On The Ground: Impressions of Afghanistan

CBS News Producer Mary Walsh Writes About Her Trip To The War-Torn Country

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Written by CBS News producer Mary Walsh

At 5,876 feet in elevation - well over a mile - Kabul is one of the highest capital cities in the world. While the Hindu Kush Mountains throw up a stunning vista, there is searing heat, choking dust and a dizziness that can only be described as altitude buzz.

It doesn't take long to see this is a place of startling and uncomfortable contrasts.

The streets of Kabul are lined with ramshackle, low slung structures - so decrepit you really can't call them buildings. Women are covered in burkas yet working - washing, sweeping earthen stoops and tending children. Men are digging ditches, pounding metal in repair shops and organizing tins in the few spare markets.

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This is the economic and cultural center of Afghanistan, I kept thinking that outside of Mogadishu, it's the poorest capital city I'd ever seen.

But not all of it.

One neighborhood is filled with mansions - block after block of enormous houses with turrets, balconies and plate glass windows that soar for three stories. These homes were built by drug lords and on-the-take public officials, our driver told us.

The government, he added, turns a blind eye to the corruption; it's no accident those houses are surrounded by thick security walls and guarded by men with machine guns.

There was an edgy resentment to the people I met in Afghanistan. They were angry at their own government - for its graft and breach of trust. And they were angry at the Americans, for what they believe is cold-hearted disregard for the tragedy of civilian casualties.

These Afghans told me the only thing worse than the Americans staying, would be if they left. Then they say this country - which seems a shambles wherever you look - would really be in trouble.

The new American commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has a vision of U.S. troops stepping out of their armored vehicles and into shops to do something radical - like buy a few products.

"I would really like to get to the point where coalition forces could mingle with the population freely in a place like Kabul," McChrystal told CBS News correspondent David Martin.

A long-distance runner, McChrystal wants to jog across the field of the soccer stadium where the Taliban used to stone to death women accused of violating Islamic law.

We watched Captain Paul Shephard lead a patrol through a village called Baraki Barak south of Kabul just a few days later after talking with McChrystal. A American soldier from his base camp had just been killed by a roadside bomb, but Shephard went into the market with a few words of Pashtu and his money at the ready. He walked out with a jar of jam and a few friendly smiles.

That trip through the market would not have been possible even a few months ago. Shephard told us the area was hostile and violent but "did a 180" after the American troop presence had been increased ten-fold.

There used to be 500 soldiers trying to provide security in this region; now there are 5,000. It's hard to imagine what it would take to win over every hard scrabble village in an impoverished country the size of Texas.

Written by CBS News producer Mary Walsh