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The reality of the war in Afghanistan

By Nightly News staff

It was supposed to be a week devoted to reporting on the military and political situation in Afghanistan, where a runoff presidential election is scheduled for Nov. 7.

Yet even as "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams was still in the air, making his way toward his first visit to the country in more than a year, assignments were being overturned. It would turn out to be a week looking for stories amid extraordinary violence that NBC's Richard Engel reported has reached record levels.

First came the crashes of three helicopters on Monday, which killed 14 Americans, making October the deadliest month for U.S. forces since the war in Afghanistan began eight years ago. Then came the Taliban attack on a U.N. guesthouse Wednesday in Kabul, the capital, which killed eight people — five of them U.N. workers — plus the attackers.

In Kabul, the vibe has changed "literally overnight," Williams observed in an e-mail interview with the Huffington Post.

"Kabul has hardened and tightened — it's much more about security now that the Taliban has 'entered the battle space'" with its attack Wednesday, which has prompted a reassessment of the U.N. role in promoting the election, Engel reported.

After the blast, "there was nothing here to salvage," Chris Turner, a truck driver working as a contractor for the U.S. Defense Department, told Williams, who toured the devastation afterward.

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The situation is Afghanistan has "deteriorated extremely in the last six months," Turner said. "I don't know why, but I think we've lost the minds and the hearts of the people. I think they've turned against us. And I think our task here is ... very, very difficult, if at all possible."

For the Americans, winning back those hearts and minds is paramount.

In parts of the country where there are no doctors or clinics, U.S. personnel and American-trained Afghan health workers are treating the sick and the injured — part of a strategy by Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in the country, to build "strong personal relationships between security forces and the local population."

At a camp in the east where U.S. special forces train Afghan commandos, as many as 100 people a day troop into a clinic, where they receive basic health and dental services that hadn't been accessible for years. The clinic has forged a bond between local residents and the military personnel who are so much a part of daily life here, said the local Afghan commander.

"The people have sensed, really realized that they are the center of gravity," the commander told Williams.

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Perhaps not coincidentally, Williams reported, insurgent attacks on the camp have stopped now that U.S. money is being spent to help the people.

The clinic, and others like it, are just one part of the American HA initiative. "HA" stands for "humanitarian assistance," and food is another big part.

"We want to work ourselves out of a job," said the commander of a U.S. unit in a small town in the east, where American soldiers supervised Afghan forces who handed out food to local children with 1,000-yard stares and to men and women scarred by years of war.

The key to the operation is the involvement of the Afghan troops — pamphlets that accompany each handout tells recipients that the food is being provided by their own neighbors.

"We really want the people to understand that it's the Afghans, so they can put trust in their Afghan soldiers," the U.S. commander said.

All the while, the war is still
going on.

Eight more U.S. soldiers were
killed this week by improvised bombs that exploded by the roadside. After more
than eight years of war, October 2009 stands as the deadliest month for U.S.
forces so far.

President Barack Obama and his
top military advisers here and in Washington met in a secure conference call
Friday to continue trying to find a workable policy. Even as the Americans on
the ground here are working on humanitarian initiatives, the administration is
considering
a proposal to send
tens of thousands more troops to the country.

Whatever it decides, life will
remain difficult for everyday Afghans, especially the children, untold numbers
of whom have been orphaned by the fighting.

At an orphanage run by the
Afghan Child Education and Care Organization, the executive director, Andeisha
Farid, 26, the fears and threats encroaching on Kabul melt away. A huge flower
garden adds a burst of color to the cheerful and warm home for 67 girls and 15 boys, who are preparing to celebrate the Friday holiday with special treats
like pomegranates and bananas.

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Farid, a native Afghan who
spent most of her childhood and adolescence in refugee camps in countries
neighboring Afghanistan, recently graduated from the 10,000 Women project in
Afghanistan, which teaches entrepreneurial skills to women from underprivileged
backgrounds, and she has vowed to make life better for these
children.

"We [were] born in war, we
[have] grown up in war and we may die in war, but I really want to do
something," Farid said. "OK, we have gone through [a] very tough situation and
we [are] fed up. But we
shouldn't just give up."

Every child here has an
achingly sad story, but their smiles are testament to Farid's devotion and the
generosity of others. Each child has a sponsor, and the institution itself is
funded by donors around the world — for example, a recent fundraiser in
Brooklyn, N.Y., raised $600 for firewood.

These are lives that are being
saved and launched for the future. The children may not recognize the irony in
the title of today's English-language movie — "Home Alone" — but all of them
came here alone, and they're home now. 

"When I see all the girls, all
the boys, all the small children — when I see their happy faces, I see a future
in them, a bright future, so it gives me hope," she said. "I'm sure I am doing a
difference for the Afghan people."

Click here to see more of Brian Williams' reporting from Afghanistan, including photos from the field, and Web-only video.