Frontline's 'The War Briefing': Doom, Gloom, and Despair

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."