By Adrian Croft
LONDON (Reuters) - NATO is failing to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan, according to a poll released on Friday showing most people in Taliban heartlands view foreign troops negatively and believe the Taliban should join the government.
However, 55 percent of Afghans surveyed by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) think-tank believed NATO and the Afghan government were winning the war against Taliban insurgents.
The survey was based on interviews last month with 552 Afghan men in Kandahar and Helmand provinces in southern Afghanistan, the scene of some of the most intense fighting.
"We are ... failing to explain ourselves or our objectives to the Afghan people. This provides clear opportunities for Taliban and al Qaeda propaganda against the West," ICOS President Norine MacDonald said in a statement.
The poll of Afghans in the two areas found:
-- 75 percent believe foreigners disrespect their religion and traditions
-- 74 percent believe working with foreign forces is wrong
-- 68 percent believe NATO forces do not protect them
-- 65 percent believe the Taliban and its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, should join the Afghan government.
Seventy percent said recent military actions in their area were bad for the Afghan people and 59 percent opposed a new military offensive being built up by NATO forces in Kandahar.
Thousands of U.S., British and Afghan soldiers took part in an operation this year in the Marjah area of Helmand, a Taliban stronghold. NATO forces are now gearing up for a campaign to secure the Taliban's spiritual home of Kandahar.
Fifty-five percent of those polled believed that foreign troops were in Afghanistan for their own benefit, to destroy or occupy the country, or to destroy Islam.
In a blow to NATO's hopes of gradually transferring security responsibilities to Afghan forces, 71 percent believed the Taliban would return to areas cleared of insurgents if NATO departed leaving the Afghan government in charge.
Sixty-one percent believed the number of Afghans joining the Taliban had increased in the past year and four-fifths said that if the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, al Qaeda would return to the country.
Sixty-four percent believed government officials in their area were linked to the Taliban and large majorities thought both the Taliban and local government officials made money from drug-trafficking.
The survey was released before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and dozens of other foreign ministers meet in Kabul next week to hear President Hamid Karzai's plans to boost governance, security and economic opportunity.
The war in Afghanistan has reached a critical stage despite the presence of about 140,000 foreign troops, with the Taliban at its strongest since the Islamist movement was overthrown in 2001 by the U.S.-led invasion.
(Editing by Matthew Jones)