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Frontline’s ‘The War Briefing’: Doom, Gloom, and Despair

The award-winning PBS documentary series tells us Afghanistan is a problem — but offers no solutions.

by
Jules Crittenden

Bio

October 28, 2008 - 12:00 am

The usually thorough, probing Frontline is being broadcast tonight, with a promise to examine some of the most pressing foreign policy challenges facing the next president.

Unfortunately, “The War Briefing,” airing at 9 p.m. eastern time on PBS, addresses only one of them, and not particularly well.

That doesn’t mean that Frontline, as usual, isn’t worth watching, when it is pretty much all we get in terms of serious mass media efforts to understand the conflicts in which we’re engaged. Also as usual, it needs to be watched with a grain of skepticism, and you need to come armed with a little backup knowledge of your own. Too bad most viewers won’t have that.

Let’s dispense with what’s good about “The War Briefing” first.

As Frontline notes, Afghanistan is the “forgotten war,” or was until bashing Iraq fell out of vogue. While images of GIs on patrol, going house to house, and being blown up in monochromatic, trash-strewn, sewage-plagued, date-palmed Iraq are common and have been burned into our consciousness. The same isn’t true of Afghanistan.

Frontline’s embed with Bravo Company — I didn’t catch a more specific unit identification but the shoulder patches indicate 1st ID — in the Korengal Valley is an excellent snapshot of the realities American soldiers face, trying to control Taliban movements in rough country, with an unhelpful populace, near the Pakistani border. There are some moments of light combat — GIs pinned down by Taliban fire, GIs moving fast across exposed ridges and GIs getting hit. The cameraman does a good job of capturing the war on the ground, from sweeping vistas with distant airstrikes, to long patrols strung out across the fore-to-mid ground on mountain trails, to bringing the camera to a tight focus on the intensity of young GIs under fire, hugging the rocks. Likewise, some good angles on frustrations on the ground, in the villages are shown.

The program does yeoman’s work presenting the conventional wisdom on the problems we face in Afghanistan and Pakistan: difficult terrain, lack of government control, and an often hostile, alienated population.

OK, we have now dispensed with the good parts.

We are informed at the outset that it is Iraq’s fault. All the U.S. troops are there and attention was diverted from Afghanistan at a critical moment. Without getting into the Iraq debate, suffice it to say that this is a multi-front war, and whatever a particular presidential candidate might have been telling you, our ability to pick and choose our battlefields is influenced by more than either our whims and earnest desires, or our need to make political points.

Frontline, though it presumes to give the next president a war briefing, curiously does not consider our ongoing interests and obligations in Iraq worthy of further discussion, though one candidate has indicated he wants to pull out precipitiously, and the other, notoriously, wants to stay there “100 years.”

The only thing approaching proposals for a solution in Afghanistan that Frontline cites is more troops, as well as stating the need for a political solution. But this is done only superficially. There is also lip service paid to the need for an effective counterinsurgency. The failure to address burning questions is all the more unfortunate, as “The War Briefing” includes what are either very poor interviews or very selectively edited interviews with a couple of counterinsurgency stars, David Kilcullen and John Nagl.* But the subject is discussed only in the context of its difficulties and a general failure to execute one thus far. (I’d refer readers who are interested in counterinsurgency to Small Wars Journal, where these and other professionals discuss and debate these issues.)

What is astonishing is that I watched the entire hour-long program and did not hear the name “General David Petraeus” once in the review copy, though their identifying tags note that Kilcullen and Nagl advised him in Iraq’s turn-around. Petraeus, the United States Army’s foremost counterinsurgency advocate and its superlatively effective practitioner at division and theater level, has just taken over command of Centcom and now oversees both the Iraq and Afghan wars.

Whatever plans the United States might actually have for driving a wedge between the Taliban and the population, and what options might actually be placed in front of the next president, are not discussed. The existence of a counterinsurgency doctrine in the United States military, its goals of pushing troops out of bases and into villages, and its success in quelling violence in Iraq, is mentioned only as a lead-in to bemoaning the lack of boots on the ground in Afghanistan. I would hate to think the failure to discuss success in Iraq or our ongoing commitment there, only its role as a theoretical distraction, isn’t a subtle boost for a particular candidate a week ahead of the election. More likely, it simply reflects the fact that large parts of the American media have bought Barack Obama’s narrow and dangerously flawed view of the wars in which we are engaged.

The absence of Petraeus from this program is significant not least for the role he has played in freeing up troops in Iraq that Frontline notes are not currently available for Afghanistan, though thanks to Petraeus, maybe they will be. Sadly, a favorable mention of the training up of Iraqi troops, compared to the current state of Afghan forces, was deleted from the latest script. The inadequate use of counterinsurgency experts and the heavy reliance on diplomats, policy wonks and journalists, coupled with the interviewer’s interest in describing problems rather than discussing solutions, leaves viewers with a bleak sense of hopelessness, not unlike what was promoted at an earlier stage of the Afghan war, when we were informed American troops would be trapped and slaughtered by the indomitable Afghan just as the British and Russians were.

Which brings us to another point. Frontline informs us that “Afghanistan is now a deadlier battlefield than Iraq.” It fails to inform us that for NATO troops, the war in Afghanistan remains many orders of magnitude below the KIA rate of iraq — which has been itself among the lowest of our nation’s shooting wars. It also fails to note that despite the best efforts of the Taliban in ambushing NATO and Afghan Army forces, and blowing up civilians with suicide bombs, Taliban fighters reportedly make up the overwhelming majority of deaths. Thousands of them, including key leaders, have been killed. When they engage with coalition forces, they die at rates of 10, 20, 50, and 100 to one. A highly selective media focus on numbers has been a chronic problem in coverage of these wars, a sin of both omission and commission.

Much of the program is also devoted to Pakistan which, Frontline notes, is a huge and tricky problem. The Taliban enjoy logistical support for the Afghan war, and a Pakistani Taliban is emerging that has turned the war in the other direction.

Frontline actually gets somewhat more alarmist here than I think is necessary, sugesting nuclear armed Pakistan is on the verge of collapse and an Islamist takeover. But the point that the United States has to walk carefully is well taken. Premature announcement of invasion plans, one might advise the next president, should be avoided.

The script, at the time I received my review copy last week, was still a work in progress, with editing underway. Let’s hope that by tonight, recent face-to-face talks between Taliban representatives and representatives of President Hamid Karzai’s government will have merited a mention, as well as recent protests by thousands of common Afghans in eastern Afghanistan — Pashtun and Taliban country — who are outraged by the purposeful slaughter of young men by the Taliban. It does note that in Pakistan the slaughter of tribal leaders, though it fails to note that elsewhere, indiscriminate and ill-advised jihadi bloodlust has proven to be a stumbling block for extremist Islam. Opium production that finances the Taliban is up, according to some recent reports. Not mentioned here is the fact that opium production is encountering difficulties. I know it doesn’t fit the doom-and-gloom template, but much like the glimmerings we saw in late 2006 through mid-2007, these points suggest the Afghan people may have had it and may want an out.

In the end, what Frontline tells us is only that Afghanistan is a big problem. More than anything, “The War Briefing” is like the views of Iraq we saw in early to mid-2007: Doom, gloom and despair, with little reference to the evidence that there is a path forward and some people are on it. Afghanistan is not Iraq. There solutions there will be different. But there are many lessons we can take from there, among them the uselessness of despair. Thanks to professionals who looked seriously at one another and at the seemingly hopeless problems in Iraq, and who learned from their mistakes using available resources and opportunities, despair itself is in a state of collapse. Iraq is moving beyond hope to the realization of stability and security, maybe even something like peace.

But for some reason, though, Frontline dances around these encouraging events in its coverage of Afghanistan. And through the fog of despair it can’t quite find the word it seems to be looking for:

Surge.

* More on David Kilcullen and John Nagl, via Small Wars Journal and other sources.

Note: Frontline advertised ‘The War Briefing’ at my blog, www.julescrittenden.com. I have endeavored not to let the modest advertising fee influence my review.

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