The challenge of leading men in Afghanistan

Friday marks the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

Why has it lasted so long? CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley is just back from spending a few days with American troops there. Pelley saw first hand the difficulties they face, when CBS News went on patrol with a platoon in the fields and villages of Kandahar Province.

Greg Durso, 23 years old, from Lynbrook, New York, is two months into his first combat tour. As a lieutenant in the 287 Infantry, he leads his own platoon: 40 Americans, and 30 Afghan soldiers.

Special Section: Afghanistan, Ten Years Later

"I think any leader can say his worst day is when you lose your own men. You are given this gift of these American sons and their families entrust their lives to you. But this is war, there are some thing you cannot avoid, and losing people feels like losing your own children," Durso said.

Durso has lost two men, both to homemade landmines. They find dozens of them every week. If it seems we've been in Afghanistan a long time, it helps to watch these men's boots. You don't cover much ground when you worry over every step. It might take hours to cross 100 yards. The new lieutenant has learned: Leave the path, go the hard way -- in this case, trudging down a stream.

"Better wet than dead," Durso said.

The homemade mines don't spark under water.

"If you can walk in water the whole time, you'll do it," Durso said.

Durso went to West Point because he wanted to serve in Afghanistan. When we asked why, he told us about a day, 10 years ago, in New York, when a childhood friend waited for a father who would never come home.

"The day after 9/11, I was at her house. She got real quiet and she eventually looked back at me and asked: 'Who's going to walk me down the aisle when I get married?' It wasn't just an event to me it was people, my own people, my own town, so to see something like that and not do anything about it was ludicrous to me. I knew this was what I needed to do," Durso said.

Now he's learning this new terrain. There are the long mud walls that support grape rows. They hide the enemy and slow the march.

One of the unique things about fighting in this part of Afghanistan are the structures called "grape huts." This is where the farmers in this region take their grapes and dry them into the raisins this part of Afghanistan is famous for. But the insidious thing for U.S. forces is that these grape hut walls, these mud walls, are more than two feet thick. The American rifle cannot penetrate this and yet there are all these slits that are just perfect for snipers.

The troops find weapons caches in grape huts and the huts are often booby trapped. So Durso's men clear them with explosives.

While Durso steps lightly, he also walks a fine line. Protecting his men often alienates the farmers he's trying to win over. This man's house was damaged in the mine clearing explosion. He says, "My house is destroyed." He's exaggerating. The damage was small and the soldiers will pay him. But if you ask why the path in Afghanistan so long, one lieutenant will tell you, it's two steps forward, one step back.

"If I destroy a grape hut, in the long run does that help or hurt me? Maybe in the short run I got two insurgents. Great, you might have found a cache, but then, weeks down the road does that hurt you when those farmers who own that grape hut say, 'Well, these guys blew up my livelihood'? It is a process that requires a people's change of heart and that is not something that you see overnight," Durso said.

Lieutenant Durso is on an eight-year enlistment. He added three years to get the Army's guarantee that he would be in the infantry in Afghanistan.

  • Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, "60 Minutes"