The Kabul airport harkens back to the days of the Soviet invasion. It is small, cold, but immigration moves along fairly quickly. Aleem, our invaluable local producer, meets me and has most of the luggage already loaded on a cart. We walk outside and to my surprise, it's empty. Aleem explains that anyone meeting passengers has to wait about 300 yards away from the terminal, outside, at a gate. My first taste of the security situation here.
A quick trip to the hotel, and I get my second taste of the security situation in the city. Most of the roads are lined with walls -- some 15-20 feet high. Gates and doors for access remain closed except when vehicles come and go. Buildings lay behind them, but are not seen and frequently not identified by a sign. The hotel is the same and we -- along with all our gear -- must go through security to gain entry. There was a suicide attack here a year ago on the hotel gym and spa. Taliban militants used grenades and machine guns to gain access to the hotel lobby. Seven people died.
With attacks on the rise, pessimism is up and security fears loom large, even as the United States considers sending more troops to the country.
The city is busy. Dust everywhere. There has been a five-year old drought here. Traffic everywhere, no rules on the road. Vehicles coming within inches of each other, but never touching. Clearly poor, children on the street hawking cassette tapes and maps of Kabul. But there is also a never-ending supply of shops selling appliances, electronics, clothes, one selling expensive-looking western dresses. We pass by bakeries, butcher shops with whole pigs hanging in the open air. There seems to be plenty of commerce taking place.
We visit the headquarters of the polling company that conducted the field work for the ABC/BBC/ARD poll. We accompany a couple of poll workers who are going to survey some local Afghans. We head to the edge of Kabul and visit a couple of simple houses. Our hosts are gracious. From the answers to the poll worker, their main concerns are security and jobs. Later, we find out while working on a separate survey, two poll workers are killed, a reminder of how dangerous the country is.
Dave Warner is a fascinating guy. Twice a doctor (MD and PhD), he has boundless energy and is convinced the U.S. is going about its mission in Afghanistan the wrong way. He runs a house outside Jalalabad where young people -- generally exceedingly smart international students -- come and help teach the locals what they can produce, using the simplest of tools and resources. It is called the Fab Lab.
Doing Business With the Devil to Survive
One project we see them working on was making a pair of communications towers. Cutting pieces of wood, assembling them together in a concave structure and staple gunning chicken wire to it, they mount the antennas and are able to extend Internet service to the hospital three miles away. It's a cheap, easy, and very valuable way to help win "hearts and minds."
Reflecting on hearts and minds, it seems many people in Afghanistan are stuck. Do they really support the Taliban? Probably not. But if you live in a mud hut with no job and no prospect for the future and someone comes along and offers you a place to stay, food, or money in return for a "job" -- even if it's for something you're not wholeheartedly enthusiastic about -- what are you going to do? You're going to sign up. Especially if you risk death by failing to do so.
Desperate people use different calculations to make decisions than people who have their basic needs met; sometimes doing business with the devil is the only way to survive.
The universal sign of a school in Afghanistan is chairs and desks on the roof. What few schools exist, are so crowded that the desks take up valuable space that could be used to cram in more students. And because there is no trash removal, they can't get rid of the desks, so they put them on the roof to get them out of the way. This school -- with the support of Dave and his group -- now teaches 3,800 students, including over 1,000 girls in three shifts.
Not far from the school is the former house of Osama bin Laden, where he lived before he fled into the mountains of Tora Bora. It is not safe to stop there, but we drive by it, and look through the crumbling walls. It is obvious a missile once targeted the structure.
Sak village is inhabited by nomads, and they are cut off from the rest of Jalalabad by the Kabul River. The only way around is a several hour donkey ride downstream to the nearest bridge, or the way we chose to cross: by water. We get to the village on little rafts built of sticks laid over three partially inflated inner tubes, paddled by an 8-year-old boy using a shovel.
The village consists of a few mud huts. The children have unique appearances. Some have blond hair and blue eyes. Their faces, dirty and stark, are haunting. It was a fascinating look into a centuries-old culture. Dave had promised to bring paper and pens for the children, and as they are handed out, the kids grab them -- not rudely, but just so excited to have something that for them is a real luxury, so prized.
Getting Out From Behind the Wire
Dave explains his philosophy about the U.S. mission in the country to correspondent Martha Raddatz: "The system is broken and that's why we need to get people out and about into the villages to see with their eyes to meet the people and ask them what do they need."
Martha: "The problem is the people [U.S. forces] are not going out enough? Living behind the wire?"
Dave (pondering diplomatic language): "The current system does not promote that behavior."
One of Dave's security men, who has worked in the country more than four years, is more blunt, arguing that overly restrictive security rules prevent American personnel from carrying out their missions.
"... we have doctrine [the counter insurgency Field Manual] ... in that doctrine it says specifically, do not do these things, and the things it says not to do, is everything we are doing here. Do not get on big bases. Do not ride around in armored convoys isolated from the civilian population. Try not to interact with them with helmet, flak jackets and weapons pointed at them because it tends to stifle conversation. In order to get anything done, you have to put in the time, drinking the tea, talking about the weather, checking on the health of every damn person of every friggin' family. Then you got to sit around for a while, just to show that you have the patience to endure the tedium that follows as you negotiate..."
He's got a point. Putting troops on large military bases, separated from the community, and having them ride around in large, armored vehicles is not going to foster better relations with local communities. It can make the locals feel angry. It's been eight years since the U.S. has been in Afghanistan, and there is not a lot to show for it. So the extremists take advantage of Afghans' feeling of isolation and attack a convoy or plant an IED, which means the U.S. military personnel go out even less frequently into the villages, and when they do, they are even more heavily armored, which makes the locals even angrier and feeling more isolated. It is a vicious cycle and it needs to be broken.
We hop a flight to Bagram Air Field and find members of the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division -- the "surge" brigade -- who are preparing to convoy down to their new headquarters at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank -- where we had been a few days prior with Brigadier General Mark Milley. The convoy of armored vehicles is lined up. Soldiers are finishing loading their HUMVEES and armored trucks and strapping tarps on top. The courage and morale of the soldiers is amazing. Some have spent previous tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, and they are unfailing in their commitment to the mission. The large footprint of tents and huts being constructed at FOB Shank makes clear that U.S. forces will be here for a while.
Bomb Explodes Near U.S. Base
We return to Kabul via road -- not our first choice -- but it is our only choice because the weather prevents flying. A few months ago, making this trip wouldn't have been considered an issue. Today, there is more of a security concern.
We are stopped once at a roundabout by Afghan police, not always known for their discipline or regard for the law. It turns out that some Afghans saw us transferring our gear from our military escort vehicle to our private vehicle outside the Bagram gate and had called the police. Sometimes things are stolen from Bagram was the reason the police gave our Afghan producer who was with us. More likely, the police probably wanted a "piece" of what we had. Corruption rules here. Fortunately, a call from our producer to a police superior at the Ministry of Interior solves our dilemma and we are on our way to the capital.
The next morning we hear sirens. A bomb has gone off near Camp Eggars, one of the military bases within Kabul, and not far from our hotel. Several soldiers -- and many more civilians -- are injured. One soldier later dies.
We had been to Camp Eggars the previous evening to interview the head of U.S. forces training Afghan security forces, Major Gen. Richard Formica. Ironically, the Public Affairs Officer had offered Saturday morning as a possible interview time, which means we could have been at the base when the bomb exploded. It turns out that the room where we had conducted the interview had its windows blown out and pictures knocked off their hooks. It seems as if security in the Kabul is spiraling downhill. Hopefully, through a combination of troop increases and shifts in military and political strategies and tactics, life for Afghans will improve.
We will be back to see for ourselves.
ABC News' Martha Raddatz contributed to this report.