What Challenges Lie Ahead In Kabul?
NORRIS: So how is the war really going? For months now we've been hearing from the administration that progress is being made in Afghanistan. President Obama reiterated that last night when he said this...
President BARACK OBAMA: Even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance.
NORRIS: To get a better sense of the situation on the ground, where hotspots remain and how the war might change as U.S. troops pull out, we turn now to two of our correspondents. Tom Bowman and Quil Lawrence are both in Kabul, Afghanistan.
And Tom, I want to begin with you. As you've been traveling with the U.S. Marines and Army units over the past three weeks, could you give us a broad picture from the military's point of view of where things stand now?
TOM BOWMAN: Well, Michele, we were in two parts of the country - Helmand province in the southwest where the marines are and also in the eastern part of the country where the Army soldiers, in the area we were in was probably about 12 miles from the Pakistani border. And both these areas have seen some of the heaviest fighting and the largest concentration of American troops.
Now, in Helmand Province we were in this area called Marjah, which over a year ago was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting. It's a large area of canals and orchards and fields. It was really a no-go zone for not only the Americans, but also the Afghan government as well. There was no presence there of any kind, very heavily Taliban. And the American Marines pushed out the Taliban and now they're sitting up patrol bases around there just to keep an eye on things.
Now, in the eastern part of the country, it's a different kind of fight. The Taliban tend to be hiding out in the mountains and attacking the Americans and the Afghan forces up in the hills. But what the Americans say now is they're seeing smaller numbers of Taliban on the attack, maybe a half dozen or more, whereas a year ago, they saw maybe a couple of dozen or more Taliban, heavier concentration. So they point to that as a measure of success.
And overall, they're saying that the security situation is much, much better, but they caution that by saying it is fragile and reversible.
NORRIS: Tom, we hear the president talk about the light of a secure peace that might be seen in the distance and the progress that's being made. How would the military quantify that in terms of the number of attacks, troop deaths, other measures?
BOWMAN: Well, they look at it from a number of different ways, Michele. First of all, in Marjah, that former no-go zone, they now have a district center there. They have some governance there. And they also say a lot more shops are opening up. They're paving roads. They're starting construction projects.
Also, they point at there are tens of thousands of more Afghan security forces. So there are a number of ways they are pointing to progress. And they also say that they are killing and capturing a lot more Taliban commanders.
NORRIS: Thank you, Tom Bowman. Now, I want to bring Quil Lawrence into this as well. Quil, you've been covering more of the civilian side of this conflict. Does a position of strength for the U.S. military in that case translate into a better reality for the people of Afghanistan?
QUIL LAWRENCE: Not necessarily. And the American military officials did warn that it would be a very bloody fight when they were taking some of these territories away from the insurgents. But what we've seen instead is that the insurgents appear to have figured out that they're outmatched by the heavy armor and heavy weaponry of U.S. and other international troops and they're turning towards softer targets.
May, according to the United Nations, was the worst month on record for civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Now, most of those, well over 80 percent, were probably caused by insurgent groups, the Taliban and others. But as for a regular person living anywhere in the countryside or some of the large cities in Afghanistan, this means that the reality seems worse.
They keep on hearing from the Americans and sometimes from the government that the direction of things have changed, but from their perspective, maybe the ship is turned around, but it's still in the middle of the ocean.
NORRIS: What would constitute a successful end to this conflict in Afghanistan? And what does the future look like in terms of military involvement? The president was talking about a drawdown, but not a complete withdrawal of American forces.
LAWRENCE: Well, we keep hearing from the military that they success in their minds is training up enough Afghan security forces. They say the Afghan forces are getting much better. From what I saw, though, it's still kind of a mixed bag. Some of them are doing pretty well. They can patrol on their own. Others will still need quite a bit of work.
But they also say they need a government that responds to the needs of their people. Security is definitely getting better but a lot of officers I talk with say the governance part still isn't happening.
LAWRENCE: I would say that it really depends on where you go in the country. Walking around Helmond last week and talking to someone from Sangin, which is still very troublesome spot in the north of Helmond, people from there say success for us is when the Americans stop raiding our homes in the middle of the night and terrorizing and causing civilian casualties. That's their perception. They just want the foreigners to be gone in some of these places. They see that more American troops have meant more combat and more trouble for them.
Now, if you go to places, for example, the capital of Kabul, they're really uncertain. They'll tell me that we still need so much help - we want the Americans to stay here for five more years, for 10 more years. Someone this morning told me he wanted the Americans maybe to stay for 50 years, until Afghanistan has reeducated its population; until its government works; until its army and police are able to defend the country from very hostile neighbors, as they see it, as well as from threats within.
NORRIS: I've been speaking with Quil Lawrence and Tom Bowman, two of our correspondents reporting from Afghanistan. Quil, Tom, thanks to both of you.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
LAWRENCE: Thank you.
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