A country gripped by fear: Survey finds majority of Afghans afraid of US troops, voting

U.S. troops stop a local man to search him while on patrol near Command Outpost AJK in Afghanistan's Kandahar province on Feb. 1. © Andrew Burton / Reuters / Reuters, file

KABUL, Afghanistan – More than three out of four Afghans live in fear of the U.S. troops sent to liberate their country from the Taliban, according to a survey released Thursday.

The annual poll was conducted by the Asia Foundation, a non-profit international development group. It also found that while an increasing number of Afghan citizens feel that their country is heading in the right direction, more than half of those questioned said they were afraid to exercise basic democratic rights such as voting and attending peaceful protests.

An Afghan protester is approached by security as she holds up a banner reading "Signing Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the USA is a Treason" during the first day of a four-day meeting of around 2,500 Afghan tribal elders and leaders, in Kabul on Nov. 21. Massoud Hossaini / AFP - Getty Images, file

About 46,000 U.S. troops remain in the country more than 12 years after the invasion triggered by the 9/11 attacks, making Afghanistan the longest conflict in U.S. history.

And while President George W. Bush vowed in 2001 that "the oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies," the survey suggests that vision has failed to materialize despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent in the country.

Some 77 percent of respondents said they would "be afraid when encountering international forces." 

Respondents were far more confident in their dealings with the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army. Almost nine-in-ten said the NATO-trained ANA was "honest and fair with the Afghan people" and helped "improve security," while 72 percent felt the same about the police.

Michael Keating, a senior consulting fellow of the Asia program at London's Chatham House think tank, said it was "not that surprising" that many Afghans were wary of coming face-to-face with troops.

"It's not a very relaxing experience," he said. However, Keating also pointed out that Afghans in some parts of the country "do not want [Western forces] to leave."

The Asia Foundation conducted face-to-face interviews with a total of 9,200 Afghans, with respondents living in all of the country's 34 provinces. The San Francisco-based organization has carried out the survey annually since 2004.

According to the poll, 59 percent of respondents said they would "experience some level of fear" when voting in an election. The Taliban has targeted polling stations in recent years. The country will elect a new president in April.

But Geeta, a 22-year-old teacher in Sheberghan Jawzjan, said she believed the ballot box was crucial to "bring a change" to Afghanistan.

"Our country is in need of educated and honest leaders. And in order to bring a person of the mentioned qualities into power, I voted for the candidate of my choice," she told NBC News. "I have also encouraged all my friends to go to polls and vote."

A clear majority of respondents – 68 percent – said they would be afraid to participate in a peaceful demonstration.

Geeta said she had demonstrated to remove a local governor who was not living up to some residents' expectations.

"I'd like to see more of these peaceful demonstrations in the future because I think it is good for our country," she added.

An Afghan woman shows a voter registration card she got at a mosque being used as a mobile registration office in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Nov. 9. Anja Niedringhaus / AP, file

Attaullah, a 26-year-old administrator at a hospital in Kabul, said he did not agree with protests because they have the potential to be hijacked by other causes.

"Often demonstrations are planned out for a purpose and then it results in something else very bad that one can never expect," he said.

The survey highlighted decreased support for "armed opposition groups" such as the Taliban, with 35 percent of people saying they had a little or a lot of sympathy for them. That's a drop from 56 percent in 2009.

On the role of women in society, 90 percent of Afghans polled said they agree with equal rights, but just 54 percent said state courts treat women and men equally.

More than three-quarters of respondents said corruption remained a problem in the country as a whole. This is the highest level since the Asia Foundation's 2006 survey. 

Farhad Amiri, who owns a small business selling carpets and antiques in Kabul, said corruption has become endemic.

"In Afghanistan more than 90 percent of our dealings involve corruption," the 40-year-old said. "If you want to get your things done in a governmental department you will have to bribe them. If you don't bribe them, your work will either be delayed or they will create problems for you."

But the majority of Afghans polled – 57 percent – believed their country was heading in the right direction, up from 46 percent in 2011 and 52 percent in 2012.

The survey has been released as Afghanistan remains locked in negotiations with the U.S. about the bilateral security agreement which will shape America's military presence in the country after 2014.

Without an agreement, the U.S. could withdraw all its troops and leave the Afghan administration, currently led by President Hamid Karzai, to fight the Taliban alone.

More than 2,100 American troops have died and almost 20,000 have been wounded during the conflict, according to the Department of Defense.

Alexander Smith reported from London.