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“Obama’s War” Commemorates Eight Years in Afghanistan

October 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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On the anniversary of the U.S. war against the Taliban, Frontline looks into one U.S. officer's mission into a valley outside Kabul.

JIM LEHRER: The U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, it began eight years ago this very day. We mark it with a special “Frontline” report on one U.S. Army officer’s mission in a valley 30 miles south of Kabul. “Frontline” correspondent Martin Smith is the reporter. The faces of the translators have been blurred to protect their identity.

MARTIN SMITH, “Frontline” correspondent: Most areas of Afghanistan don’t have enough troops to operate a successful counterinsurgency campaign. Commanders have been trying to juggle resources and manpower to make due.

ARTURO MUNOZ, former CIA: There’s no question we’re thinly resourced. I mean, given the vastness of Afghanistan, given the difficulty of the terrain, you’ve got lots of isolated villages, you know, on hillsides and mountaintops and dispersed. Do we have enough troops to provide security to all these dispersed people? Absolutely not.

MARTIN SMITH: Jalrez Valley is an exception to the rule. In March, under President Obama’s then-new strategy, Jalrez became one of the first areas to receive a troop increase. Today, Captain Matthew Crowe and his men are visiting the village of Tagan.

CAPT. MATTHEW CROWE, U.S. Army: Well, let’s see how long we actually need for Tagan. If we have time, maybe we’ll go back there.

MARTIN SMITH: In the past, troops most often patrolled inside armored Humvees. Under the new counterinsurgency plan, they’re spending more time on foot.

MAJ. GEN. MICHAEL T. FLYNN, director of intelligence, ISAF: We’re in the process of spending more time on the ground, getting out of our large vehicles, and out from behind our sunglasses, and all this gear that we wear, and literally just getting out among the population, so they see us as human beings, and we treat them as such, rather than looking like something out of “Star Wars” to them.

MARTIN SMITH: The goal, in the jargon of counterinsurgency doctrine, is to connect with the people. But when the soldiers arrive, the village is empty.

CAPT. MATTHEW CROWE: There are not a lot of people out today. Right now, there’s nobody out. It could be bad timing or anything. Worst-case scenario is they’ve been warned to stay away because of the enemy who are here. Best-case scenario, it was just bad luck. It’s one of the two.

Counterinsurgency obstacles

MARTIN SMITH: Counterinsurgency proves far more difficult in practice than in theory.

CAPT. MATTHEW CROWE: Maybe they know. You want to ask them?

GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, commander, International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan: The difficulty lies in the execution. When you put it in a culture that is different from your own -- language is different, religion is different, all of the normal societal structures are a bit different -- then it becomes extraordinarily complex.

CAPT. MATTHEW CROWE: If there's anything I can do to help your village, I promise I will do everything I can.

I mean, that's why I'm here, to talk to them.

AFGHAN MAN: Three years ago, you came and sat with us over there by the mosque. You said the same things then. Those were false promises.

CAPT. MATTHEW CROWE: Well, tell him that's one of the things we can talk about. He must understand, we're new here. We want to help.

The only way I can find out what they need is by sitting down and talking to him and to other elders. Is there a place where we can just sit, maybe, in the shade and talk?

MAJ. GEN. MICHAEL T. FLYNN: This is a personal war. This is a war about personal relationships. You know, I mean, part of our problem is we've changed forces out of here so many times, we don't send the same forces back. You know, a unit that's here, they go, they spend a year, they go away, and they never come back.

CAPT. MATTHEW CROWE: Shall we sit?

MAJ. GEN. MICHAEL T. FLYNN: They're trying to judge, are we committed? If they don't believe that we're committed, then we will be in a tough fight out here for a long time.

CAPT. MATTHEW CROWE: I am the new commander. For me, it's very important to get to know them and to know as much as possible about their village. The more I get to know about the village, the better I can find a way to help them.

KARL EIKENBERRY, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan: The first question that they ask will be, "Are you going to stay?" And if we can't say positively yes, then those Afghans will remain on the fence.

CAPT. MATTHEW CROWE: I intend to come back many times, but while I have them here, is it still OK if I ask him some questions? The first thing I would like to know is, what is the main occupation here? What do the people here do? Are they only farmers?

"A lack of trust"

MARTIN SMITH: Captain Crowe has to wear many hats. Today, he's conducting a standardized survey designed by military intelligence analysts.

CAPT. MATTHEW CROWE: Is there a bazaar in the village? Are they comfortable sending all their children to school? Do they have, like, a sewage system?

Ask him, the generator, does it provide electricity for all of the village? What is their opinion of the government right now? Have they had any issues in the past with unknown people, people they did not know coming into their village at night?

ANDREW EXUM, adviser to General McChrystal: We have suffered a lack of trust with the Afghan people, and it's entirely understandable. If I were an Afghan living in Wardak province, I wouldn't trust the Americans right now, either.

CAPT. MATTHEW CROWE: Three more questions: Do they have radios, and what stations do they listen to?

MARTIN SMITH: It's a difficult balance.

CAPT. MATTHEW CROWE: This is the rewarding part, being able to talk to the people and actually being able to deliver them things, like for here, their big thing was electricity. Their generator right now is not functioning.

MARTIN SMITH: And Captain Crowe knows he may raise expectations but may fail to deliver.

CAPT. MATTHEW CROWE: I try very hard not to say, "I promise that I will do this, this and this." It's very important not to make promises unless you're 100 percent sure you can follow through on them.

MARTIN SMITH: Captain Crowe returned to the village of Tagan several times, but it took two-and-a-half months to find funds to fix the generator. In late September, he rotated out of Jalrez.

JIM LEHRER: "Frontline's" documentary, "Obama's War," airs next Tuesday on most PBS stations. Please check your local listings for the time.

There's a link to a longer preview of that program on our Web site, also, and that's, of course, Also, there are recent "NewsHour" reports about the war in Afghanistan.