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THIS WEEK AT WAR

Encore Presentation: This Year at War

Aired December 28, 2006 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN ROBERTS, HOST: We'll take a look at THIS YEAR AT WAR from Iraq to Afghanistan, Iran to North Korea and the Middle East. The key events of 2006 and a preview of what's at stake in 2007. Just one minute away, after a check on what's making headlines right now.
(NEWS BREAK)

ROBERTS: In THIS YEAR AT WAR, are the bloody streets of Baghdad a stopover on the journey to all out chaos? Will a revived Taliban be impossible to contain when the snows of Afghanistan melt in the spring? Can diplomacy crack the impasse over Iran and North Korea? How close are Lebanon and Gaza to spiraling down into their own civil wars? I'm John Roberts, with THIS YEAR AT WAR. Let's take a look at how these nations and conflicts demanded our attention.

In Iraq, violence against U.S. and coalition forces was eclipsed by violence against Iraqis themselves, much of it Muslim on Muslim. In Iran, defiance from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the face of international pressure to stop nuclear development. In Afghanistan, the Taliban fights back from the brink of defeat and NATO forces find a tougher enemy than they bargained for.

In North Korea, diplomacy runs into a brick wall again, talks break down, nuclear tests follow, then new sanctions. And along the Israel Lebanon border, a tense peace flares into war, and then slips back to a dangerous siege with Beirut in a stranglehold of assassination and protests.

Among our elite THIS YEAR AT WAR troops, Cal Perry on sectarian violence in Iraq, Barbara Starr on a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and Aneesh Raman on a defiant leader in Tehran. THIS YEAR AT WAR.

From our vantage point teat the end of the year, what stands out in the war in Iraq, and what are the life and death decisions facing the United States and Iraqi leaders? Joining me now in Iraq are Baghdad bureau chief Cal Perry, CNN military analyst Major General Don Shepperd, U.S. Air Force, Retired is in Tucson, Arizona and Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is in Washington. Back in January at the state of the union address, president bush had high hopes for a successful outcome to the war in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT?: I am confident our plan for victory, I am confident in the will of the Iraqi people, I am confident in the skill and spirit of our military, fellow citizens we are in this fight td win and we are winning.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Gentlemen, that all seems like so much wishful thinking at this point. Cal Perry, the whole direction of this conflict changed back on February 22nd with the bombing of that mosque in Samarra, did it not?

CAL PERRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. That was the water shed moment here to ground. Everything changed. We are now seeing a situation where Sunnis and Shia are almost in open warfare every day. Neighborhoods are being split, people are being forced from their home. The refugee crisis has gotten worse exponentially.

To give you an idea of how bad it is I spoke to an Iraqi friend of mine who said I'm now being con scripted in my own neighborhood watch. That means for two days a week he is standing on the street with a gun.

John, you know how tough it is for U.S. troops out here. You were just here. When they go down a street, they see a group of men with guns, they don't know whether it's a militia, insurgents or people trying to protect their homes. There's a palpable fear in Iraqi security forces. The Iraqi people don't know if that man who is wearing that Iraqi army uniform is there to protect them, kidnap them or kill them

ROBERTS: Exactly. Increases the danger for everyone. I heard the U.S. troops put it to the people in these mosques saying if we see people out on the streets with guns, we're going to shoot them first, ask questions later. So how do you describe the situation in Iraq by the end of the year? Here's how Lee Hamilton, cochairman of the Iraq Study Group, put it when their report was released on December 6th.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEE HAMILTON, IRAQ STUDY GROUP CO-CHAIR: The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating. Violence is increasing in scope and lethality. Attacks on U.S. forces and U.S. casualties continue at an alarming rate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Michael O'Hanlon, many people say the first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one. President Bush did that recently after the release of that report. It's a major change for him. Does that portend major changes ahead?

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: I don't know. I think President Bush has sounded somber and sober before, although, as you point out in the earlier clip from the beginning of this year, not always. But his four speeches at the end of 2005 had a fairly -- fairly pessimistic tone or I should say at least a tone that was aware of the difficulties we had had up until that time.

I don't know exactly what President Bush is going to be able to accomplish at this point. One thing we do, I think, already know is that he's not listening to the Iraq Study Group and Lee Hamilton or Jim Baker on the question of using our leverage of our troops in Iraq was a way to get the Iraqis to shape up. In other words, telling them America's commitment is not going to last forever unless they start making some decisions to forge better compromise on issues like sharing oil.

There's been some recent progress in early discussions on that issue among Sunni, Shia and Kurds but if they don't figure that one out and a few other issues like that, I think the civil war will continue to get worse. President Bush has shown no sign of being willing to acknowledge as much or to say that we would ever fundamentally change the nature of our commitments. So I don't know how much has really changed.

ROBERTS: Of course, the key to the U.S. eventually coming out of Iraq is the buildup of Iraqi forces. They have been at it for three and a half years. Here are some statistics on how many of those Iraqi forces have been trained up.

In the Ministry of Defense, the army, 134,700. Ministry of the Interior, those are police forces, 188,300, total of 323,000. But, General Shepperd, it's still not enough. The president of the United States now considering a temporary surge of American forces, particularly in Baghdad to try to get a hold of security there. Is that a good idea?

MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPERD, USAF, (RET): Probably not a good idea to send additional U.S. forces into Baghdad. The reason for injecting U.S. forces, in my opinion, should be to train the Iraqis, to train them faster to take over. The training of the Iraqi military is going pretty well but it's not just training and equipment. It's getting them competent and getting them to work together over time. That comes through success and confidence in their leaders which takes time.

The police, the police force which is another important part of security are an absolute disaster, probably two years behind the army. But trying to put American troops on the streets with 20 or 30,000 more troops that we would have to interject in there to try to take on the militias is just not going to improve the security in Baghdad, John.

ROBERTS: After the release of the Iraq Study Group report there was a lot of talk about U.S. troops pulling out one of their recommendations was to get the majority of combat forces out by the first quarter of 2008. Provoked a lot of consternation at the White House. President Bush assured Nouri al Maliki, the prime minister, that he wasn't going to pull out. Here's what he said in a joint press conference on November 30th.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit. Out of Iraq. We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done so long as the government wants us there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: And Cal Perry, so long as there is an Iraqi government. Maliki is perceived as being very weak. Do you think he's going to survive long into 2007?

PERRY: I think his days could potentially be numbered if he can't solve the problem within his own bloc, major Shia politicians and the Shia militias.

This is a huge concern here on the ground, we're of course talking about Muqtada al Sadr who controls Sadr City. His militia is seen as taking part in some of the sectarian fighting but quite frankly they also provide basic services, security, food, water, electricity, jobs, they are picking up where the Iraqi security forces cannot.

And as we've heard in past from the U.S. military, the U.S. military does not want to go in, they do not want to disarm these militias forcefully in places like Baghdad and in places like Najaf a because what will happen is it will usher in a new chapter of combat here in Iraq. So they are really looking for strong Iraqi leadership to bring more leadership in the fold and get the militias to disarm.

ROBERTS: Which is why they are trying to build this alternate bloc to try to marginalize Muqtada al Sadr's power. General Shepperd, what do you think Robert Gates is going to do in 2007 in terms of trying to solve the situation in Iraq?

SHEPPERD: Well, certainly he will be more collegial with Congress. He will be easier to work with for the military but he's got a tough load on his shoulders. He's been dealt a very, very difficult thing which is to make a change in what's happening in Iraq. And it's easy to add troops, but the military commanders are saying whatever you do, if you add troops, tell us what you want us to do with them because just adding troops themselves is not the answer.

When he was over there, I think from the commanders, he basically heard on his recent visit again, don't just send us troops, tell us what you want. But from the troops themselves he heard, yes, we could use more troops. So you have these conflicting views within the military. The kids going on patrol want more help. The military commanders say, just giving us more help to do the job ourselves is not the answer. It's the Iraqis' job, John. We have to get the Iraqis up to speed.

ROBERTS: And Michael O'Hanlon in every segment during this hour we're going to ask one of our folks for a little bit of a prognostication on where they think things are going to be a year from now. In Iraq, Michael, where do you think things are going to be?

O'HANLON: I don't think they will change a whole lot. I think President Bush will do a couple of new things. I think despite General Shepperd's recommendation he probably will increase our forces at least modestly and temporarily. I think he will listen to perhaps the best idea from the Iraq Study Group and reinvigorate our economic aid, hopefully targeting joblessness and unemployment in Iraq. But my guess is president bush will stick by this line that I quoted from the November 30th press conference. He believes our willingness to just stay the course is still fundamentally the right policy and that we can only lose if we leave early. I'm not sure he's right. I think we need a strong Iraqi partner to be able to cooperate with. And if we don't get that, we will probably lose despite our best efforts. But a year from now I would expect that President Bush will have a harder timekeeping the United States behind him in a policy that will probably have 12 more months of frustration to show for it just as the presidential race heats up and becomes how to get out of Iraq with both candidates on both sides saying, I have a plan to do it and we can't keep staying the course despite what President Bush has said.

ROBERTS: And we should point out, Michael, recent CNN poll showed that only 31 percent of Americans support what the president is doing in Iraq. Michael O'Hanlon from the Brookings Institution, Cal Perry in Iraq, Major General Don Shepperd, thanks very much. We appreciate your time.

As chaos pulls Iraq down, the nation next door, Iran, has stepped up. More on that straight ahead.

But first a THIS WEEK AT WAR remembrance. How do you define hero? People around Knox, Pennsylvania, have a name for you.

He's their relative and friend, neighbor and classmate, Private First Class Ross McGinnis, Company C, 1st Battalion, 25th Infantry Regiment. He died earlier this month. McGinnis was in a humvee with four of his squad mates and enemy on a Baghdad rooftop tossed in a grenade. He dove on it, giving his own life for his buddies.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JACOB WINSLOW BLAKE, FRIEND: He would do anything for anybody. He's way up there for people who would do significant things to help others.

DEB KEISTER, FRIEND: True character comes out in times of trial like that, and I think that was in Ross.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: McGinnis was just 19. His commanders have nominated him for the Medal of Honor.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: The Iranians know our position on Iraq and they know it clearly. More importantly, they know the Iraqis' position relative to Iran. We're helping a sovereign government succeed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: President Bush in October warning Iran not to interfere with Iraq's affairs. In our coverage of THIS YEAR AT WAR we have gone back to Iran again and again. Will Iran dance with or defy the West? Is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gaining or losing ground inside his own country?

CNN Middle East correspondent Aneesh Raman is back in Tehran and with me here in Washington, Joseph Cirincione. He is the senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress. He's also the author of "Deadly Arsenals, Nuclear, Biological and Chemical threats.

Aneesh Raman in Tehran, not only the issue of Iranian involvement in Iraq but its nuclear program had a lot of people in the year 2006 very worried that Iran is trying to make a play to become the dominant power in the region. Are those fears well founded?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They are. We've seen the Iranian regime, John, over the past year make no secret they want American influence in the Middle East out and they have made no secret they would like to replace that with a regime in Tehran, become the dominant player in this part of the world. It's important to remember, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected just about a year and a half ago, August 2005. At that point he was a virtual unknown. No one even covered his campaign. That was how unlikely a victor he was expected to be.

Instead he won a populist landslide victory and has spent the last year dominating world affairs and emerging as what he wants to be, a defining voice for Muslim world, a defining voice for Muslim anger against the West, against the United States specifically and he so enjoys this role, at least from what we've seen here, it's unlikely for any reason he will back down next year.

ROBERTS: And of course, as the year wore on, the U.S. tried to lean more heavily on Iran, enlisting the help of its European allies, provoking a very strong response from Ahmadinejad. He's what he had to say on July the 13th in response to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We are not after tension in the region but they should know they cannot hurt the Iranian nation even one bit. With God's help, the Iranian nation and government are a powerful enough to be ensured from any harm that these tensions can cause.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Joseph Cirincione, Ahmadinejad has done and continues to do a pretty good job of keeping the West off balance. He's still not subject to any really harsh sanctions. And meanwhile, the nuclear program continues.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: He's been on a roll all year. Iran has made more progress in its nuclear program in the last five years than it made in the previous ten and the last year has been the most significant of all. He's actually opened up an enrichment facility. There aren't many countries in the world who have those facilities. He enriched his first small quantities of uranium, he's steadily expanding that. All the while being able to blunt U.S. efforts to try to contain that program, deftly playing off the various members of the UN Security Council.

ROBERTS: Aneesh Raman, what's the talk there in Tehran about how close Iran is to completing the nuclear cycle? There was some news not long ago from one of the Islamic publications that proclaimed they had actually perfected it, but I'm not sure if that's exactly the case.

RAMAN: It's tough to tell. We hear varying and often vague statements from Iran's government. We have heard from the president that they are now a nuclear power, that they have the full fuel cycle to provide peaceful civilian nuclear energy, they have claimed any number of assets they have to ground to keep this cycle going. They have also offered their technologies to other countries in this part of the world.

All of that has raised concerns but the biggest concern comes from the fact that very few people know exactly where Iran stands. The estimates range. But Iran has made no secret of the fact that it's pushing ahead and nothing really is going to stop it.

ROBERTS: And Joe Cirincione, if Iran is seeking hegemony over the region, what part does nuclear power play in that?

CIRINCIONE: A big part. They want nuclear capability, at least, perhaps nuclear weapons for the same reasons most countries, do, status and prestige and domestic politics. Ahmadinejad has used this issue domestically to increase his status in the country. The problem is other states are starting to react. Even the perception that Iran is inevitably heading down this road has caused statements from officials in Egypt and Turkey to talk about their own nuclear power program and in December the Gulf States themselves. So you are starting to see other people hedge their nuclear bets.

ROBERTS: Saudi Arabia for one very worried about it as well. Aneesh Raman, Ahmadinejad though not bullet proof, suffering some pretty stunning losses in regional elections not too long ago.

RAMAN: Yeah, we saw city wide elections, Tehran City Council is the most important, seen as a barometer for national trends. There his hard line conservative allies lost big. The majority which they have had since 2003 is now the hands of moderate conservatives. Also reformists have made a comeback.

But this does very little, when we talk about Iran's relationship with the world, it only affects domestic politics. It sets the stage for contentious political battles in parliamentary elections in 2008 and presidential elections in 2009. But as we have heard, the nuclear issue has near uniform support. Tactics might be different if reformists were in power. But the end is still there. Iran feels that it can have peaceful civilian nuclear energy and no one can stop it. Iran's president really has shown no indication these elections are going to soften his rhetoric. He's maintained his defiance. And again, he really sees himself as playing this role as the leader of the Muslim world. He has exploited some opportunities such as Iraq and he has created others. There's nothing that's going to stop him perhaps until the re-election comes in 2009

ROBERTS: But perhaps a sign of things ahead. Joe Cirincione, very quickly, where do you think we are going to be with Iran a year from now?

CIRINCIONE: 2007 is a make or break year. It's up to us. If we can skillfully use our diplomatic, economic and political power to both contain the Iranian program and Ahmadinejad's ambitions himself we can actually have direct negotiations with some of the moderates in Iran, can reduce Ahmadinejad's power, slow down the program. They are having technical difficulties. It's up to us. If we play it right, we can see the turning point in 2007. If we blow it, it's off to the races and there's probably no stopping Iran.

ROBERTS: But perhaps a sign of things to come. Joe Cirincione, thanks. Stick around. We want to get your expertise on North Korea coming up. And as always, Aneesh Raman in Tehran, thanks very much.

Iran and its leaders miss no opportunity to denounce Israel and ratchet up tensions across the whole region. We will dig into that part of THIS YEAR AT WAR straight ahead.

But first, holiday greetings from the front lines.

SPC BEJAMIN RODRIGUEZ, U.S. ARMY: Hi, my name is Benjamin Rodriguez and I'm here with Echo Company 212 Cav in Camp Liberty, Iraq, and I want to say merry Christmas and happy New Year to my mother and my daughter and the rest of my family in Starkville, Mississippi. Bye. I love you all.

PVT AMBER HOY, U.S. ARMY: Hi. I'm Private Amber with the 592nd Ordnance Company out of Billings, Montana. Just want to say happy holidays to my parents and my husband in South Dakota, and that I think about you always and I love you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: From skirmishes and rocket attacks to outright combat in the Middle East, THIS YEAR AT WAR. In hindsight, who won the conflict on the Israel Lebanon border this past summer? And could the current tensions in Lebanon and Gaza descend in separate civil wars?

Joining me now in Gaza, senior international correspondent Matthew Chance and in Beirut, Jamil Mroueh, he is the publisher of Lebanon's "Daily Star" newspaper. Jamil, start us off here. When you look at the whole region and what's transpired over the past year and continues to transpire, you have to say to yourself, is there ever going to be peace and stability there. JAMIL MROUEH, "DAILY STAR" NEWSPAPER: Well, stability -- instability lives here, and it's been living here for 50 years. It's a very unstable situation, now exceptionally unstable, and the events in Iraq, American policy, ambitions in Iran are not making things easier. In fact, they are sort of the storm is gathering.

We are now in a situation where it's a field of instability. As you mentioned, Palestine, of course, Lebanon, Iraq, the threat of the squeeze, Damascus, an insecure Saudi Arabia and an aloof, yet wary Egypt, all of this makes for really awesome possibilities in the negative sense.

ROBERTS: Right. We'll get to that in a second. Matthew Chance, when you look back over the year, the various conflicts, Israel Hezbollah, Israel Hamas, you look at the people involved, Olmert, Nasrallah, Abbas, Haniyeh, who are the winners, who were the losers or is everyone losing?

MATTHEWS CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think there's very little doubt that big picture everybody in this region loses as a result of the incessant conflict that they're subject to year on year, undoubtedly people would be more prosperous, people would be more secure if there weren't conflict here. Of course, on a tactical level, winners and losers. The conflict we witnessed together, John, between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer saw has Hassan Nasrallah emerge as a bolstered figure, the Israeli army looked worse for its inability to crush Hezbollah as a movement.

In January, elections saw Hamas in the Palestinian Territories become the victors and that weakened the Fatah faction of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. But look at the result of that chaos, that virtually in Lebanon, certainly chaos in the Palestinian territories and so yet again it is ordinary people that pay the price for these gains and losses when it comes to tactics.

ROBERTS: Of course, a huge question in that region is where is it all going, particularly in Lebanon. Hezbollah protestors now trying to unseat the Siniora government. Where is Lebanon headed? Here's how Brent Sadler reported on that story back on December 7th.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Some Western diplomats worry the country could veer towards civil war. And many Lebanese, especially those who want the pro Western government to survive the opposition campaign, fear that if the United States reengages Syria and Iran to help stabilize Iraq, then Syria's president, Bashar al Assad, will want pay back.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Jamil Mroueh, what do you is the future for Lebanon? You seem to have ruled out stability so is it headed toward civil war, renewed involvement of Syria? Where is it going?

MROUEH: If we don't, Lebanese, create an agenda, ballast last to keep us down in this stormy situation, we will be the victim of American obduracy in conducting a policy that is basically nonsensical. You want to make war, but you don't want to recognize the other side's concerns or you don't want to open up for possibilities of negotiation.

On the other side, you have ambitions from Iran. They want to be a regional power, and they have the wherewithal to do it. The weakness in the region also invites it, like a vacuum, sucking them in.

This situation cannot be resolved or be approached by the tools that are being used right now. Certainly not by the Americans. There has to be a review. There has to be a review from America.

ROBERTS: Matthew Chance, what -- where do you think Gaza is headed? Will it descend into civil war? Are Fatah and Hamas just too far part ideologically?

CHANCE: Well, they are certainly far apart and I think civil war is a possibility but I don't think it's inevitable. A lot of Palestinian families have, for instance, say a father who's a member of Fatah, a son who's a member of Hamas. Another one perhaps a member of Islamic Jihad or the al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade.

The Palestinian families very much spread their bets as it were when it comes to the Palestinian militant groups and various factions. Even though there are big differences between those factions at the moment, in Palestinian territories blood has often proved to be much thicker than water, those family ties often cut through the political differences between the various factions.

And that's what many Palestinians I speak to here in the Palestinian territories say they hope will hold Palestinian society back from the brink of civil war. It is possible, but it's not inevitable.

ROBERTS: Certainly a lot of people are hoping they don't go all the way to civil war. Matthew Chance in Gaza and Jamil Mroueh, thanks very much.

From the Mideast to what some call the forgotten war, that is until the Taliban's tenacious attack surprised NATO troops in Afghanistan, that's straight ahead.

First, a THIS YEAR AT WAR homecoming. This month, Army Specialist Scott Nichols, Jr., was given a blue lightest court by the Maine State Police upon returning from training Iraqi forces in Baghdad. Led by Scott's father, state trooper Scott Nichols, Sr., everyone was glad to have him home.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TROOPER SCOTT NICHOLS, SR., FATHER: I will be able to sleep at night now without having to worry about what's going on over there and everything. My wife and I, it's been a long year. We are very happy to have him back. SCOTT NICHOLS, JR., U.S. ARMY: It's overwhelming. I -- just taking it all in right now.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: Many of the troopers who escorted Nichols said they hoped that one day he can work alongside his father as a Maine State trooper.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: I'm Rick Sanchez, and these are the headlines we are following for you right now.

Arkansas police on the hunt for the suspect. They say that this man walked into a bank in Little Rock, shot and killed a teller, and then turned to another teller and demanded money. When the teller complied, he said, Merry Christmas, and then fled the scene.

A fugitive Taliban general no longer on the run. The U.S. military says that Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Osmani was killed in a coalition air strike in southern Afghanistan. Osmani was a close associate of Osama bin Laden. He was accidentally released from coalition custody in 2002.

Israel agrees to give humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians. The Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in Jerusalem today. Olmert agreed to release $100 million in frozen funds to aid the Palestinians.

Some defiant talk from Iran in the wake of a censure in the United Nations. The Security Council voted to impose sanctions on Iran's nuclear program. The Iranian government quickly rejected the resolution, vowing to continue to enrich uranium.

Those are the stories we're following for you right now. Let's go back now to John Roberts and THIS YEAR AT WAR.

ROBERTS: THIS YEAR AT WAR, in Afghanistan, the Taliban rallied and gave NATO forces a fight. Will they return even stronger when the snows melt this spring? And will coming months see this part of the world reveal its secret, the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden?

With me now, three people who have spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, CNN International Correspondent Jennifer Eccleston, she's in Virginia. Barbara Starr is at her usual post at the Pentagon. And in New York, Gary Berntsen, he is the author of "Jaw Breaker: The Attack on bin Laden and Al Qaeda, A Personal Account by the CIA's Key Field Commander".

Here's how NATO Supreme Commander General James Jones characterized the Taliban strength during a phone interview back in September.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GEN. JAMES JONES, SUPREME CMDR., NATO FORCES: What's going on in Afghanistan, currently, particularly in the southern region, is while not a complete surprise, certainly the tenacity of the resistance is a little bit of a surprise.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Gary Berntsen, should it be a surprise, given the U.S.'s approach in Afghanistan?

GARY BERNTSEN, FMR. CIA FIELD CMDR.: No, it shouldn't be a surprise. The Taliban have a sanctuary on the Pakistani side of the border. They went from squad to platoon to company; and now battalion size attacks. We have had up to 400 of them at a time doing attacks.

This is very serious. And, of course, it's linked to the issue of narcotics in southern Afghanistan. It's funding, you know, this effort for the Taliban.

ROBERTS: Barbara Starr, you have been there twice. How bad is it now? Does the Karzai government have control?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT, THIS YEAR AT WAR: Well, they have control, where they have control. But there's an awful lot of places they don't. Afghanistan remains a country of hundreds, if not thousands, of very small, remote villages. The Taliban can readily move in, take over, and Afghan security forces simply aren't strong enough, or in the numbers enough, to be everywhere.

So, the Taliban move in, they terrorize the people, and until either NATO forces can get there, or Afghan forces can get there, and run them out, they are in control in many of these remote areas. And that is a continuing problem, John.

ROBERTS: Jennifer Eccleston, look ahead for us, if you will here. There's the typical winter lull in the violence right now. The country's got very severe weather conditions, very severe terrain. It tends to dial back a little bit during the winter months. What do you expect is going to happen in the springtime when the weather warms up, the snows start to melt?

JENNIFER ECCLESTON, CNN INT'L. CORRESPONDENT, THIS YEAR AT WAR: I think Gary hit the nail on the head, it all has to do with the other side of the border in Pakistan.

If they cannot get a handle on the training forces, the regrouping, the rearming, the remaining, then we're going to see yet another major offensive and not just in those smaller numbers. But as Gary said, in battalion size, very well coordinated, large group of fighters, well armed fighters, well trained, and coordinated fighters who are giving the Americans and the Afghan army there a very, very tough time.

ROBERTS: What is going on in Pakistan, Gary Berntsen, to the best of your knowledge? We remember back in September Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, signed this deal with tribal leaders and in the Waziristan area. He said they have pledged not to launch cross border attacks into Afghanistan. They pledged to keep Al Qaeda and other insurgents under control. But recent reports seem to suggest that Waziristan now is turning into what eastern Afghanistan was pre9/11.

BERNSON: That's right. They haven't kept their word. But, you know, Musharraf has a problem. He is got 24 million Pashtuns living on that side of the border. He's negotiating with some of them, trying to split them away from the more radical. He has 80,000, 90,000 troops in there. And he's taken about 700 casualties in the last year. So, he's making an effort but this is a tough road to hoe.

ROBERTS: Is there anything that Musharraf can really do to address that situation then?

BERNTSEN: He's going to need to put more people in there. He's going to have to do more of what he's been doing. He's going to need more force. We are going to have to do a better job, the United States and NATO, of equipping and training the Afghans on their side to resist.

ROBERTS: Yeah, now the key to security is going to be training up and equipping those Afghani forces. But according to a report that Jennifer filed back on November the 9th, they seem to be having the same problem in Afghanistan as they are in Iraq when it comes to training up those forces.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ECCLESTON (voice over): Desertion is common. In this battalion alone, almost 50 percent of the men have been returned from their vacation. Despite a salary of under $70 a month, a sizable paycheck for an ordinary Afghan, recruitment is also a substantial challenge. Soldiers and their families are frequent targets of Taliban intimidation and attacks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Jennifer Eccleston, is the Taliban aware of these deficiencies in the nascent Afghanistan army; and how might that factor into their strategy come spring when you expect these attacks to increase?

ECCLESTON: Oh, certainly. Not just the Taliban fighters, themselves, but those supporters they have within the local communities, who are spreading the word to various communities, to various villages, to make it very uncomfortable for Afghan forces, who either live in those areas, or any young man who has aspirations of going into the army. Which, as I mentioned, carries with it a very decent salary for your average Afghan. There is intimidation and it's rife. There is violence, which is rife.

So, oftentimes you have to recruit these soldiers from outside of the territory, from outside the region, from the north of Afghanistan, from the west of Afghanistan. That doesn't instill a lot of confidence in the local communities when they bring them down, let's say, to the south, who largely distrust their northern neighbors.

So you have that mixed into the equation as well. It's a great challenge. As I also mentioned, desertion. Some of them will sign it up, they'll try it out, and when they go home they simply decide not to come back, for whatever reason, but mostly because it's just too dangerous

ROBERTS: Barbara Starr, you traveled extensively through the region, with NATO commanders, you have seen the situation on the ground there. Give me your forecast for where Afghanistan is going to be 12 months from now.

STARR: Well, I think there's probably no question it is still going to be very fragile. The Karzai government will still struggle to expand its influence across the country. In the east, along the Pakistan border, there is still a substantial Al Qaeda-Taliban presence, as there is in the south.

But, you know, there are signs of progress in Afghanistan. Many, many afghans are against the Taliban. They want jobs, they want progress. And let me just give you one little snapshot that I noticed this year, on my second tripe to Afghanistan. Traveling the road between Kabul, the capital, and the north, to Bagram, we passed two gas stations on the road, under construction, a very small sign but that's part of the new Afghanistan, John.

ROBERTS: Well, perhaps like many people are saying about Iraq, 2007 will be a decisive year. Jennifer Eccleston, Barbara Starr, Gary Berntsen, thanks, all.

Coming up, what chance does diplomacy have to force change on North Korea? THIS YEAR AT WAR.

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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: White House has announced that North Korea test launched at least six missiles today. That includes one long- range missile, the Taepodong-2.

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ROBERTS: The North Korea missile set off their own political fireworks on the Fourth of July, in THIS YEAR AT WAR. Will North Korea continue to test nuclear devices and fire off missiles? And will the rogue nation continue to brush off sanctions and walk away from substantive talks?

With me now, Senior United Nations Correspondent Richard Roth, and again we welcome back Joseph Cirincione, the senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress.

Back in October after North Korea claimed success in testing a nuclear device, then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton led the charge. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BOLTON, FMR. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: The North Koreans signed an agreement in 1994 called the "agreed framework" where they were supposed to give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons in exchange for some tangible carrots. They never did. As far as we can tell now, they probably began violating that agreement before the ink was dry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Richard Roth, it looks like despite all of the tough talk from the White House over the past year that North Korea managed to get away with it again.

RICHARD ROTH, CNN SR. U.N. CORRESPONDENT: They did in terms of whatever they might be building in the nuclear field, behind closed doors, you might say. But they did start to unify the world a little bit to get more concern, whether that leads into some substantial reaction with some diplomatic teeth, that's too early to say on that.

ROBERTS: Big news toward the end of the year, Joe, when North Korea said it was coming back to the six-party talks, those talks took place in December, and again kind of fell flat. Nothing came of them. North Korea didn't even really want to talk about its nuclear program, just wanted to talk about frozen bank accounts in Macao. Is it time to go for something different, a different process in this six-party talks?

CIRINCIONE: We're definitely stalemated on these talks, but we can't tell whether we're inches apart or miles apart.

The specific issues over $24 million that the U.S. froze in a bank in Macao, the North Koreans want us to unfreeze that money before they will talk about the nuclear program. We want them to freeze their nuclear program before we will unfreeze the assets.

Is this just a tactical principal divide, or has North Korea decided to irrevocably go forward on its nuclear program? We don't know. We have to keep talking.

ROBERTS: Of course, all during the year, the United States was trying to put the squeeze on Kim Jong-Il, trying to get the United Nations Security Council to agree on a package of sanctions. It finally did, though, they weren't so tough. Here's how Richard Roth reported on that on October 14th.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROTH: The Security Council resolution demands North Korea stop testing nukes, slaps a variety of sanctions on the regime, and tells Pyongyang to start talking again with the world.

The goal is to cut off Pyongyang from getting technology and equipment that can power the country's nuclear desires, but North Korea instantly rejected that message.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Richard Roth, there's all these sanctions, all this talk yet North Korea keeps going. What's the problem?

ROTH: The problem? The Japanese ambassador told me, sanctions take time and they have only had a few dozen countries contribute what they are really doing to stop North Korea from getting that material. And now the U.S. and Japan, and others, want to slap sanctions on the luxury goods field, stop Kim Jong-Il from getting motorcycles, jet skis, iPods, expensive beef, but it doesn't seem like there's some real maneuvering to get that accomplished.

Perhaps they want to see if the six-party talks can succeed.

ROBERTS: Cognac as well, if I'm not mistaken.

Joe Cirincione, one of the big concerns here is proliferation because certainly North Korea has shared its missile technology with anybody who wants to buy. Any evidence that they are proliferating here?

CIRINCIONE: No, none so far. They have sold missiles to both Pakistan and Iran, but none of the nuclear technologies, as far as we know. The proliferation problem is a little different. It's the impact of the nuclear tests that sends ripples through the region that for the first time in decades has Japanese officials debating whether they should have a nuclear program or not. That's the real danger from a nuclear North Korea.

ROBERTS: Richard Roth, the United States insists it doesn't want to go to war with North Korea, but at the same time it doesn't want to engage in one-on-one talks. Something has to budge somewhere, doesn't it? Otherwise doesn't the White House risk spinning its wheels for another year?

ROTH: That's right. I mean, these six-party talks, if they were a New Year's Eve party, nobody would go back. But this six-party talk sequence just keeps going on and going on. Condoleezza Rice says these things take time, the Russians say you need patience. It may be whatever North Korea does and how provocative they get.

ROBERTS: Joseph Cirincione, you've been good at predictions. You predicted accurately that North Korea would test a nuclear device. Let me get your prediction for where this is going to be a year from now.

CIRINCIONE: I think 2007 is the year of a breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula. Remember, as long as we are talking to them, they are not testing, either missiles or bombs. China doesn't want them to test. They don't want to rile up Japan.

The Democrat Congress is coming in, they want direct negotiations with North Korea. That increases the pressure. There's pressure on President Bush for a breakthrough. He needs foreign policy victory. North Korea is the one place he might get it. I see those lining up and I predict breakthrough in 2007. ROBERTS: Let's hope you are right because the world could certainly use a little bit of relief. Joe Cirincione, the Center for America Progress, Richard Roth, CNN at the U.N., thanks very much.

Coming up, heroism and sacrifice in Iraq; a tribute to the fallen in THIS YEAR AT WAR.

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GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The most painful aspect of my presidency has been knowing that good men and women have died in combat. I read about it every night. My heart breaks for a mother, or father, or husband or wife, or son and daughter. It just does.

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ROBERTS: President Bush acknowledging the sacrifices of the fallen and their families during his final news conference of 2006.

Among the fallen, Navy Corpsman Christopher Anderson, of the 1st Battalion 2nd Marine Division, who was killed in an attack earlier this month in Iraq's Al Anbar Province.

His body was flown to Denver where loved ones, and even strangers braved a cold Colorado night, lining up along the airport road. Holding American flags, they wanted to pay their respects to Anderson's family.

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RICK ANDERSON, FATHER: He wanted to serve. He wanted to protect his family, his neighborhood, his country, and he gave it -- gave every effort to it, a little more than we really wanted him to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Anderson represents the fourth generation of his family to have served in the Navy. He was 24 years old.

Another member of the fallen in THIS YEAR AT WAR, Corporal Joshua Pickard of Merced County, California. He was killed by small arms fire this month in Iraq.

A member of the 2nd Assault Amphibious Battalion, this was Pickard's third year of service in the Marines. Upon leaving for Iraq, Pickard became pen pals with a third grade class from his alma mater, McSwain Elementary School. The students wrote letters to his family when they heard that Pickard had died.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAWANNA SPRINKLE, TEACHER: Dear Mrs. Pickard, I know you feel bad about Josh. I hope you love the letters. When Miss Sprinkle told us about Josh, we started to cry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Pickard took time to visit his students between deployments back in April. He was just 20 years old.

Behind every fatality there is a person who is remembered and missed.

Coming up, it's decision time for U.S. leaders concerning the war in Iraq. But first, more of the fallen in THIS YEAR AT WAR.

(PHOTO MONTAGE OF FALLEN SOLDIERS)

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ROBERTS: There really is no way to sugar coat it, nor should it be sugar coated. This has been a terrible year in Iraq. All of the rosy political projections blown away by an endless trail of blood and violence, a nation now on the brink of completely falling apart.

Call it what you will, sectarian violence or civil war, it doesn't make much difference on the ground. Iraq is about the most dangerous place in the world right now, for Iraqis and for U.S. troops trying to bring peace to that tattered country.

Some big decisions face this nation's leaders, something has to change in America's approach to the war. The problem is, there are no good options, no magic bullet, as the Iraq Study Group put it, to fix Iraq.

Mistakes are enormous. A failed Iraq could become not just a new Afghanistan for terrorists, but it could also draw other nations of the region in. A region that America depends on for the lifeblood of its economy, oil.

The Iraq war will soon be four years old. As 2006 passes into history, a question many people are asking, will Iraq survive another year? And what will that mean for us?

Thanks for joining us on this special THIS YEAR AT WAR. I'm John Roberts. Straight ahead, a check of the headlines. Then, "Welcome to the Future".

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