Anew poll of nearly 1,600 Afghans shows the majority feel safer than they did five years ago, and approve of the direction their country is taking, thanks to the presence of international security forces fromcountries such as Canada.

Results from the Environics Research poll, conducted in partnership with the CBC, show 60 per cent of Afghans surveyed believe the presence of foreign troops has been good for their country.

As well, 51 per cent said they feel their country is headed in the right direction, compared to 28 per cent who responded that it's headed in the wrong direction. The remaining interviewees saw no change or didn't know.

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Warrant Officer Sean Chase of the Provincial Reconstruction Team hands out "Izzy" dolls to 15 children from one family. They came with their father to the Village Medical Outreach at Forward Operating Base Martello. ((Captain Dave Muralt/Department of National Defence))

Most Afghans said they believe their lives are better than they were five years ago, citing increased security, as well as better roads and schools because of reconstruction efforts. Those who feel they are worse off say they don't feel safe in the face of continuing violence.

"There's no consensus. It's not everyone [who] has a positive view," said Keith Neuman of Environics. "But more often than not, people feel that things are better than they were."

The Ottawa-based research company oversaw the Sept. 17-24 survey of 1,578 Afghans, whom pollsters from the Afghan Centre for Social and Opinion Research interviewed in their homes throughout the country's 34 provinces.

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A food stall selling french fries in Kabul. ((David Common/CBC))

The results have a margin of error of 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20, except in Kandahar, where the smaller sample size leads to a 5.9 per cent margin of error.

Support for troops to stay

Among the poll's other results:

  • Forty-threeper cent of all Afghans surveyed say that foreign troops should stay as long as it takes to get the job done. Only about 15 per cent of all Afghans surveyed want foreign troops to leave their country immediately, and the rest want time limits.
  • In the troubled southern province of Kandahar, where the former Taliban government has its roots and where the vast majority of Canadian troops are based, only 31 per cent of respondents want to see foreign troops stick around until stability is restored. In comparison, 32 per cent of those asked would like to see the troops gone within a year, and many had no opinion at all.
  • A full 60 per cent of those surveyed in Kandahar have a somewhat or very positive attitude toward Canada's soldiers. Those with a negative opinion cite civilian casualties and the fact that they see the soldiers as infidels.

Janice Stein is director of the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto, another of the poll's sponsors. She sees grounds for optimism in the results.

"I think Afghans are asking for continued assistance," she said. "They are asking for a continued foreign presence in the short term. They are asking for help in order to avoid a return of the Taliban to Afghanistan. These are the fundamental messages that come out of this poll."

U.S. cited as chief source of troops

When asked who is responsible for fighting the Taliban, an overwhelming majority named the United States. Even in the south of the country, where Canadian forces have lost most of the 71 soldiers who have died in the country so far, 90 per cent of Afghans polled believe it is the United States that is trying to protect them.

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A vendor with a balloon cart in a Kabul marketplace. ((David Common/CBC))

On the bright side, when it comes to reconstruction, Afghans named Canada as one of the top countries trying to help rebuild Kandahar.

"Here are the Canadians in Afghanistan, seen as the people building civil society, helping reconstruction, helping to train, helping to build a democracy so that some day we can leave," says Michael Adams of Environics.

"It's interesting— even our military are seen in that role there, rather than in the role of fighting the Taliban."

Some NATO countries, such as the Netherlands and Germany, have been debating whether to pull their troops out of Afghanistan. But despite political opposition within Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made his position clear: He wants Canadian troops to stay in the country until at least 2011.

High marks for Karzai

On another front, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government received approval ratings other world leaders can only dream of.

More than 70 per cent of Afghans surveyed said they think Karzai is doing a good job. In his home province of Kandahar, the positive reviews jump to 77 per cent.

That's significant because Karzai is often seen from the outside as a weak leader who, among other criticisms, hasn't managed to clean up corruption in his own governmental ranks.

"I think what people forget is there is a lot of challenges in this country," Arif Lalani, Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan, pointed out in an interview. "But there's a lot of progress [too], and the Afghans that I see, see the change and he's the face of the Afghan government. So it wouldn't surprise me that they still have faith in him."