Afghans in two crucial southern provinces are almost completely unaware of the September 11 attacks on the United States and don't know they precipitated the foreign intervention now in its 10th year, a new report showed on Friday.
NATO leaders gathered in Lisbon for a summit on Friday where the transition from foreign forces — now at about 150,000 — to Afghan security responsibility will be at the top of the agenda, with leaders to discuss a 2014 target date set by Kabul.
Few Afghans in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, Taliban strongholds where fighting remains fiercest, know why foreign troops are in Afghanistan, says the "Afghanistan Transition: Missing Variables" report to be released later on Friday.
The report by The International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) policy think-tank showed 92 percent of 1,000 Afghan men surveyed in Helmand and Kandahar know nothing of the hijacked airliner attacks on U.S. targets in 2001.
"The lack of awareness of why we are there contributes to the high levels of negativity toward the NATO military operations and made the job of the Taliban easier," ICOS President Norine MacDonald told Reuters from Washington.
"We need to explain to the Afghan people why we are here, and both convince them and show them that their future is better with us than the Taliban," MacDonald said.
The report said there was a continued "relationship gap" between Afghans and the international community, describing the lack of understanding as "dramatic."
U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Islamist Taliban government in late 2001 for sheltering al-Qaida leaders who plotted the 9/11 attacks that killed about 3,000 people.
The war has now dragged into its 10th year and violence is at its worst, despite a record number of foreign troops, with military and civilian casualties at their highest levels.
Attention is now focused on an exit timetable. U.S. President Barack Obama, who will review his Afghanistan war strategy next month, wants to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from July 2011.
European NATO leaders, under pressure at home to justify their continued commitment to an increasingly unpopular war, are following a similar timetable. Some are withdrawing troops and others are looking to move from combat to training roles.
While Afghan President Hamid Karzai has set a target of 2014, NATO's civilian representative in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said this week "eye-watering levels of violence by Western standards" might mean the transition spills into 2015.
That throws the emphasis back on the Afghan government — widely seen as so corrupt and inept that it is unable to support itself — and the readiness of Afghan forces to take over.
The ICOS report showed 61 percent of respondents in Helmand and Kandahar believe Afghan security forces would not be able to provide adequate security when foreign forces withdraw, and that 56 percent believe the Afghan police are helping the Taliban.
It noted there was clear "potential for the Afghan security forces to switch sides" after being trained by NATO forces.
The report said 81 percent of those interviewed in the south thought al-Qaida would return to Afghanistan if the Taliban regained power, and that 72 percent thought al-Qaida would again use the country to launch attacks against the West.
ICOS senior policy analyst Jorrit Kamminga said the "negative blowback" of the foreign presence could be managed by addressing the chronic poverty, food shortages, unemployment and displacement faced by ordinary Afghans.
The report noted improvements in some areas of the south, with the number of people in Marjah, a key battleground in Helmand, who thought NATO-led forces were winning the war almost doubling to 64 percent between June and October 2010.
It was also a very different picture in the north, with 80 percent of 500 men interviewed in Parwan and Panjshir provinces thinking the central government was protecting their interests.