Transcript

WRITTEN AND PRODUCED BY
Stephen Grey & Dan Edge

DIRECTED BY
Dan Edge

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

ANNOUNCER: Behind last week’s successful mission lies a much wider military campaign, an extraordinary expansion of manhunt missions that have taken out thousands of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: If you’re trying to take down an insurgency, you take away its safe havens, you take away its leaders.

— Hit the guy on the road.

LT. COL. JOHN NAGL (Ret.): The Joint Special Operations Command is an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine.

ANNOUNCER: FRONTLINE investigates the latest U.S. strategy.

DEXTER FILKINS: Bludgeon your opponent. Kill and capture as many as you can. Make them ask for peace.

ANNOUNCER: Its impact and its risks.

— By launching those attacks, are we creating more militants than, in fact, we are killing?

ANNOUNCER: Can this campaign of killing and capturing make the difference?

DEXTER FILKINS: It could take years. I mean, I don’t think anybody knows.

MICHAEL SEMPLE: Bin Laden is gone. That creates a kind of space in which diplomacy might actually be able to make progress.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, Kill/Capture.

[Tonight's program contains graphic images of war and graphic language which has been edited. Viewer discretion is advised.]

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children.

NARRATOR: On May 2nd, 2011, U.S. special operations forces killed the world’s most wanted man in a raid on a house in Pakistan. The operation gave the world a glimpse into a vast and secret campaign being waged by the United States.

It’s known as the kill/capture program. It’s a campaign that the military says has killed or captured more than 12,000 militants in the last year. Using cutting-edge technology, elite teams are hunting down Taliban and al Qaeda leaders one by one and taking them out.

Lt. Col. JOHN NAGL (Ret.), Pentagon Adviser: We’re getting so good at various electronic means of identifying, tracking, locating members of the insurgency that we’re able to employ this extraordinary machine, an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine that has been able to pick out and take off the battlefield not just the top level al Qaeda-level insurgents, but also increasingly is being used to target mid-level insurgents.

NARRATOR: The kill/capture program is veiled in secrecy. Very little has been disclosed about how it operates, or its effects on the ground. But FRONTLINE has spent months traveling through Afghanistan, investigating how this secret campaign is conducted, what it’s doing to the Taliban and al Qaeda, and whether it can play a decisive part in ending the war.

[Twitter #frontline]

Our journey begins in Khost province, eastern Afghanistan. This is where al Qaeda trained some of the 9/11 hijackers. It’s now the heartland of the Haqqani network, a ruthless branch of the Taliban insurgency responsible for some of the most vicious attacks of the war.

Over the past year, there’s been a dramatic escalation of kill/capture missions here. We’re with the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division and their Afghan counterparts. They’ve received intelligence that a wanted Taliban leader is hiding out nearby.

U.S. SOLDIER: We’re going after a mid-level insurgent here in the district. Guy’s name is Gulab, this guy right here. He’s an IED facilitator, kidnapper, just all-around bad guy. We’re going to do an air assault on his compound.

NARRATOR: In Khost — and across the country — targeted raids like this have become a defining tactic in the war against the Taliban. Although 30,000 extra U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan last year, here in Khost there are still not enough forces to keep security outside the major towns. Launching these assaults on Taliban leaders is calculated to keep the enemy on the run.

The troops have been told that the Taliban target is holed up in this compound. They discover their intelligence is wrong. They’ve raided the wrong place. This is the home of a tribal elder who claims to support the government, not the Taliban.

SHAHZAD JAMIL: [subtitles] This is very bad! This is why people are so upset. This makes me feel like joining the Taliban to fight against you. You’re disrespecting me. If I’m a terrorist, or a member of al Qaeda, then show me proof. There is no proof. Why do you disrespect me like this?

NARRATOR: Although the elder appears innocent, the soldiers decide to conduct a search. They risk causing further offense, but if they don’t search the compound, there’s a chance an insurgent could slip away.

U.S. SOLDIER: Kick the fucking door open!

NARRATOR: The Afghan troops are ashamed to search the house of a man they think is innocent.

[subtitles]

AFGHAN SOLDIER: We woke them from their beds and searched their house.

AFGHAN SOLDIER: Sorry, sir. Our hands are tied.

SHAHZAD JAMIL: They are all over our country. What can we do? There’s nothing here. I’ve told you.

AFGHAN SOLDIER: Don’t worry sir. We’re on your side.

NARRATOR: They find some weapons. It’s not much, but enough to cast suspicion on the elder.

U.S. SOLDIER: Hey, who owns this shit?

U.S. SOLDIER: Ricky Bobby!

U.S. SOLDIER: [on the radio] The owner is saying he uses it for his guards at night, but we’re going to go ahead bring him back as well as bring him back to [unintelligible]. Over.

But he is not the target individual. He was not found. Over.

U.S. SOLDIER: [on the radio] Roger. Be advised you got a lot of moving pieces, people coming out. Break.

NARRATOR: The elder was to be released without charge a few hours later.

SHAHZAD JAMIL: [subtitles] This will have consequences. I am a tribal leader. I’m very influential. If my tribe learns about this, they will be so angry with these people. Just as they raided an innocent village, the whole of Afghanistan is innocent. There is nothing here, nothing.

NARRATOR: Kill/capture missions seem a far cry from how this war was once portrayed. When 30,000 extra U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan last year, the military said they were implementing a counterinsurgency campaign. This was explained publicly as a battle for the hearts and minds of the people.

DEXTER FILKINS, The New Yorker: The overriding goal of counterinsurgency is to make friends. You make friends with the people, you isolate the insurgents. Go where the people are. Go where the population is. Go to the population centers. Get in among the people, protect the people, isolate the insurgents.

NARRATOR: But according to those close to the military command, counterinsurgency also involves hunting down the enemy.

Lt. Col. JOHN NAGL (Ret.), Pentagon Adviser: Counterinsurgency doctrine believes in killing people, it just believes in killing the right people. And what’s happened over the past five years is we’ve gotten far, far better at correlating human intelligence and signals intelligence to paint a very tight, coherent picture of who the enemy is and where the enemy hangs his hat. And we’ve gotten better at using precision firepower to give those people very, very bad days. And I really think that this is redefining what counterinsurgency means in the 21st century.

NARRATOR: Overseeing the counterinsurgency campaign in the early days of the troop surge was General Stanley McChrystal. After pioneering kill/capture operations in the Iraq War, McChrystal increased their use in Afghanistan.

And when General David Petraeus took command last summer, he stepped them up further. Petraeus has doubled the number of kill/capture missions and issued hundreds of press releases announcing the death or detention of Taliban leaders.

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS, Commander, U.S. Forces (Afghanistan): The Taliban had the momentum. And when you’re faced with a serious deteriorating situation, you have to do something about it. And the best way to do something about it is to use every tool available to you, and that includes everything from the very soft end of things all the way to the hardest of the hard end, which is, of course, targeted raids.

NARRATOR: The kill/capture campaign against the Taliban is waged by both special operations forces and conventional troops. But leading and directing the program is a secretive counterterrorism unit within special forces known as Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. It was JSOC that carried out the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

Lt. Col. JOHN NAGL: The Joint Special Operations Command has become one of the most important tools General Petraeus has, not just in removing enemies from the battlefield but in reducing the effectiveness of the enemy organizations that survive, sowing distrust, discontent inside the ranks of these insurgent organization, and ultimately persuading them that they don’t have any chance of succeeding militarily.

NARRATOR: JSOC exists outside the NATO chain of command. With ranks that include the elite Navy SEALs, its mission is not only the hunt for the world’s leading terrorists. In Afghanistan, it’s working from a target list that now includes thousands of names.

MATTHEW HOH, Former Official, U.S. Foreign Service: There’s a list. There’s a list that that’s kept and that has grown exponentially over the last couple years. And it covers a host of different types of individuals. Some are bomb makers. Some are actual commanders. They control fighters. Others are logistics people. They facilitate the transport of individuals or money or weapons, et cetera. Others are financiers. The key thing is, once you hit a certain point on that list, there are a lot of really smart men and women with a lot of expensive high-tech equipment looking for you.

U.S. SOLDIER: Hit the guy on the road.

U.S. SOLDIER: Roger. Hit the guy on the road.

Maj. Gen. JOHN NICHOLSON: Well, let me give you an example in southern Afghanistan. So if you look at where the majority of the population is—

NARRATOR: The military leadership says there is no contradiction between protecting the Afghan population and kill/capture operations.

Maj. Gen. JOHN NICHOLSON: We’ve undertaken, you know, roughly 3,000 operations in the last 90 days, so this is an unprecedented op tempo here in Afghanistan in these types of operations.

NARRATOR: According to Major General John Nicholson, kill/capture missions create space in which conventional troops can improve security.

Maj. Gen. JOHN NICHOLSON, U.S. Army: By maintaining the initiative against the enemy, that enables the majority of the force to focus on securing the population. So the two are essential and complementary. If we did not have this level of operational tempo with special operating forces, then it would be tougher for our conventional forces to secure the population.

NARRATOR: Conventional forces across Afghanistan are fighting hard to secure the major population centers.

[September 2010 Andar District, Ghazni Province]

NARRATOR: When a soldier of the 101st Airborne Division filmed this footage last fall, the district of Andar was a war zone. The Taliban were in control and determined to stop ordinary Afghans from voting in national elections.

Lt. PHILIP DIVINSKI, U.S. Army: We first came in here about seven days before the elections in September. And since we showed up in September, we were here for maybe 15 minutes and then we took contact. And for the next probably seven days straight, we took direct fire and indirect fire from the northwest and the west. And the Taliban was just trying to— to really scare people away and make sure that they— they didn’t actually come to vote. And it was effective. No one came to vote.

NARRATOR: On that election day, only three people turned up to vote from a population of more than 100,000.

But over the last six months, kill/capture operations have helped transform Andar’s district center into a secure zone. More than 40 raids across the province have killed or captured over a hundred militants. The Taliban have disappeared from the town center. The Afghan government, supported by American troops, have been able to open a school. The hope is now that the locals will choose to back the government over the Taliban.

U.S. SOLDIER: [at school] I want to come back here in a few years on vacation instead of wearing all this, so—

TRANSLATOR: [subtitles] He said, “Next time when I come, I will come on vacation. I won’t be wearing this uniform.”

NARRATOR: But progress here appears limited. The government runs one school in this district. The Taliban run more than 20. And security here has come at a cost to the hearts and minds campaign. When we go on patrol with the Afghan army, we meet locals who object to the tactics of the kill/capture teams.

1st AFGHAN MAN: [subtitles] These people come in the middle of the night. They break into houses. They bring dogs with them. They drag women out of the house. This is an offense to Islam.

2nd AFGHAN MAN: [subtitles] If the Taliban were hiding in my house, I wouldn’t tell you. They don’t dishonor our women, but your friends do.

NARRATOR: Night raids are the signature tactic of JSOC’s kill/capture campaign. Almost all JSOC operations take place under cover of darkness. The Afghan government says they want these night raids to stop.

[www.pbs.org: The controversy over night raids]

MOHAMMED DAUDZAI, Chief of Staff to President Karzai: Night raids are against our culture. Even if it doesn’t cause any harm, that’s unacceptable because it’s a disgrace to people’s dignity in our culture.

NARRATOR: Mohammed Daudzai is chief of staff to the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. He is worried that night raids do more harm than good.

MOHAMMED DAUDZAI: You have a village, has a very peaceful life, and in the middle of the night, people come and surround the village and search a few houses and take a few prisoners. And in that scuffle, a few of them are killed, women disgraced. The next day, what do you expect? The entire village youth becomes Taliban. They’re searching for the Taliban to recruit them and give them weapons.

NARRATOR: General McChrystal knew that night raids could turn the Afghan population against American soldiers. He restricted conventional troops from conducting them and instead ordered the elite forces of JSOC to take the lead.

Now they are doing six times as many night raids as they were two years ago. JSOC has taken measures to reduce the offense these operations cause by involving locals. This military video shows Afghan soldiers being trained by special forces to conduct a night raid.

TRAINING VIDEO: [subtitles] Attention! Your house is surrounded by the army. Raise your hands and come outside. Otherwise, you will all be killed.

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: Afghans accompany our forces on every one of these. They do the call-out— in other words, “Come out, we’ve surrounded the house.” They do it, obviously, in the native tongue that’s appropriate to that area.

TRAINING VIDEO: [subtitles] Lift up your shirt. Turn around. Hands behind your head. Come, come!

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: They do the entry operation. They do the searches, if it’s required, and so on. We make mistakes. What we try to do is to learn from the mistakes, to adjust in the wake of them and to truly turn lessons learned intellectually into actual changes in practices.

NARRATOR: The story of one JSOC operation that took place last September shows how kill/capture missions risk alienating ordinary Afghans. This wasn’t a night raid but a daylight air strike in the northern province of Takhar. The military announced that they had killed a prominent Taliban commander and his fighters, but it soon emerged that something may have gone wrong. The aftermath of the strike was filmed by a local police officer.

[subtitles]

— Get them out of here. Come on, people!

— Lift him. Lift him. Get him off the ground!

— They hit an election convoy!

— These poor people.

NARRATOR: Locals said the dead were all innocent civilians, election workers on the campaign trail.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates happened to be in Kabul that day. He faced questions about civilian casualties, but maintained that a key insurgent had been killed.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. Secretary of Defense: [September 2, 2010] This is an individual who was responsible for organizing and orchestrating a number of attacks here in Kabul and in northern Afghanistan. This is the first that I had heard that civilians may have been killed, and we will certainly look into that.

NARRATOR: The military conducted a review of the operation. Ten days later, a press release was issued. It said that the attack was “selective, surgical and legitimate” but that the military could not rule out the possibility of civilian casualties.

We traveled to the remote corner of Afghanistan where the strike took place and met with a group of survivors. Ihsanullah is a school teacher who was there that day.

IHSANULLAH: [subtitles] That day was like a celebration. We were campaigning for the elections. We were making friends, inviting them along with us. We had no idea they were all about to die.

NARRATOR: These home videos show some of the election workers out campaigning. For some of their journey before the strike, they had a police escort out of concern that the Taliban might attack them.

IHSANULLAH: [subtitles] Altogether, there were six vehicles. Our vehicle was at the end. Then there was a sound, a huge bang.

NARRATOR: Ihsanullah told us how two explosions destroyed one of the cars. He said helicopters then fired at those who survived the initial attack.

IHSANULLAH: [subtitles] The vehicle was burning. The flames were three meters high. After the attack, the ground was covered with body parts and blood.

NARRATOR: On the scene with local police, we found scraps of election posters.

LOCAL POLICEMAN: [subtitles] The Americans claimed it was not an election campaign. You can see here that this is an election poster for a candidate. Here it says, “for a better future.”

IHSANULLAH: [subtitles] They killed ordinary people— elders, students and teachers. That is how it happened.

NARRATOR: The military remains adamant that even if civilians may have died, it was still a successful mission because a key Taliban commander was also killed.

KATE CLARK, Afghan Analysts Network: This is one of the other strange issues of the case because—

NARRATOR: But a group of researchers in Kabul challenge this account. For the last eight months, an organization called the Afghan Analysts Network has been investigating this case.

KATE CLARK: From very early on, we did mini-biographies of the— everyone in the convoy, whether they were killed, injured, escaped unharmed.

NARRATOR: The most prominent of those killed was an Afghan elder called Zabet Amanullah. U.S. officials have confirmed to FRONTLINE that he was the target. But many are convinced he was innocent.

KATE CLARK: He was living openly. He was working on the campaign quite openly, staying with people. He was on the media a lot. Everyone from the governor down were asking, “Why did they kill him?”

NARRATOR: No one from JSOC would talk to FRONTLINE on camera, so FRONTLINE correspondent Stephen Grey raised the case with General Petraeus.

STEPHEN GREY, Correspondent: Can I just ask you how that operation came into being, what made you think this was the man that you were targeting?

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS, Commander, U.S. Forces (Afghanistan): Well, we didn’t think in this case, with respect, we knew. We had days and days of what’s called “the unblinking eye,” confirmed by other forms of intelligence, that informed us that this— there’s no question about who this individual was.

STEPHEN GREY: The man who was killed, who appears to be the target, was living openly in Kabul. And we have Afghan government officials who say this man was innocent. So what gives you confidence that he was who you say he was?

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: Very precise intelligence that tells us exactly what he was doing when he was in Kabul, and exactly what he was doing up there. So again, there’s not a question about this one, with respect.

NARRATOR: U.S. officials have told FRONTLINE that Zabet Amanullah led a double life as a Taliban deputy governor and that his real name was Mohammad Amin. But many Afghans maintain that the U.S. military made a mistake and that Mohammad Amin is someone else entirely from the man they killed that day.

Michael Semple, a former U.N. official and now a visiting fellow at Harvard, is one of the leading experts on the Taliban. He has lived and worked in the region for 20 years. Semple says he has tracked down and met the Taliban commander Mohammad Amin in person— after the attack that was supposed to have killed him.

MICHAEL SEMPLE, Harvard University: Mohammad Amin is alive. He’s somebody who did, indeed, serve as a deputy governor for the Taliban system in Takhar, who’s been engaged in the insurgency, somebody who we can place. But the point is, he’s flesh and blood. He’s real. He’s got an identity that can be checked out and that we have checked out, and he’s still alive.

NARRATOR: The military remains convinced they killed the right man. A U.S. official with direct knowledge of the operation told FRONTLINE, “The evidence from multiple sources is overwhelming. We know that this man was ordering attacks. And we know that after the strike, insurgents themselves were saying we had killed our target.”

But the Afghan Analysts Network has now published its findings and charged that the U.S. military killed the wrong man.

KATE CLARK: You have two people that they confused, and unfortunately for Zabet Amanullah, they targeted him believing he was an insurgent commander. I don’t know where the error came into their intelligence, whether they got the names mixed up, whether they got phone numbers mixed up, but they certainly killed the wrong person. They killed an innocent civilian.

NARRATOR: The Afghan government agrees that the U.S. military made a mistake that day.

MOHAMMED DAUDZAI, Chief of Staff to President Karzai: A lot of mistakes are there. And every day, we are shivering that God knows what more mistakes may happen. If there are mistakes in operation, then we provide more opportunities for recruitment for the enemy. And it’s in that context that we don’t want to tolerate it because we know, in the end, we would all be losers and the enemy will get stronger and stronger in numbers.

NARRATOR: The U.S. military maintains that fewer than 1 percent of kill/capture operations harm civilians. They argue that accurate missions are inflicting unprecedented damage upon the Taliban network.

We make contact with the Taliban and head to the province of Baghlan in northern Afghanistan. JSOC has unleashed a series of night raids and air strikes against insurgent leaders here. We’ve arranged a meeting with a group of Taliban who have just survived one of these attacks. They are on the run, and the meeting has taken months to arrange.

We find the Taliban gathered at the grave of their former commander, killed in a U.S. air strike on this spot.

KHALID AMIN: [subtitles] God bless him in paradise. He was killed four months ago. But jihad will continue in spite of his death. We are his brothers. We will follow in his path. One day, his child will ask who killed his father, and he will take up arms against the infidels who killed his father. Jihad cannot be stopped. If we are killed, then our children will take up the fight. Jihad will continue until Judgment Day. God is great!

NARRATOR: Until recently, Khalid Amin was a foot soldier. He now controls around 50 Taliban fighters after two senior commanders were killed by special forces.

KHALID AMIN: [subtitles] This is Juma Khan, one of our distinguished commanders. He was killed on the front line. This is Maulvi Jabar, our district chief. He was killed with 30 others in a night raid. When he died, the enemy said the Taliban was finished here. But three months later, our Islamic emirate is still strong. We have many more fighters than back then.

NARRATOR: FRONTLINE was unable to verify the number of Taliban in Baghlan. But what’s clear is that attacks by the Taliban have continued across this province since the kill/capture raids began.

KHALID AMIN: [subtitles] These night raids cannot annihilate us. We want to die anyway, so those destined for martyrdom will die in the raids and the rest will continue to fight without fear.

MATTHEW HOH, Former Official, U.S. Foreign Service: We’re killing a lot of mid-level commanders, but they get replaced by other mid-level commanders. So it hurts them in the sense that they have to promote new people, but they just promote new people. And the more raids we do like this, the more we upset and aggrieve the Afghan population, the more support they get.

NARRATOR: Matthew Hoh resigned from the Foreign Service in 2009 because he felt that U.S. tactics were only fueling the insurgency.

MATTHEW HOH: It’s counterintuitive. You think by killing the bomb makers, you’re going win. But you and I can go and kill a bomb maker tomorrow and he’ll be replaced within 30 or 40 days. It ain’t that hard to teach a guy how to— how to make a bomb and put it on the side of the road. Particularly when you have a large pool of willing participants coming from an aggrieved population, it’s not too hard.

NARRATOR: The last year in Afghanistan has been the most violent of the entire war. More U.S. soldiers were killed, more Taliban were killed, and more Afghan civilians were killed than ever before. But U.S. commanders argue that this unprecedented violence could actually be a sign that the strategy is working.

DEXTER FILKINS, _The New Yorker_ This is one of the great paradoxes of the war. What the military commanders will tell you is, “Look, things are going to get worse before they get better. And so right now, they’re worse because we’re going into places where we haven’t— literally haven’t been in years. We’re killing, capturing people that until now, you know, for years have been enjoying safe havens, freedom of movement, and suddenly that’s not possible anymore. ” I think at some point — and this is the big “if” — the curve is supposed to go down, the curve of violence. That hasn’t happened yet.

NARRATOR: But the U.S. military points to signs of progress in some parts of Afghanistan. They say that the kill/capture campaign is pushing Taliban foot soldiers to defect from the insurgency, a process known as “reintegration.”

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: These are mid-level fighters and below who have had enough, or are tired of just endless fighting, whatever it may be, the pressure and so on, and essentially come forward and say, “I’d like to lay down my weapon. I would like to be reintegrated into society. I’d like protection as I do that.” Not a huge number yet, still we would say below a thousand total in the various reintegration events that have taken place in the course of just recent months. But nonetheless, you see some degree of traction and some degree of momentum.

[www.pbs.org: More from Gen. Petraeus]

NARRATOR: Here in Kunduz province, after an intense targeting campaign, 40 insurgents have decided to leave the Taliban and join the government side. Journalists have been invited to a public reintegration ceremony.

[subtitles]

AFGHAN OFFICIAL: Let us pray.

EX-TALIBAN: Amen.

AFGHAN OFFICIAL: May God reward you for joining the peace process.

NARRATOR: One of the defectors is a commander called Abdul Aziz. Along with his fighters, he’s been on the run from U.S. special forces for a year. Now he’s changed sides, he’s being given extra weapons by the Afghan government and asked to help hunt down his former Taliban friends.

[www.pbs.org: Watch on line]

A month after the ceremony, we go back to find Abdul Aziz and his militia. We discover that he is starting to regret his decision to leave the Taliban.

ABDUL AZIZ: [subtitles] When I was with the Taliban, things were different. People used to welcome us. When we came to a village, they would invite us in and they would be very hospitable. The people were so happy to see us then. Now they’re not. I don’t know why. They’re not welcoming any more. Now we have to work with no support.

NARRATOR: Aziz and his men have not been paid by the government since they started working for them. They are cold and hungry. And they are very worried that at some point, they might actually have to fight their former Taliban friends.

Then something happens that none of them want. One of Aziz’s men has just been told that there are some Taliban hiding in a house nearby.

MILITIAMAN: [subtitles] I asked an old man if there were any Taliban there. He mistook me for Taliban and said, “Yes, they are here.” I asked him where. He said in his house. What should I do now?

NARRATOR: Aziz seems unsure what to do. Aziz tries to persuade the village elder to hand the Taliban over without a confrontation. He forgets he is wearing a microphone.

ABDUL AZIZ: [subtitles] Come this way please, uncle. Right, the Taliban who are hiding here— I was a member of the Taliban myself. About 30 fighters worked for me. I joined the government side about a month ago, but the Taliban are still my brothers. Look, we don’t like the Americans. We’ve had bad experiences with them. They’re infidels. They are the enemies of our religion, our nation and our honor. If God makes the Taliban successful, then we will be Taliban again. Do you understand? On that day, we will be Taliban.

NARRATOR: The U.S. military acknowledges that there aren’t enough Taliban foot soldiers switching sides to make a real difference in the war. But they argue that the kill/capture campaign might soon drive the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table.

We were offered the chance to meet a senior Taliban leader. Mullah Yunus is high on the list of kill/capture targets and is on the run from U.S. special forces. He is the Taliban head of operations for the province of Baghlan and is said to have been behind an infamous suicide attack that killed 70 people, most of them civilians.

Yunus is a rising star in the Taliban leadership and was promoted to his position after special forces killed his predecessor last year. We ask him if the Taliban are ready to talk peace with the Afghan government.

MULLAH YUNUS: [subtitles] We will never negotiate with the Karzai government. They are the puppets and our enemies. Instead of talking to them, we will try to target them and eliminate them. Negotiations will only be possible when the Americans leave Afghanistan.

NARRATOR: We ask Mullah Yunus if the Taliban will ever be willing to negotiate.

MULLAH YUNUS: [subtitles] No. This war has become like delicious food for us. When a day passes without fighting, we get restless. We are sad when we cannot fight. Negotiations will only be possible when the Americans leave Afghanistan. We will only talk when they compensate us for all our losses. Otherwise we will attack Americans in foreign countries.

NARRATOR: Young commanders like Mullah Yunus have risen to positions of power because of the kill/capture campaign. They appear to have little interest in making peace. Those close to the U.S. military acknowledge there’s a danger that the kill/capture campaign may radicalize the Taliban, but they say it’s worth the risk.

Lt. Col. JOHN NAGL (Ret.), Pentagon Adviser: Many of them are more extreme, which makes it harder to negotiate with them, but it also makes them sloppier. They haven’t had as much time on the battlefield. And so I’m sure they would much prefer us to turn off the kill/capture machine in order to maintain the capacity they have and build a strong mid-level leadership. That’s something they don’t have and I don’t think they’re ever going to get back, and that’s a fact that they are still coming to terms with.

NARRATOR: U.S. commanders argue that for now, kill/capture is a crucial part of a wider counterinsurgency campaign that is starting to roll back the Taliban.

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: We’re seeing progress for the first time in many years. Our assessment is that we have halted the momentum of the Taliban in much of the country — not all — and that we have reversed the momentum in some important areas, while noting that there’s no question that there’s still a great deal of hard work to be done.

NARRATOR: Across Afghanistan, the military admits, the Taliban are still in control of much of the countryside.

Back in Andar district, after a campaign that has seen hundreds of insurgents killed or captured, we join a unit of the 101st Airborne on patrol in Taliban territory. Out here, the insurgents run a shadow government. They tax the population, run schools and have their own courts, and they punish those they suspect to be spies. When the Americans come here, the Taliban slip away.

Sgt. GAVIN ERICKSON: Up here, it’s, like, a hatred like you just can’t describe. You ask questions about Taliban, you know they’re there, but the people lie to you and you know they’re lying right to your face. That’s probably the most disappointing thing, especially when you’re here to help them.

DEXTER FILKINS: I think the most troubling question that hangs over this whole enterprise, for all the money and all the blood that’s been spent on it, is we know that NATO and the Americans can go into an area and clear it and kill a lot of Taliban and chase them out of there. They can— they’re pretty good at that. They can even hold the town. They can even govern it. They can build stuff. They can build schools. They can build roads. We know they can do that. It costs a lot of money, it costs a lot of lives, but they can do it.

But the one thing that hasn’t been demonstrated at all, and we’re now in the 10th year of this thing, is can we hand it off to the Afghans?

NARRATOR: The soldiers here say the answer is not yet.

INTERVIEWER: What do you think could happen when you guys leave?

Sgt. GAVIN ERICKSON: Honestly, I think if we left, the Taliban would take it over again.

NARRATOR: It is now almost 10 years since the United States came to this country to drive out the Taliban and al Qaeda. Tens of thousands of Taliban have been killed or captured. The leader of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, is now dead. But it’s far from clear what the long-term consequences of this kill/capture campaign will be.

MULLAH YUNUS: [subtitles] We tell the infidels that if you kill us, we become stronger, and the number of our attacks will just increase as time passes. We have launched revenge attacks already, and we will now try to take revenge in foreign countries. We are resolute.

Kill/Capture

DIRECTED BY
Dan Edge

WRITTEN AND PRODUCED BY
Stephen Grey & Dan Edge

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ANNOUNCER: The Meth Epidemic, a FRONTLINE investigation.

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