Louis Molina  /  NBC News
Five years after the U.S. and its allies invaded in the wake of 9/11, the struggle to create lasting stability in Afghanistan continues. Part of the solution, say American and Afghan officials, is in the creation of locally based security forces. Here, young Afghans who have signed up for the expanding national army and police forces, show off their new uniforms and weapons.
By Kerry Sanders Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/4/2006 7:17:36 AM ET 2006-10-04T11:17:36

KABUL, Afghanistan — So, just how long ago was it that the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan began?

Here's a little perspective: When the first troops went in, some of those now fighting for the U.S. in this country were only 14.

Yes, it was five years ago that I boarded a rickety old Russian chopper in Tajikistan as I accompanied the Northern Alliance into Afghanistan as the invasion began on Oct. 7, 2001.

On a wing and a prayer, I landed in a country with only one major highway, a place where a husband could beat his wife without consequences, a land with an environment so harsh, fathers told me they had six or seven children because they knew not all would survive to adulthood.

Today, Afghanistan has taken baby-steps forward, but just baby steps.

Slow progress
There's still only one highway. Husbands still regularly beat their wives, and the World Health Organization says infant mortality here is still among the worst in the world. 

But there is a constitution, a democratically elected president and education for both boys and girls. But, as Masuda Jalal, who recently stepped down as Minister for Women's Affairs, will remind you, such political trappings do not reflect deep-seated realities.

The constitution “is guaranteeing equal opportunity in all walks of life,” Masuda said, “but let me tell you, it's [just] on paper. And it does not translate to the routine of life of women.”

Jalal ran for elected office, including for president, twice. She admits that her experience is a clear example of progress. But now she's afraid to venture beyond the four walls surrounding her house. She fears if she were to go out, she might be assassinated. She's been told she's marked for death.

She says the Taliban have threatened to kill her in part because she's worked so hard to promote women's rights. The Taliban oppose women's progress based on their strict interpretation of the Koran, Islam's holy book.

Complicated and complex place
Why, five years after the U.S. arrived here to remove the repressive Taliban, are things moving so slowly?

Dozens of U.S. military commanders, tribal leaders and Afghan experts interviewed by NBC News say the U.S. — like Russia in the war it fought here in the 1980s — is facing the ongoing reality that Afghanistan is a complex, fragmented society situated in a forbidding and difficult landscape. 

The people more readily identify with their tribal roots than their nation and have an immense distrust of promises made by outsiders. In this case, that means about 20,000 members of the U.S. military as well as another 20,000 members from other NATO nations.

U.S. Army Pvt. Wayne Blake, who has spent 18 months in Afghanistan and is now on his second tour, explained some of the difficulties of the U.S. mission.

“To be honest, it's risky going out there [beyond the walls of the forward operating base],” said Blake. “Sometimes I keep my Bible close to help me make sure I make it back in by the end of the day."

"Did you think things would be different five years in?" I asked.

"Basically, I think things would have changed, but it's getting worse from my point of view," said Blake.

More than278Americans in uniform have been killed in Afghanistan since the war began.Yet, in the shadow of Iraq, where 2,716 members of the U.S. military have been killed, Afghanistan has become known as "The Forgotten War."

"Iraq is a much bigger animal, but we did start off here,” said Army Sgt. Shawn Sessions at the forward operating base, known as Camp Warrior. “I didn't think we were going to be here this long but we still are and we're still trying to build up the local populace, schools, roads and [so on]."

Achilles’ heel: Opium trade
Several experts say an insurmountable problem is drugs. The poppy crop this year will provide 92 percent of the world's illegal opium supply, according to U.N. estimates.

The U.N. also believes this year’s crop is a 50 percent increase over last year’s crop. And as the poppy harvest has returned, it has become a key source of funding for the Taliban. (Ironically, the Taliban was quite successful when in power at curbing the growth and trade of opium.)

Louis Molina  /  NBC News
Correspondent Kerry Sanders stands next to an old Russian tank in Moqur, Afghanistan -a reminder of the country's last 30-years of war.

The result: These well-armed, determined warriors have a seemingly endless supply of funds to battle the U.S. and NATO.

Three-star Army General Karl Eikenberry says the best way to win against the Taliban is to build schools, roads, water systems and other infrastructure. To give the people proof that the U.S. is here to improve their lives. 

"What we see is that here in Afghanistan, after 30-years of warfare — including civil war among themselves — that the real challenge we've got is straightening the government of Afghanistan, trying to stand the government of Afghanistan up, expanding its influence,” explained Eikenberry.

It's a challenge that continues. "America told me we would have fresh water," said Haji Raie, a tribal leader from Shinwari in the eastern Nangarhar province. "Where is that water today? They said we would have a road. Where is the road today?"

Raies said he has 1 million members of his tribe who wanted to believe the U.S., but today are skeptical when they see anyone in a military uniform, especially a foreign one.

Biggest challenge: stability
To counter that, the U.S. has helped the Afghan government establish a new army and police force. Today there are 35,000 trained members of the Afghan National Army and 42,000 trained and armed members of the Afghan National Police.

If a stable democratic government can be established here, then General Eikenberry believes that "the conditions for international terrorism to come here that existed 10 years ago will be eliminated."

To be sure, experts and locals I talked with all agree that the battle in Afghanistan has made it next to impossible for a terrorist cell to train and plan an attack on the U.S. from a base in this country.

But as to how long must U.S. and NATO troops remain in Afghanistan before it can govern itself in a way that promises to the rest of the world that terrorists will never again use it as a safe-haven, remains an unanswered question.

Kerry Sanders is an NBC News Correspondent. He was recently on assignment in Afghanistan.  

Video: Still struggling


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