Only hours before Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hopped a helicopter to the coalition base in Kandahar, an Army Chinook took small-arms fire and crash-landed. No one was hurt. But it was further proof that Southern Afghanistan is a very dangerous place where U.S. and NATO forces are engaged in an all-out war with the Taliban.
“They do not want a country like Afghanistan to become a successful democracy,” Rumsfeld said during his visit here. “They would like to do everything they can to stop it. They're not going to succeed.”
But Lt. Gen. Carl Eikenberry, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, says that for now, the Taliban is back, and in some respects, bigger than ever.
“The Taliban is more organized than they were last year,” Eikenberry says. “And they have more fighters in certain areas."
Pentagon and military officials say they are taking the Taliban head-on as a result of an aggressive new offensive by U.S. and coalition forces called “Mountain Thrust.” designed to flush the Taliban out of its strongholds in four southern provinces.
But there's increasing evidence the Taliban is cashing in on Afghanistan's $2 billion-per-year heroin trade.
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, an NBC military analyst, thinks a lot of drug money is flowing into the Taliban.
“We're seeing among the Taliban now shiny new weapons,” McCaffrey says. “Commercial camping gear, civilian-purchased communications equipment.”
Rumsfeld, however, sees bright spots, like the town of Qalat in the southern province of Zabul, where coalition reconstruction is taking hold and Taliban influence is waning. Also, the number of NATO forces in Afghanistan will soon double to 16,000.
But what does that mean for U.S. troops?
Some 23,000 American forces are in Afghanistan today. As much as Rumsfeld may want to start bringing them home, U.S. military officials say with the recent surge in violence and a determined Taliban, it's not likely anytime soon.
But Rumsfeld remains optimistic the Taliban will be defeated.
“There isn't any reason in the world why this country can’t succeed,” he says.