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A new public opinion survey of Afghanistan being released today (Tuesday) shows a small increase over the 2008 survey (from 38 percent to 42 percent) in the percentage of Afghans who think their country is moving in the right direction. The survey also shows a small decrease (from 32 percent to 29 percent) in the percentage who think it is moving in the wrong direction.

Given the many serious problems confronting their country, this optimism is both surprising and encouraging.

The survey was designed and directed by the Asia Foundation?s office in Kabul (transparency: I am a trustee of the foundation but was not involved in any way with the survey), with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development and with the cooperation of several Afghan organizations.

Afghan field surveyors interviewed 6,406 Afghans across all 34 Afghan provinces between June 17 and July 16, prior to the Aug. 20 election. The Afghan organizations, including interns from Kabul University, benefited from the training they received as participants in the survey.

The adverse security situation, especially in southern and eastern Afghanistan and other issues, such as floods, necessitated some adjustments and replacements in sampling points due to the inability of surveyors to visit more than 100 randomly selected locations. But the surveyors are confident that the trends shown in the survey are reliable. (The full survey report, including its methodology, is available starting today on the foundation?s Web site: asiafoundation.org).

The principal reason for the optimism revealed in the survey appears to be a growing sense of security (up from 31 percent in 2006 to 44 percent in 2009). Other reasons include reconstruction and the opening of schools for girls. Not surprisingly, these positive features are not present in the eastern and southern areas along the Pakistani border. In the southeast, for example, 48 percent of respondents cited insecurity as being the country?s largest problem. Numbers such as these caused insecurity to be the principal problem for 42 percent of Afghans nationwide. At the same time, 64 percent gave a positive assessment of the security situation in their local areas.

Other particularly significant results include: 63 percent of urban and 52 percent of rural Afghans say they are more prosperous now than under the Taliban, but unemployment is seen as a significant problem. Majorities expressed satisfaction with educational opportunities and the availability of water for drinking and irrigation. But 65 percent expressed dissatisfaction with electricity supply, with 33 percent saying they had no access to electricity. In sum, overall assessments of the availability of services have been falling since 2007, suggesting that expectations for improvement remain ahead of implementation.

Corruption was listed among the most common failings of the government, but there was considerable appreciation for the pace of reconstruction and a better education system. Overall, 71 percent gave a positive assessment of the central government as opposed to 67 percent in 2008.

Afghans are clearly tired of war. Seventy-one percent support government?s attempts at negotiation and reconciliation with anti-government elements, with 56 percent expressing some level of sympathy with the motivations of the opposition.

Finally, it is noteworthy that there is overwhelming support for the participation of religious leaders in government decision-making and for women to have equal educational opportunities. One telling statistic is that a majority now have mobile phones.

What does this all mean for American, NATO and United Nations policymakers?

To this observer, it is clear that for the rest of the world to abandon Afghanistan would be a betrayal of the progress that has been made since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and of the hopes of most Afghans for the future. It would also make possible the reestablishment of Afghanistan as a base for international terrorism.

The issue is not whether to continue to assist the country?s recovery from over 30 years of war but how to make that assistance meaningful. The assistance must be on both the security and developmental fronts, which are inextricably linked. It must continue to engage the international community and to enlist courageous foreign, including American, military and aid personnel who in turn must be supported by an Afghan government committed to goals which we can share. And last, but not least, it must be accompanied by efforts in Pakistan to reduce the capabilities of the Taliban and other insurgent groups operating in that country and across the Afghan border.

Finally, the door must always be open to the possibility that some of the opposition groups can be brought to the negotiating table. That is not likely to be possible until the opposition starts to think they may lose.

These are daunting challenges, and it is entirely appropriate that the Obama Administration take all the time it needs to come up with pragmatic answers.

Theodore L. Eliot, a Sonoma resident, is a former United States ambassador to Afghanistan.