Year of Reporting Trips Revolves Around Afghanistan

BY Margaret Warner  December 31, 2009 at 1:24 PM EDT

Margaret Warner reporting in Afghanistan

In a year that took me from the NewsHour studio to trouble spots abroad, the most searing impressions come from two trips to Afghanistan. The first trip was for three-plus weeks in February and March, to take stock of the situation as newly elected President Obama was weighing a shift in U.S. strategy — and troop strength. The picture wasn’t pretty.

No one single interview, but a dizzying whirl of them, made clear how daunting a security challenge the U.S. faced: * The sight of U.S. and Afghan soldiers at a [remote mountain outpost](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/jan-june09/afghanistan_03-16.html) in the east, taking shots from Taliban fighters on ridges above them, and hearing them tell of the suspicion and betrayal they face from the Afghan villagers they were there to protect.
* The anger of a Kabul minibus driver railing about U.S. raids killing civilians.
* An 11-year-old would-be suicide bomber, trained in a Pakistan madrassa and captured — explosive vest and all — by Afghan authorities, telling me sweetly that it was his duty to “kill all non-Muslims.”
* A former Taliban official, now under house arrest, boasting of the ground the Taliban was gaining every day.
* The fear on the face of a farmer in drug-growing, Taliban-infested [Helmand Province](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/jan-june09/afghanistan_03-18.html) … and the frank admission of the U.S. commander in the south that the outmanned U.S. forces there were losing ground. The picture was even worse on the civilian side: * Ostentatious “poppy palaces” of drug lords and corrupt government officials in Kabul alongside muddy, rutted roads, and out-of-work day laborers at a nearby roundabout so desperate to feed their families that one said he’d blow himself up for anyone who’d pay him $1,000.
* A young medical student outside traffic court, who’d just paid $200 to get his driving license renewed, and the Kabul airport commander who’d been fired for busting well-connected drug smugglers.
* The happy faces of girls finally [getting to go to school](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/jan-june09/afghanwomen_03-20.html), while dozens of women at an NGO-run training center told of abuse at the hands of their men at home. Since my first trip, President Obama’s new ground commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has revamped the military strategy: withdrawing U.S. forces from those remote outposts to concentrate on protecting major population centers, and ordering a halt to raids that could kill civilians, even if insurgents get away. But my second trip in November showed no progress on the civilian side, when it came to the things that affect Afghans’ daily lives. I’d gone to cover the runoff of the fraud-plagued presidential election, but got there just in time to see President Karzai’s main rival, former foreign minister [Abdullah Abdullah](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/july-dec09/afghanistan2_11-04.html), withdraw to protest the rigged process. I visited a charred guest house where five United Nations election workers had been slaughtered by Taliban attackers for the crime of trying to facilitate a free election. I was on hand when the head of the U.N. mission announced he had to withdraw more than half the [international U.N. force](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/july-dec09/unitednations_11-05.html) for safety. And I heard Afghan after Afghan — from a [media company magnate to a poor potter](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/july-dec09/afghan_11-06.html) — say it’s now or never for President Karzai to curb the corruption and start delivering basic services. Sadly, most sounded skeptical that he was up to it. The crowning moment was an [interview with Karzai](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/july-dec09/karzai2_11-09.html) himself in the vast opulence of his presidential palace. He planned to make some changes in his second term, he said, but he gave a frosty response to the calls from President Obama and others that he govern more effectively. He was dismissive of the U.N.’s decision to partially withdraw workers who’d risked their lives to help his country. “I don’t think Afghanistan will notice it,” he said. “We wish them well wherever they are.” And he voiced mistrust of American intentions, noting the US abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviet left. “We keep hearing assurances from the US, but we are like, once bitten, twice shy,” he said. “We have to watch, be careful, while we trust.” Three weeks later, President Obama traveled to West Point to [announce 30,000 more U.S. troops](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/july-dec09/obamaspeech_12-01.html) to carry out McChrystal’s revamped strategy. And he made clear he expected the Karzai government to step up to his end of the bargain. The year 2010 should tell us whether the two-pronged approach will work, and whether after 30 years of war, the benighted Afghan people might finally get the peace they yearn for, and deserve.