JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, an update on the war in Afghanistan, more terrorist attacks, more American troops. We start with some background narrated by Spencer Michels.
SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Today’s raid in western Kabul was yet another reminder of the Afghan government’s challenge to halt the spiraling violence in that country.
The targets were militants accused of plotting the failed assassination attempt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a military parade this weekend.
President Karzai narrowly escaped harm, but three other people, including a legislator, were killed. This morning’s fight lasted several hours and forced residents to flee.
ABDUL RASOOL, Afghan Citizen (through translator): We’re evacuating from here to move the children to a safe place. It is dangerous to be here.
SPENCER MICHELS: Ten hours later, government forces blew up the house where the two reported suspects had barricaded themselves. They were killed, along with a woman and a child.
Afghanistan’s security chief briefed reporters.
AMRULLAH SALEH, Chief, Afghanistan Intelligence Services (through translator): We had to destroy the compounds completely, according to the intelligence from the neighbors, and their faces show that two of them were not Afghans. They were foreigners, and probably one of them is an Afghan.
SPENCER MICHELS: He added there was evidence militants involved in Sunday’s plot were in contact with guerrilla groups who have taken refuge in tribal areas in Pakistan.
Sunday’s attack was among the latest by Taliban and al-Qaida guerrillas in Afghanistan. Yesterday, 18 were killed in a suicide bombing in eastern Afghanistan; 36 more were wounded. Two weeks ago, a dozen police officers were killed after Taliban militants opened fire on their outpost.
According to an Associated Press tally, more than 1,000 people have died in insurgent-related violence so far this year, most of them militants.
More than 60,000 coalition troops, about half of them Americans, are now deployed in the Afghan war, the latest, a contingent of more than 3,000 U.S. Marines fighting in the south.
President Bush has firmly defended the progress in Afghanistan, as he did again yesterday in this tense exchange with a White House reporter.
JOURNALIST: Do you think we’re winning? Do you think we’re winning?
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I do. I think we’re making good progress. I do, yes.
JOURNALIST: Can I just add to that? A couple of weeks ago…
GEORGE W. BUSH: No, you can’t. This is the second follow-up. You usually get one follow-up. I was nice enough to give you one.
And so, yes, I mean, look, is it tough? Yes, it’s tough. Is it difficult? Absolutely. Is it worth the fight? In my judgment, yes, it is.
SPENCER MICHELS: The State Department report out today, which only goes up to 2007, found terrorist attacks were up 16 percent compared to the year before.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.
MARGARET WARNER: Are Afghan and NATO forces winning or losing in Afghanistan? For that, we go to David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post, who just returned from a week-long trip there; and Barnett Rubin, director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, he was in Afghanistan in January.
Welcome, gentlemen, to you both. Thanks for being here.
David Ignatius, what does it tell us that militants could pull off an assassination attempt on the president right in the capital at a military parade?
DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: It tells us, obviously, that the country is not yet secure. Specifically, it tells us that the Afghan security forces, which are the key to our being able to eventually reduce our own troop commitment, are not yet up to snuff.
The ability of these insurgent attackers to get within the firing range of the parade ground where the president and all of the foreign diplomats in Kabul were assembled, fire some kind of grenades, and come very close to killing the president shows that they still have a long way to go.
That said, I do think these recent events shouldn't obscure some really interesting things that are happening on the ground out in the provinces, in particular in the east of Afghanistan.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me just follow up, first of all, though, Professor Rubin, on the attack on the president. And what the security chief said when he spoke to parliament about it this week was we had 4,000 attacks in 2007, and he said, "I can't guarantee you there won't be 8,000 in 2008," if the current sort of security structure in force remains the same.
I mean, what does that say?
BARNETT RUBIN, New York University: What it says is that he's been looking at the same statistics I've been looking at, which shows that there's a very significant increase in the number of incidents this year as compared to last year.
But he also said something else in the package that you ran earlier, which was that the evidence pointed to the fact that these suicide bombers were coming from camps run in Pakistan, which is the same thing that's been shown in previous such attacks, which means that adding -- no matter how many more troops you add into Afghanistan, you won't really be able to get at the root of the problem.
Focus on Pakistan border
MARGARET WARNER: Now, David, you went out into these areas, including an area close to Pakistan, and you did find some improvement there, though.
DAVID IGNATIUS: This is in the area called R.C. East. It's the zone that's been given to the United States. It's Jalalabad, which is where bin Laden had his headquarters initially, and then in the mountains to the north of there.
And what's been interesting is that the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy has begun to get some traction. This was an area of enormous violence. Much of it was a no-go zone for the U.S., largely in insurgent hands.
And, you know, having traveled through that area over several days, I can say you get around. You do see that, as roads are built out, as schools and bridges are built, the population is, you know, beginning to turn around a little bit.
I think the point that Professor Rubin made, that you still have people streaming over the border -- and out there...
MARGARET WARNER: Was that apparent?
DAVID IGNATIUS: ... the very idea of a border -- well, you know, I mean, these borders are barely demarcated. There are tribes that move back and forth. I mean, it's very tough to do.
The strategy the U.S. is adopting here is to try to separate the population from the insurgents, drive the insurgents deeper away from the main highways, into the valleys, and then begin to have economic development with the folks in the population centers. And there are signs it's working.
BARNETT RUBIN: Margaret?
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Rubin, do you think it's working? Yes?
BARNETT RUBIN: No, I mean, this is the typical report that comes back from someone who goes to Afghanistan, is embedded with U.S. troops, and then comes back with a short visit.
And they take him on a show tour of eastern Afghanistan, where the U.S. is engaged in counterinsurgency. And on the basis of that tour, he makes generalizations about the rest of the country which are not valid.
First of all, the problem is not that you can't close the border. The problem is that, on the other side of the border, there's a state, Pakistan, which has been using Taliban and similar militants as part of its foreign policy for decades, part of the time with our support.
They have continued to do so, and they have not gotten control of their own territory, despite demands by the democratic parties in that country that the military should do so.
Second, while in R.C. East it is true that, thanks to the counterinsurgency that is being carried out by the U.S. troops in those areas, they have somewhat better control over the territory.
That is not true in other areas of the country, specifically in the two provinces directly south of Kabul -- Wardak and Lowgar -- which is where these -- along the routes from which these suicide bombers come and from which Taliban would come from the south.
The level of Taliban and other insurgent activity in the past few months has increased at a higher rate than in the rest of the country. And Kabul is completely open from that side.
Security in the South?
MARGARET WARNER: All right, let me -- and so what's your assessment of what's going on in the south? Now, this is an area that is actually being run by the British, is that right? But this is where the U.S. sent this new Marine force in.
DAVID IGNATIUS: The British, the Canadians, other countries. I wouldn't pretend to be an expert. I don't mean to make claims. It was a short trip.
All I can say is what I saw with my own eyes, that, you know, you do see -- you can tell when a place is more secure as opposed to less secure.
Certainly, you know, in the areas that I traveled in the south, I was in Kandahar and further to the west, in Lashkar Gah, in Helmand province. These are the areas where the insurgency is still very strong. The Marines have been sent into the south to try to help with more aggressive operations interdiction.
But, you know, you fly over unbroken fields of opium poppies that are not being eradicated. It's clear that they are helping to finance the insurgency. It's clear that those are lawless areas.
The only point I'd make to Professor Rubin is that, in the east, it does seem -- and, you know, one ought to be skeptical about the claims -- but it does seem as if this counterinsurgency approach is having some success.
Certainly, our other NATO allies operating in the south have that same idea. And the question is, can they apply similar tactics and have a little bit of that success?
MARGARET WARNER: So bottom-line question -- I'm going to roll two into here, which I shouldn't do, Professor Rubin -- which is, bring in the Karzai government here and answer the question, if you would -- there was a study, report came out in January, headed by General Jones and former Ambassador Pickering, saying Afghanistan is on its way to being a failed state: can the current strategy, troop level, and way the Karzai government operates, if that continues, can Afghanistan be stabilized?
BARNETT RUBIN: Well, I was on that panel with General Jones and Ambassador Pickering, so I endorse their findings.
Certainly, given the current strategy, the administration will be fully able to kick the can over to the next administration, at which we'll then face a really difficult situation in 2009, when the international community and the Afghan government are supposed to conduct presidential elections in Afghanistan, something which will be virtually impossible to do, given that very large parts of the country are no-go areas for the United Nations and for the Afghan government.
And the failure to conduct credible presidential elections in 2009 could be a huge blow to the legitimacy of the government. And I haven't seen any really serious planning on how to do that. I guess that's because it's something for the next administration to worry about.
DAVID IGNATIUS: I agree. I think the elections next year are crucial. The problem in Afghanistan is governance. The Karzai government is weak. The quality of regional governance in the provinces varies widely. Where there's better governance, there does seem to be better outcomes.
But I think that that's true. And the problem is there are limited things the U.S. can do. You can't force a country to elect the people you think would be better.
And there is, at this point, no obvious alternative to Karzai that I heard Afghans talking about as a Pashtun presidential candidate.
MARGARET WARNER: But a quick follow-up. Some U.S. commanders on the ground are saying they're going to need more troops. And President Bush promised more in 2009.
Very briefly, David and then Professor Rubin, will that be necessary?
DAVID IGNATIUS: General McNeill, the commander of overall forces, says he does need two more brigades. And I think General Petraeus will have to make the decision where to allocate resources as CENTCOM commander.
MARGARET WARNER: Briefly, Professor, more troops?
BARNETT RUBIN: Focusing on the number of troops just repeats the huge mistake that the Bush administration made from the beginning, which is to define this as a military problem.
More troops in Afghanistan cannot affect the regional situation, which gives the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan. And they cannot affect the bad governance in Afghanistan, which makes the country accessible to the Taliban.
In fact, when our troops contract out with warlords, thereby reinforcing the corruption of the government, we make the situation worse.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you, both. We have to leave it there. Thanks.