More in Afghanistan criticize country's direction. What it means for US troops.

A recent Afghanistan poll finds progress on several fronts but some worrisome signs, including a jump in the number who say the country is headed in the wrong direction. Security is still a major issue.

Umit Bektas/Reuters
A US soldier of the 2nd Platoon C Company 9th Engineer Battalion COP Dash Towp stands at the entrance of a house as a resident watches him during a patrol as part of their overall security and disruption insurgency mission in Wardak province, eastern Afghanistan, Thursday.

More Afghans than not say their country is moving in the right direction, but the number who say that a decade into a Western-led war Afghanistan is headed in the wrong direction is increasing – now to more than one-third of the population.

Even as Afghan President Hamid Karzai lays out a plan that envisions US troops remaining in his country for years to come, a large majority of Afghans say that one of the things that frightens them most in their daily life is the prospect of crossing paths with foreign troops.

Those are among the finds of an annual survey of the Afghan people conducted by the Asia Foundation, a Washington-based organization focused on US-Asia relations.

More Afghans expressed optimism over improvements in the availability of services such as health care, education, and water. In recent testimony before Congress addressing the billions of dollars the US has invested in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton focused on those improvements.

Today more than 2.4 million Afghan girls are enrolled in school, Secretary Clinton is fond of noting, compared with 5,000 just before the Taliban government’s fall.

But the Asia Foundation survey, in which 6,348 Afghans in all 34 provinces were interviewed between July 2 and Aug. 1, also contains worrisome signs. This year 35 percent of Afghans said conditions in their country are headed in the wrong direction – an 8 percent jump over last year and the highest level for “wrong direction” respondents since the group began taking the annual poll in 2004.

The main reason cited for the higher pessimism: lack of security.

One factor that may have contributed to this sense of deteriorating security was the rising level of violence in some regions as a greater number of US troops (as a result of the mini-surge of 2010) launched more anti-Taliban assaults.

But the survey also found dwindling sympathy for the country’s militants. Afghans expressing support for at least some aims of the armed antigovernment groups fell to below a third – 29 percent compared with 40 percent last year, the lowest level of any of the annual surveys.

At the same time, a majority of Afghans support initiatives to engage in a dialogue with militant groups and ultimately to make peace with them.

The Asia Foundation survey was released this week, as President Karzai holds a loya jirga, or grand council, in Kabul to consider the terms of an eventual strategic partnership with the US. Karzai told the council Wednesday that he favors reaching an agreement with the US to allow for American military bases to remain in the country past NATO’s 2014 date for ending its military mission.

But Karzai said he has a set of conditions for reaching an agreement with the US. The Afghan leader said the US would have to agree to end a number of its practices – carrying out night raids, invading Afghan homes, detaining Afghan citizens – that he said he could not support as the head of a sovereign nation.

The military practices Karzai cited are also among the reasons average Afghans cite for feeling fearful around foreign troops. The survey found that 76 percent of Afghans are fearful of encountering US and other foreign troops in the country.

In contrast, 55 percent said they fear encountering the Afghan National Army.

In any case, concerns over deterioration in the country’s security don’t appear to be limited to average Afghans. Karzai himself seemed to second his people’s pessimism over security conditions when he opted to take a helicopter – rather than risking a car ride on the capital’s streets – to get to the loya jirga.

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