Rebuilding Afghanistan?

Lesley Stahl Reports From Afghanistan

Can the U.S. rebuild two countries at the same time -- Iraq and Afghanistan? Lesley Stahl reports from Afghanistan.

Eighteen months after the war, there was little evidence of the reconstruction the U.S. promised.

And despite the presence of 12,000 U.S. and allied troops, parts of the country are slipping back into chaos. For one thing, the Taliban is still strong enough to have mounted an aggressive spring offensive.

Car bombs, shootings and rocket attacks are commonplace, even in remote villages. And many women, afraid of being harassed and beaten, still wear burkas.

More troubling in a way is the return of the warlords that the U.S. enlisted and financed in the war against the Taliban and al Qaida.

You don't have to go far outside Kabul to see that the warlords and their private armies have regained control of many parts of Afghanistan. Their gunmen prowl the countryside. Suppressed under the Taliban, they're back because the U.S. brought them back. And now they're strong enough and menacing enough to challenge President Hamid Karzai and his fledgling government.

U.S. policy seems to be at cross-purposes. On the one hand, U.S. intelligence continues to provide the private militias controlled by the warlords with money and weapons so they'll help in the fight against the Taliban and the hunt for al Qaida.

But at the same time, the U.S. government supports a policy to disarm the warlords. Anything that enhances their power and legitimacy undermines a goal, a major goal of U.S. policy, which is to strengthen Karzai's central government.

But Ambassador William Taylor, the U.S. official here in charge of reconstruction, says that neither President Karzai nor the U.S. has much choice in supporting many of the warlords.

"In some cases, these militia, these power bases that you describe, are the only force against chaos and lawlessness, so it's not like we can go in and get rid of militia tomorrow, because we don't want to generate chaos," says Taylor.

But the problem is these warlords are out for themselves. They run their regions like fiefdoms, keeping the taxes and customs duties they're supposed to be collecting for the central government.

And some, like Padsha Khan, the warlord of Paktia Province in the south, are outright bandits whose men terrorize their local populations.

"We have 600 men patrolling this area around the clock," says Khan, speaking through a translator.

Khan is holed up in the mountains near the Pakistan border. Once an ally of the U.S., he's now accused of harboring al Qaida members. He says he has an army of thousands and showed off his stockpile of weapons.

"We have mortars, we have RPGs, rocket-propelled grenades, Kalashnikov rifles," says Khan.

And he's not afraid to use them, even against U.S. troops. 60 Minutes hitched a helicopter ride with the U.S. military down into Khan's territory. Flying south, machine gunners scanned the landscape, making us all too aware that Khan's men have been firing rockets at U.S. bases in the mountains.

We were heading for Gardez, one of the main towns in the region. Last year Khan shelled the town, killing 50 of his own countrymen. In other areas, warlords are also shooting at each other, as the country degenerates into violence and lawlessness.

"There have been hijackings of vehicles. Our offices were looted," says Paul O'Brien of Care International in Kabul. He says that after a Red Cross worker was assassinated in March, many aid agencies including Care International suspended operations in parts of the country.

"There is no functioning national security structure outside of Kabul," says O'Brien. "There is no police, there is no Afghan national army that can actually provide security to ordinary Afghans trying to go about the work of rebuilding their lives. So there's just a security vacuum."

The one part of the country that is relatively safe and secure is in Kabul, the capital, and that's because of the international peacekeepers that patrol the streets. But the Bush administration has refused to support deployment of the peacekeepers outside of Kabul despite pleas from the Afghan government.

And that leaves most of the people at the mercy of the warlords' gunmen, unable to get on with their lives. Without security, they can't farm or create businesses. Afghanistan is frozen in another era.

Eighteen months after the war, you still see rubble everywhere, and the people are living in it without electricity or clean water. There's hardly any sign of rebuilding. President Karzai describes his country as a bombed-out shell.

"Have you been to the airport in Kabul," asks Karzai. "Doesn't it look like the graveyard of aircraft? Imagine pieces of hundreds of aircraft that we had that are not there. The Afghan air force had 300 or more aircraft. We don't have four now."

Karzai says the continuing violence has scared away investors. He wants the U.S. military to step in.

"They should do more exactly in a very visible manner to help the legitimate authority of Afghanistan impose the rule of law all over the country," says Karzai. "We keep asking them to do that."

But the U.S. military says our troops are here to hunt down terrorists. Colonel Roger King told us they're under orders not to get involved in anything else.

Do we do anything to protect the Afghan people or help disarm the warlords?

"It's not our purpose. We're not here on a security or stability mission," says King. "They're there and they're part of the landscape. They're part of the situation of Afghanistan."

President Karzai tried to co-opt the warlords by naming several of them local governors. But all that did was make them even stronger. Now he's trying to rein them in.

He had a meeting with the warlords, the governors, and asked them to disarm their private militias. But have they done it?

"It's in the process," says Karzai.

But why would they give up the power?

"In the interest of Afghanistan," says Karzai. "Can you allow in the United States a situation where a governor does not respond to the central authority?"

If all this isn't confounding enough, the biggest warlord of them all is also the vice president and minister of defense in Karzai's government.

Marshal Mohammad Fahim was head of the victorious Northern Alliance during the war. The Bush administration asked him not to enter Kabul with his troops, but he did anyway, and he and the troops stayed.

60 Minutes got a rare look inside their garrison --15,000 well-disciplined troops in Kabul alone, and very well equipped.

Fahim was happy to show off his muscle and his firepower: artillery, rocket launchers, and missiles. But Fahim claims all the weaponry and forces no longer belong to him.

"All the forces belong to Afghanistan, to the Ministry of Defense," says Fahim, speaking through a translator. "They're [his militia] loyal to me as long as I am the defense minister of Afghanistan."

His militia, renamed the Ministry of Defense Army, is the most powerful force in the country. His troops often accompany U.S. forces against the increasingly aggressive Taliban.

It's no wonder Fahim gets pretty much whatever he wants, including recognition from the United States.

"The Ministry of Defense does have legitimate forces, and those legitimate forces are, probably used to be in his militia," says Taylor. "But he is the minister of defense, and the president, of course, is overall in charge, but he has militia that are in the army of Afghanistan."

It's as if Donald Rumsfeld had his own army in Washington, his own separate army who was loyal to him.

"Afghanistan is a very interesting place. There are some unusual things here," says Taylor.

Taylor says the U.S. has a plan, and this is it: U.S. Special Forces training a new national army to eventually replace Fahim's and all the warlords' militias.

The warlords are supposed to send their best men to the new army, but Lt. Colonel Kevin McDonnell of U.S. Special Forces, who's in charge of the training says, no surprise, the warlords aren't exactly cooperating.

They want to keep them for their own armies. They haven't turned that corner.

"They haven't turned that corner completely," says McDonnell. "Well, they were sending, they were sending a lot of people that washed out of the training."

So it's been slow going. After a year, there are only 3,000 fully trained, hardly a threat to Fahim's 100,000 men.

So, does Fahim think people should be afraid of him?

"It is not so," says Fahim. "On the contrary of what you heard, I am an educated person, a national patriot and a farsighted young person. You can guess from my appearance psychologically, do I look like someone people would be afraid of?"

In Kabul, there is constant talk of a power struggle between the president and the vice president, and it struck us as odd that the minute Karzai left the country on a state visit to Pakistan, Fahim moved himself and his staff into the presidential office and declared himself in charge.

So, what does Karzai say when people believe that Fahim is the strongest man in Afghanistan?

"I'm the president, he's my defense minister and my deputy," says Karzai. "I have the power to remove anybody I want from this government. Whether I use that power or not is a different question."

Fahim seems to grow in strength while Karzai lives under constant threat of assassination. The U.S. is committed to protecting him, but that means he's increasingly viewed as an American puppet, and anti-Americanism is starting to simmer among the Afghan people.

"They're frustrated, and they do at some level look at the international community and the United States in particular and say, 'You made promises to us. You told us we'd have peace in Afghanistan. Now I don't feel safe in my town,'" says O'Brian. "And that frustration does lead to fingers being pointed."

The U.S. is trying to win over hearts and minds. At a school the U.S. military rebuilt in Gardez where it's a triumph that little girls now attend. But it's a small project in a country with huge problems after 25 years of perpetual war.

"The Afghan people did not a chance to do anything but hide or run away or make life somehow possible," says Karzai. "They couldn't educate their children, they couldn't make money, they couldn't do trade. Now is the time to clean out the destruction of war, and it will take a lot of time."

Is President Karzai optimistic?

"Oh, yeah. That's my nature."