Afghanistan In Focus: Can this War Be Won?

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U.S. Marine in Afghanistan with flags of USA and Afghanistan
CBS/ AP

Its official name is Operation Enduring Freedom. The war in Afghanistan is already America's longest: 9 years, 2 months, 3 days. The cost so far? More than 1,400 U.S. lives and about $400 billion. Progress is being made in Afghanistan - but is it quick enough? CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric put Afghanistan "In Focus."


"This is where American troops are fighting. This is where American troops are dying," said CBS News national security correspondent David Martin. "It is without a doubt the number one priority for the Pentagon."

The U.S. military and NATO forces have regained momentum in Afghanistan. But that success is often undermined in a country woefully unprepared to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda on its own.

"We were on a mission to make sure there was no Taliban or roadside bombs," CBS News correspondent Mandy Clark said. "We had to go through an area where there was really tall marijuana plants. The Afghan soldiers started picking marijuana plants because they were going to dry them out and smoke it. It was incredibly frustrating for the Americans because it put American lives at risk."



The Surge

"It is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan," President Obama said last December.

One year later, the U.S. now has more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. 263,000 Afghan security forces have been trained so far. The Pentagon plans to begin its withdrawal next July. But the U.S. and its allies have committed to keep some forces in Afghanistan until 2014.

In August, General David Petraeus, the architect of "the Surge," told Katie Couric, "It's easy to get frustrated with Afghanistan."

Katie Couric on the Frontlines with Petraeus

"The surge is quite clearly working where the number of U.S. soldiers has increased," said CBS News correspondent Terry McCarthy.

According to the Pentagon's most recent report card on the war, the Afghan Army has grown from 97,000 to 146,000 in one year. Seven times more kids are in school than under Taliban rule. The economy expanded by 22 percent in 2009.

"The Marine unit we followedconducted a major assault on a town called Safar Bazaar in the south. The Taliban cleared the people out at 7pm every night and then they put in the IEDS so even the locals didn't know where these bombs were hidden," McCarthy said. "As we moved in, bombs were going off all the time. A lot of Marines were getting concussions and two were killed - one lost his leg. We went back two months later after they cleared the town, and there were about 100 people in the market that day."

Terry McCarthy Embedded with Marines

Success has come at a steep price. More than 470 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan this year alone.



Condition for Victory

"The number one condition for victory is - can you ensure Afghanistan does not fall into as state where it is a safe haven for the al Qaeda or its allies the Taliban?" asked CBS News national security analyst Juan Zarate.

Everything depends on Afghanistan's Army and police. Most agree, they are years from ready.

CBS News producer Ben Plesser describes a night mission with Afghan and American forces. "The call time was 2:30 a.m. because they wanted to use night as cover to land the helicopters. The Afghans simply did not show up at 2:30, so the Americans went in and work them up right around 4:00 a.m. - when the choppers were supposed to land."

"When we landed they all got lost because they did to have night vision and then it turned out they had left half their ammunition on the helicopters and brought no food and water with them. None of this creates a sort of future where the Americans can leave them to it on their own."

CBS News In Focus, Complete Coverage
Special Section: Afghanistan | The Road Ahead



Good Enough

"We talk about Afghan good enough, being good enough," Petraeus told Couric.

"The Obama Administration has tried to narrow the definition of success," Zarate said.

"Afghanistan has an unbelievable culture of corruption," McCarthy said. "Everybody is on the make there. If you want a job you have to pay for it."

At the center of that culture is President Hamid Karzai - who is an ever-growing liability fo the U.S.

"I've definitely seen Karzai change as a leader and definite become increasingly inaccessible," said CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan. "He's definitely become more imperialistic. I've seen him ordering his people around and speaking to him like they're his subjects."

The biggest threat to American interests still lurks just beyond Afghanistan's mountainous border - where al Qaeda bides its time.



No Measurable Effect

"The issue this year is the same as last year and every year of the war," Logan said. "The issue is Pakistan and the safe havens in Pakistan."

The war is now primarily being fought in the region of Afghanistan closest to Pakistan. Sixty-five percent of the fighting happens in just three provinces.

"I just read a Pentagon report that says there have been no measurable effects of attempts to undermine the insurgency in Pakistan. No measurable effects," Martin said.

"You are fighting an enemy all the time who runs across the border into Pakistan and rests when needs to," Logan said. "How are you supposed to make any enduring difference to your enemy if you can't get at them?"

Pakistan has been an unreliable ally in rooting out al Qaeda - despite U.S. pressure. They seem to be hedging their bets in a strategic situation that is far from resolved.

"We're going on the offensive," President Obama said last week in Afghanistan. "Tired of playing defense."

The battlefield success of "the surge" suggests America can win this war. But a lasting victory will depend on whether Afghanistan can stand on its own after the U.S. troops leave.