Review of US Public TV Show on Afghanistan

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  1. Television Review | 'Frontline: Obama’s War'
    Situation Report: The Dilemma of Afghanistan

    "Frontline: Obama's War," the documentary about the United States involvement in Afghanistan, runs on most PBS stations Tuesday night.

    Published: October 12, 2009

    “Obama’s War” is a “Frontline” documentary on PBS about Afghanistan that might more accurately be called “McChrystal’s Battle.”


    Martin Smith for Frontline

    A Marine resting during a patrol in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, which has been retaken by Taliban forces three times.

    This is a focused look at a dismally complex and intractable conflict, and running as it does on Tuesday, the night before President Obama’s fifth strategy meeting on Afghanistan with his national security team, it couldn’t be more timely.

    Or depressing. What “Obama’s War” does best is illustrate the immense task that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander of American and allied forces in Afghanistan, has taken on. As Mr. Obama weighs his options, and General McChrystal travels the world lobbying for a revitalized counterinsurgency plan and at least 40,000 more troops, “Obama’s War” gives viewers a glimpse of what trying to defeat the Taliban — again — really entails eight years into the conflict.

    The sight of a 20-year-old Marine being shot and killed in a firefight is shocking and heartbreaking. So, in a different way, is the scene of a Marine sergeant risking his life on a foot patrol in wilting heat to befriend — and debrief — tight-lipped, wary Afghan farmers. He is part of a campaign to reassure the civilian population in a place where even the word “where” is misunderstood; the Afghan interpreter has little command of English or the local dialect.

    On enemy terrain a seemingly simple assignment — face time with local merchants — is fraught with mortal risk and the spirit-grinding frustration of cultural divide.

    And that reality often gets lost in the swirl of seminars, news conferences and Sunday talk shows. The film slyly makes a detour to a boisterous, cup-clattering coffee break at a counterinsurgency conference in Washington last summer, where a panel of what “Frontline” describes as “the best and the brightest” experts (including Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversees operations in Iraq and Afghanistan) explains the building blocks of “a global counterinsurgency campaign.”

    “Frontline” then returns to the front lines in Afghanistan, where a Marine valiantly tries to engage a farmer in a chat about his cows.

    “60 Minutes” ran a lengthy and illuminating profile of General McChrystal last month that showed him greeting locals at a busy market unarmed — though shadowed by a large security force. “Obama’s War” spends less time with the general and more time examining his mission.

    “Frontline” also delves into the threat to American security posed by Pakistan’s political and military instability. That problem flared again Monday: a car-bomb attack on local Pakistani police forces in a market in the Swat Valley took at least 41 lives — in an area that the Pakistani military declared cleared of militants last summer.

    In “Obama’s War” General McChrystal concedes that his strategy is formidable and risky but says, quite flatly, “There is no alternative.” “Frontline” interviews many outside experts, including retired military officers who argue that other options exist besides “full spectrum” nation building in Afghanistan. But the film does not explain the nature or feasibility of less intrusive alternatives, or go far into the history of invading nations that felt they had no choice but to stay, only to withdraw in retreat.

    “Obama’s War” begins in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, a territory that has fallen back into Taliban hands three times, and that Marines of Echo Company were sent last summer to recapture, not just by fighting the enemy, but also by winning over the locals.

    Under General McChrystal’s command, Marines have been instructed to look less like invaders and occupiers and more like protectors — and that means hunkering down in an empty, abandoned school still smeared with Taliban graffiti, and traveling in foot patrols instead of armored convoys. “So they see us as human beings,” Maj. Gen Michael T. Flynn explains to the “Frontline” correspondent Martin Smith. “And we treat them as such, rather than looking like something out of ‘Star Wars’ to them.”

    For the military that loosening of security is a huge concession to diplomacy and local sensibilities. But even to American viewers Marines in flak jackets, helmets, ammunition packs and rifles who stop suspicious-looking men for full body searches do not look like Peace Corps volunteers.

    On a visit to Kabul, Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative to the region, says that the United States must undo the missteps of the last eight years. Kabul is one of them.

    “The U.S. has spent a lot of time trying to build a strong central government in Afghanistan,” says Seth Jones, the author of “In the Graveyard of Empires,” which argues that the Bush administration’s focus on Iraq allowed the Taliban to rise again. “That is completely ahistorical in Afghanistan.”

    The Taliban, meanwhile, is correcting its own mistakes.

    “In Southern Afghanistan, the Taliban now has ombudsmen,” Andrew Exum, an adviser to General McChrystal, says, describing an insurgency outreach program to woo the locals who mistrust the government of President Hamid Karzai, who has lost credibility even in Washington.

    It’s not just the enormity of the mission, it’s the familiarity. General McChrystal doesn’t hide the bitterness in his voice as he describes having to take back Helmand Province all over again. “Once you clear something and don’t hold it, you probably didn’t clear it, it has no staying power,” he says. “ In fact I would argue that it’s worse, because you create an expectation and then you dash it. And so I think that you’re almost better to have not gone there at all.”

    The general was describing conditions in that part of Afghanistan, but his words were just as apt for the larger war still being waged. Moments of discouragement are not the hardest thing in this film. Gung-ho confidence — feigned or real — is far more chilling, a repudiation of history that sounds like America whistling past the graveyard of empires.