As the war in Iraq is winding down, the war in Afghanistan is heating up. With the surge ordered by President Obama, there are now nearly 100,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan. The military reported another death today, bringing the U.S. toll for August to at least 16. As casualties mount, the American public is growing more skeptical. Forty-three percent now say the war was a mistake.
So why, then, are U.S. forces here? How long will they stay? And what is the definition of success? We've come in search of answers. We'll begin with the new U.S. Commander, Gen. David Petraeus. We went along with him today on his weekly inspections in the eastern part of Afghanistan. The day began early in the capital.
Before Gen. Petraeus got an assessment of the war from his top commanders in the field, we got an assessment.
"Well we're making progress, but got to make a lot more obviously," Gen. Petraeus said. "It's a tough fight. The enemy gets a vote and we're taking away sanctuaries and safe havens that mean a great deal to the enemy. The results in some respects are predictable they'll fight back."
After nine years and over $300 billion, 1,200 U.S. lives - not to mention coalition forces and civilian casualties - Americans are thinking what are we doing here still?
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"Well, I understand that it's easy to get frustrated about Afghanistan," Petraeus said. "We should remember why we're here - this is where the 9/11 attacks were planned. It is very much a vital national security interest to the U.S. and really all of the countries of the world that are fighting extremism to make sure that there are not sanctuaries in this country once again from which transnational extremists can launch attacks."
It is a war that Americans are growing increasingly disenchanted with. The Taliban has gained ground. IED (Improvised Explosive Devices)attacks have more than doubled in the last year. July was the deadliest month for U.S. troops since the war began. Marjah, which was supposed to be the model of counterinsurgency in the south - turned into a long, bloody slog. In the face of these setbacks, there's a lot to talk about working towards a less than perfect Afghanistan.
"We're not trying to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland in 5 years or less," Petraeus said. "What's good enough, traditional organizing structures and so forth are certainly fine and you'll get that sense when we go out there today."
Every morning at 7:30 sharp there's a commander's briefing. Today, the news included the death toll of insurgents killed in combat: 160 this month, and suspicions that the Taliban had used the pesticide malithion to sicken girls in five provinces.
Petraeus goes out in the field twice a week. Today's battlefield rotation takes the general on a C130 east to an American base near the Pakistan border for another briefing and a military awards ceremony.
What makes eastern Afghanistan even more difficult to tame is that Pakistan is just 20 miles away, beyond the mountains. It's a safe haven where insurgents can regroup, retrain, and re-enter the country whenever they please.
The biggest threat here is a terrorist group called the Haqquani Network based over the border in North Waziristan - which has recently been targeted by the Pakistani military.
Petraeus said Waziristan is "a tough nut to crack." "It's very difficult terrain. They're very bad guys in there."
Americans are very frustrated that there are safe havens. Why can't we exert more pressure?
Petraeus said the Pakistanis have "put a lot of short sticks in a lot of hornet's nests over the course of the last 18 months. If you'd ask me 18 months ago would they have conducted the operations they've conducted I would have doubted them."
Another hot-button issue looming on the horizon: the Obama Administration's plan to begin withdrawing troops next summer. Petraeus continued to downplay the time-line though experts say it's created mountains of anxiety among locals, Afghan officials and even our NATO allies.
"There is no intent to look for the exits and turn out the light come next July 2011," Petraeus said.
We ended the day flying over Kabul.
"Do you ever look out and think this country is too massive to reform?" Couric asked.
"I look at Kabul and I see a city that is transforming," Petraeus replied. "Look at all the construction. We're trying to enable the Afghans to develop this into a country that they can secure and govern."
In terms of his recommendation to President Obama, he says, he refuses to play politics.
"What he wants is my military advice, not my assessment of how something might play on Capitol Hill.
And if he doesn't take the advice?
"We salute smartly, and drive on."
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