic, the results suggest that most Afghans neither support the Taliban nor share the concerns in the West about the legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai’s re-election after a fraud-riddled election. They also underscore the ambivalence of the public about the foreign forces, which are still held in low regard here.

The new violence came despite the onset of winter weather.

The three Americans were killed in a firefight with militants during a patrol in an undisclosed area of southern Afghanistan, the NATO command announced. That raised to at least 10 the number of U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan so far this year, according to an Associated Press tally.

A French soldier also was killed and another was seriously wounded during a joint patrol with Afghan troops in the Alasay district of Kapisa province, an area largely under insurgent control.

NATO said on Monday another service member was killed in the clash but later announced that the soldier was critically wounded. It said another service member was killed by a roadside bomb in the south but did not state nationality.

British authorities later announced the death of a British bomb disposal expert as a result of an explosion in the Musa Qaleh area of Helmand Province. It was unclear if this death was in addition to the ones already announced by NATO.

The last time five international soldiers died in a single day was Jan. 3. Seven CIA officials and a Jordanian intelligence officer also were killed in the Dec. 30 suicide bombing at Camp Chapman in Khost province.

While Afghans support the presence of foreign forces, the overall image of the U.S. and NATO remains weak, according to the poll released Monday.

Fifty-nine percent of the Afghans surveyed rated the work of the U.S. and NATO as either poor or fair; 38 percent rated the U.S. effort as good or excellent; and 3 percent had no opinion. NATO forces had slightly better marks: 62 percent rated NATO fair or poor; 35 percent rated the alliance’s work good and excellent; and 4 percent had no opinion.

The main change in the Afghans’ view of the United States and NATO forces was diminished blame for their overall role in violence. Forty-two percent of Afghans now blame the violence on the Taliban — up from 27 percent a year ago. Seventeen percent blame the U.S., NATO or the Afghan security forces, down from 36 percent a year ago. But 66 percent said airstrikes by the U.S. and international forces were unacceptable because they endangered too many innocent civilians, even though they might help defeat militants.

After steep declines in recent years, seven in 10 Afghans think their nation is headed in the right direction. That’s up 30 percentage points since January 2009. The number of Afghans who expect their lives will be better a year from now also has jumped 20 percentage points from a year ago — to a new high of 71 percent, the poll said.

However, Afghans’ views about the direction the nation was headed are gloomier in high-conflict areas, such as Helmand, the heart of the Afghan poppy trade and the Taliban-led insurgency, the poll said.

Despite eight years of war, 61 percent of the Afghans surveyed said they expect their children will have a better life — up 14 percentage points in the past 12 months, according to the poll.

Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, does not share the optimism. In an interview with the AP earlier this week, Zaeef said he thought the situation in the country was deteriorating — that Afghanistan was moving in the wrong direction.

“I’m not optimistic that something positive will happen in Afghanistan,” he said. “Anything happening — it will be negative.”

But according to the poll, the Taliban does not enjoy overwhelming support from the public. Asked whether they wanted Afghanistan run by the Taliban or the current government, 90 percent said they favored Karzai’s government.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called the poll results “striking and significant”

“Our greatest resource in Afghanistan is the fact that the Afghan people don’t want to go back to Taliban misrule,” Miliband told BBC Radio 4’s World at One.

“The important thing now is that we take advantage of the sense of optimism … (and) don’t rest on our laurels, because next year is an absolutely key year for Afghanistan,” he said.

The poll of a national random sample of 1,534 adults in all 34 Afghan provinces was conducted from Dec. 11 to Dec. 23. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. The interviews were conducted in person by the Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research in Kabul, a subsidiary of D3 Systems Inc. in Vienna, Va.

The survey tracks a turnaround in public attitudes toward the Afghan government and the country’s embattled, yet growing, security forces.

Seventy percent gave positive ratings to Karzai and the Afghan National Army — up from 52 percent and 57 percent, respectively. And six of 10 Afghans gave their government and the Afghan National Police positive ratings — up from 49 percent and 57 percent, respectively.

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