obama's war


Obama's War

Marcela Gaviria
Martin Smith

Will Cohen
Timothy Grucza

Martin Smith &
Marcela Gaviri

[Tonight's program contains graphic language and violent imagery. Viewer discretion is advised.]

ANNOUNCER: Afghanistan. Pakistan. President Obama has called it a necessary war.

MARINE: All right! We're good!

Gen. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL, Commander, ISAF: It is ambitious, but it's also important.

MARINE: That tree line down there!

ANNOUNCER: But now, as the situation deteriorates, the debate has just begun.

Col. ANDREW BACEVICH, U.S. Army (Ret.), Author, The Limits of Power: You don't have to occupy the country in order to fix the larger problem.

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: Who told you the Taliban was going to shoot you if you go to the market?

ANNOUNCER: What is really happening on the ground? Can America win?

ANDREW EXUM, Adviser to Gen. McChrystal: We can do everything right in Afghanistan and still lose this war.


MARTIN SMITH, Correspondent: What's the mission today?

ANNOUNCER: -- correspondent Martin Smith reports from the battlefields of Obama's War.

Lt. Col. CHRISTIAN CABANISS, Cmdr. 2/8 Marines: Make no mistake, we're experts in the application of violence. We're attacking to seize control of the population from the Taliban. The people are our objective. Our predecessors are watching us. The world will remember what you do here this summer.

Forty or fifty years from now, when you're sitting around with your grandchildren, they're going to ask you what you did in the summer of decision in Afghanistan.

I picked you specifically to be the company that goes the furthest south. And remember, your measure's not found in how much time you have on this earth but what you do with the time that you have. Echo Company is going to change history, starting early tomorrow morning.

MARINE: Down, down, down!

MARINE: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait! Are you OK, Eleanor?

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] On July 2nd, 2009--

MARINE: Hey, keep moving! Keep moving! We can't-- we can't stop. Let's go. Keep going, keep going, keep going!

MARTIN SMITH: -- four thousand Marines landed in the Southern Afghanistan province of Helmand. Freelance photojournalist Danfung Dennis was embedded with Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines for three weeks. He filmed these scenes. The fighting was often heavy.

MARINE: Is everybody good? Fallon, you good?

MARTIN SMITH: There wasn't much cover and the area was mined with IEDs.


MARINE: What the fuck was that?

MARINE: Fuck! It was a fucking IED! I told you guys, Do not fucking cross right here! What the fuck!

MARINE: Hey, Stuck, get down!

MARINE: Hey, where's it coming from?

MARINE: That gap in the trees to the right of the compound.

MARINE: Yeah. And they're on the left side.

MARTIN SMITH: The Marines' objective was to seize a key canal crossing and to drive the Taliban from a village market.

MARINE: Let's go! They're hitting the top of that building!

MARINE: Spring!

MARINE: Firepower down!

MARINE: Hey, I'm moving! Don't shoot me!

MARINE: Same spot.

MARTIN SMITH: On the first day--

MARINE: Let's go! We cleaned the fuck out!

MARTIN SMITH: -- while they were trying to hold their ground--

MARINE: I need a goddamn litter team!

MARINE: Litter team, now!

MARTIN SMITH: -- a Marine was shot in the neck by the Taliban.

MARINE: Sharp?

MARINE: Sharp?

MARINE: Sharp, buddy, come on!

MARINE: Come on, Sharp.

MARINE: Sharpie!

MARINE: Come on, Sharp!

MARINE: I need a fucking litter team!

MARINE: The fucking tree line!

MARINE: Come on, Sharp! Come on, Sharp!

MARTIN SMITH: Twenty-year-old Lance Corporal Charles Seth Sharp of Adairsville, Georgia, had just mailed a letter home saying he was going to be fighting a battle that his grandchildren would someday study in school.

MARINE: Grab a leg. Grab a leg. Grab one. Grab one. Come on, let's go. We're taking him.

MARINE: Watch your back.

MARINE: Goddamn it, let's go!

MARINE: Where's the litter? Where's the fucking litter?

MARTIN SMITH: Corporal Sharp didn't make it.

Heavy fighting has been going on for months now across Helmand. Earlier this year, the president gave a stark assessment of the war.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: [March 27, 2009] The situation is increasingly perilous. Many people in the United States have a simple question: What is our purpose in Afghanistan? Why do our men and women still fight and die there? They deserve a straightforward answer.

MARTIN SMITH: Three weeks after the Marines landed in Helmand, we went down to link up with Echo Company. Just yesterday, a Humvee scouting this road hit an IED. Two more Marines were killed, two badly wounded. Then word came that another IED had disabled one of our lead vehicles. Our convoy was halted for 12 hours.

MARINE: Chicken salsa, vegetable manicotti-- beef stew? Beefy stew?

MARTIN SMITH: The Taliban considers southern Afghanistan their heartland. In eight years of war, the coalition has never held this territory. Commander of the International Security Assistance Force is General Stanley McChrystal.

[on camera] You've cleared Helmand three times.

Gen. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL, Commander, ISAF: Yeah.

MARTIN SMITH: Never hold it.

Gen. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL: Yeah. And once you clear something and don't hold it, you probably didn't really clear it. It has no staying power. 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.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Echo Company has now set up camp in an old schoolhouse they took from the Taliban. They've named it Combat Outpost Sharp, after their fallen brother, the first Marine to die here. There's still Taliban graffiti on the walls. ["Our jihad is for Allah"]

Conditions are tough. There are no cots. And daytime temperatures can reach 135 degrees. But unlike previous missions, the Marines plan to stay.

Capt. ERIC MEADOR, Cmdr., Echo Company: Echo main, Echo six. OK. Find out where it's going and keep us fed. All right, let's go.

MARTIN SMITH: But their primary mission is not to hunt and kill the Taliban, it is instead to protect the people. It's why they picked this spot.

[on camera] You moved into this old school that was a Taliban stronghold. And it's right next to the market of Mian Poshteh. What's the thinking behind that, of being right here, next to the market?

Capt. ERIC MEADOR: Right next to the market will help us to connect with the people a little bit more. So over time, we can start developing that relationship with them as somewhat of a population center. So you got to-- you have to be-- you have to be with the population and close to them, so that you can work with them.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] It's all part of a revised military strategy to focus on separating the people from the Taliban. It's easier said than done. Since the Marines arrived in Mian Poshteh, the people have fled.

SHOPKEEPER: [subtitles] I am the only shopkeeper to come here today. People no longer come to this market to shop and buy groceries. The Taliban have told them to stop shopping here. If we stay open, the Taliban said they'd capture us and beat us. This already happened to two or three other shopkeepers.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] They're not coming to your market.

Capt. ERIC MEADOR: That's right. That's right.

MARTIN SMITH: Where are they going?

Capt. ERIC MEADOR: There's a couple other markets farther to the south. That's where they're going right now.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Connecting with the people sounded a lot easier back in Washington.

SPEAKER: The central goal with counterinsurgency is to make the population feel secure enough to engage in peaceful politics.

MARTIN SMITH: A few weeks before heading out to Afghanistan, I attended a major security conference in Washington.

SPEAKER: In all counterinsurgency practice that I'm aware of--

SPEAKER: A trillion dollars in this global counterinsurgency campaign--

SPEAKER: Invest and endure, a long-term commitment to the region to--

MARTIN SMITH: Some of the counterinsurgency brain trust's best and brightest strategists were there.

Lt. Col. JOHN NAGL (Ret.), Fmr. Adviser to Gen. Petraeus: It conceivably could embroil...

MARTIN SMITH: John Nagl, who helped write the military's new counterinsurgency manual.

Lt. Col. JOHN NAGL: -- preventing the reemergence of a strong al Qaeda-associated presence--

MARTIN SMITH: Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger, who writes an influential counterinsurgency blog.

ANDREW EXUM, Adviser to Gen. McChrystal: We have a concerted effort to protect the population above all other considerations.

MARTIN SMITH: And the architect--

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS, CENTCOM Commander: The overriding mission of counterinsurgency has to be to secure the people.

MARTIN SMITH: -- Gen. David Petraeus.

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: What we are doing is what we call full spectrum operation.

MARTIN SMITH: Petraeus explained that he means not just troops living among the people--

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: -- progress has continued in Afghanistan--

MARTIN SMITH: -- but a complex array of goals-- improving governance, fighting corruption, building infrastructure.

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: The only way to do this is to apply all of these tools to it. But at the end of the day, it's all about these folks right here.

MARTIN SMITH: Counterinsurgency, revitalized by Petraeus and his advisers--

MARINE: Salaam Aleikum.

MARTIN SMITH: -- has been policy in Afghanistan for six months now, embraced back in March by President Obama when he sent the Marines into Helmand.

Capt. ERIC MEADOR: Sangay. Hello. How are you? Where are you going with your cows?

MARTIN SMITH: This is what they've been asked to do, lots of foot patrols.

Maj. Gen. MICHAEL T. FLYNN, Dir. 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-- all this gear that we wear, and literally just getting out among the population.

Capt. ERIC MEADOR: Sangay. Good morning. How are you? Good.

Maj. Gen. MICHAEL T. FLYNN: 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: It helps humanize the troops, but it does mean assuming more risk.

Capt. ERIC MEADOR: When you're out on patrol, one minute you're walking in a plowed field that's dry and then you cross an irrigation ditch and then you go wading knee-deep across a field that's just been flooded to grow the crops. You run the risk of mines and explosives on the roads. You also run that risk in the fields, as well. So you just have to play which one makes sense at the time.

MARINE: Damn, they got the little ones to work.

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD, Echo Company: How have things been going?

VILLAGER: [speaks in Pashto]

TRANSLATOR: There's nothing. There's no problem, sir.

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: None at all?

MARTIN SMITH: The Marines hope to convince villagers to return to the market next to the base--

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: What's been going on with those loud noises from the north?

MARTIN SMITH: -- and to gather information about the Taliban.

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: I'm talking to one of those guys we talked to at the mosque, the one who was smiling that time, but he was saying everything you wouldn't say when you smile. Talking to that guy right now, he's building that house.

MARTIN SMITH: But the people remain wary.

Capt. ERIC MEADOR: It is frustrating because the few people that are here are still scared and they're still a little timid about coming out and working with us.

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: Spread the word. Tell your friends who live in other places. Tell the Taliban to stay away.

BILAL SARWARY, Journalist: If you're an Afghan and an American commander is asking you, "Have you seen any Taliban who's coming here?" You know for sure that whatever you say to this American commander and official will be knowledge to a Taliban commander.

MARINE: Tell him to lift his shit up. Lift it up. What's this right here?

DAVID KILCULLEN, Adviser to Gen. McChrystal: They've messaged the population before leaving. They've said, "Yep, look, the Americans are coming in. They're going to ask you to work with them."

MARINE: Turn around.

DAVID KILCULLEN: "If you work with them, we're going to come back and we're going to kill you."

MARINE: Tell these gentlemen, not to be rude, we just come to search them. But when they see forces like us, don't run, and don't start stuffing stuff in your pockets. That looks suspicious.

MARTIN SMITH: Americans have brought grand ambitions to Helmand once before. In the '50s and '60s, Helmand was the site of one of the largest foreign aid projects ever undertaken in the developing world. The same engineers who built the Hoover Dam constructed these canals and installed a major dam upstream to control periodic flooding. The area developed into Afghanistan's breadbasket. But despite the good intentions, Helmand also became the world's largest heroin poppy supplier.

Lt. TED HUBBARD, Echo Company: See the head of the poppy? And they score it. Right before they harvest it, put those little score marks in it, and the pus oozes out overnight. And they come back, I don't know if it's the next day or a couple of days later, and the pus is all dried up, like a sap. And that's when they scrape off and they use that as the base for their opium production. So as you can see, it's everywhere.

Adm. MIKE MULLEN, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: You've got drug dealers, you've got criminals, obviously, you've got extremists, all of whom are surviving off this poppy production, and in fact, both paying and intimidating the farmers.

MARTIN SMITH: Last year, the Taliban derived around $100 million from the opium trade. Opium and marijuana money also corrupts officials and undermines the people's support for government. But for now, the Marines turn a blind eye. It's a matter of priorities.

Capt. ERIC MEADOR: Drugs happens to be something that produces a lot of money, but my mission coming down here was not specifically against drugs. Like, I was asked point blank by some of the locals that are farmers, "Hey, what are you going to do about my drugs? Because that's the way I make my money. That's the way I make a living. That's the way I feed my family. What are you going to do about it?"

MARTIN SMITH: The Marines go on about their business.

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: How many people live here?


Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: Fourteen people live here?

TRANSLATOR: No, 40, sir.

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: Forty. Four-zero. Four-zero. Forty. This house? That house right here? And these ones right here?

TRANSLATOR: All of these people of the village [unintelligible]

MARINE: That way! That way! Hey, sir, we've got to get around the back side!

MARTIN SMITH: Skirmishes like this happen almost daily.

MARINE: That tree line!

MARTIN SMITH: Typically, the Taliban fire small arms from a distance.

MARINE: Hey, make sure we're watching this back side here. Somebody get our back side!

MARTIN SMITH: They are rarely seen.

MARINE: [on radio] They had a machine gun position in that tree line.

MARINE: I think he has a black turban on, sir.

Lt. Col. JOHN NAGL (Ret.), Fmr. Adviser to Gen. Petraeus: We're fighting an insurgent enemy who refuses to face us in frontal battle, but instead fights with ambushes, with snipers, with improvised explosive devices that leave the counterinsurgent, leave the American soldier, the Afghan soldier with no enemy to hit at, nobody to target.

MARINE: You see it one finger right of the left hay bale?

MARINE: Yeah, the left hay bale, you come about one finger to the right and you go straight back. And he's hanging out right there in between the trees.

MARINE: There are definitely guys in that tree line. And there are definitely guys deep out there.

Capt. ERIC MEADOR: Their goal is to attack us and keep us from the people and try to show the people that we can't keep them safe and that we're exchanging firefights and all that.

MARINE: There are still guys milling about in that tree line we were taking fire from, copy?

Capt. ERIC MEADOR: It is their way of distracting me from doing what I'm here to do.

MARTIN SMITH: All the shooting makes it harder for the Marines and the people to trust one another.

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: All right. Well, I know there's no problems, but you're still going to see the Marines around here, like, every day, every other day.

MARTIN SMITH: And with a translator who doesn't speak the local dialect or English very well--

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: Say that over again?

MARTIN SMITH: -- the simplest communication seems impossible.

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: Haven't gone where during fighting?

TRANSLATOR: [speaks in Pashto]

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: Haven't gone where during the fighting?

TRANSLATOR: They haven't gone to, sir

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: Gone where? You're not telling me where. Where haven't they gone?

TRANSLATOR: They haven't gone to from here.

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: They haven't gone from where? Gone where from here? Where?

MARTIN SMITH: Frustration steadily grows.

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: So now it's over there? They just said it was over there.

MARTIN SMITH: The Marines are here trying to find out why some locals have moved out of their homes.

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: Why are people afraid to come back to their house?

VILLAGER: [subtitles] Those people who live near the base are scared. They don't want to get hurt. They fear fighting between the Taliban and the government.

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: OK, well, now they can come back. They know that, right? People can start coming back. We want people to come back to their homes and start farming again. Hey, has anybody shopped at the market lately?

VILLAGER: [subtitles] We buy our flour from another bazaar.

TRANSLATOR: [subtitles] Where is the bazaar?

VILLAGER: [subtitles] In Lakari. It's far away.

TRANSLATOR: Sir, they've gone to Lakari.

Sgt. CHRIS MacDONALD: Why are you going to Lakari? The market right here is open.

TRANSLATOR: He told, sir, Taliban told, "If you go to bazaar, we will kill all of you."

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: So you were told the Taliban's going to shoot you if you go to the market. Who told you the Taliban's going to shoot you if you go to the market?

[Villagers all speak at once]

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: Who? Who told you all you'd be shot if you go to the market?

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] How well do you think your Marines understand counterinsurgency doctrine?

Capt. ERIC MEADOR: They understand how important it is to win the population. They understand that. It's sometimes difficult with Marines to rein them back.

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: I'm going to ask this question for the fifth time. Ask him to stop. Ask him to stop. I'm going to ask this question.

Capt. ERIC MEADOR: What I try to tell the Marines all the time is the guy that you are nice to today is going to be the guy that doesn't shoot at you or another Marine two rotations from now that comes back.

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: They didn't answer my question. Listen to me for a second. Listen to me right now, all right? You all are not cooperating.

Maj. Gen. MICHAEL T. FLYNN, Dir. Intelligence, ISAF: This is a war about personal relationships. It has to be a cultural shift in how we think about what we're doing. This is how we will win this war. This is how we will succeed.

Sgt. CHRISTOPHER MacDONALD: I need you all to answer my questions. If not, then I'm going to believe right now that the Taliban does come here, they talk to you, you talk to them and you're still on their side, all right? You need to understand that we are here to keep the Taliban out.

TRANSLATOR: [subtitles] As you know, we are here to kick the Taliban out. Why are you not helping us?

VILLAGER: [subtitles] What can we do?

VILLAGER: [subtitles] What can we provide for you? You have planes, tanks and guns. What do we have? We're simple people. We don't have a sword.

VILLAGER: [subtitles] If you can't win, how can we?

[back on patrol]

MARINE: [on radio] We can't go through all this open field. They'll see us from a click away.

MARTIN SMITH: The next day, a squad pushes out to find the Taliban.

[on camera] What's the mission today?

Lt. TED HUBBARD: The mission today is a couple things. You know, we're trying to get eyes on a river crossing that we think the Taliban are using. The other part is trying to see how aggressive they're going to be, trying to bait them a little bit into being overly aggressive and see if we can catch them in a trap.

MARTIN SMITH: Do you expect them to attack you today?


MARINE: Roger, we still have now 200 meters til we reach that first compound.

MARINE: Roger, we got contact already. We need you to move now. Move now.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Well before we expect it, the Taliban open fire.

MARINE: It's coming from the same position that Two Charlie got hit at yesterday.

MARTIN SMITH: We are pinned down in a spot with little cover.

MARINE: Hey, use talking guns with that SAW to save your ammo!

MARTIN SMITH: We need to push forward up and over a small rise, down into an area with better protection.

MARINE: All right, we're good!

MARTIN SMITH: Once in place, the Marines open up.

MARINE: I saw a guy get up.

MARINE: Where?

MARINE: Right in front of me.

MARINE: Right in front of you?

MARINE: Right in front of me.

MARINE: Thirty mike-mike!

MARINE: I see something shiny out there!

MARINE: Thirty mike-mike!

MARINE: Take that, motherfucker!


MARINE: Yeah, bitch!

MARINES: [cheering]

MARTIN SMITH: After 30 minutes, the battle dies down.

Lt. TED HUBBARD: Go ahead 5.

BASE: [on radio] Hey, be advised we're picking up some icom chatter about a possible weapons cache being on the back of a donkey cart. It would be-- they described it as break.

MARINE: They may shoot from over here, so you may want to fucking-- try to fucking watch out for this area.

Lt. TED HUBBARD: It sort of worked. We definitely scared them. But I think they knew that other squad was out there. I think they were conducting what you'd call it a delaying action, just trying to keep us in place while they can move away.

MARTIN SMITH: The Marines have been holding ground here since early July, but they don't have enough manpower to expand their area of operations. An unknown number of Taliban remain in place nearby.

[www.pbs.org: More about counterinsurgency]

If the front lines of counterinsurgency are in Helmand, an even more difficult front is here in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. It's the political side of counterinsurgency.

Adm. MIKE MULLEN, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: There is a view that the governance threat or the lack of governance is every bit the threat that the Taliban are. And we've got to essentially address that just as effectively as we do the security.

Gen. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL, Commander, ISAF: They deserve a chance at a future. They need some help right now. They need security, governance and development. Governance is by far the most important.

MARTIN SMITH: To work the political front, President Obama has beefed up Kabul's diplomatic staff and appointed a special representative, Richard Holbrooke.

KARL W. EIKENBERRY, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan: -- the greatest friend of the United States mission here in Afghanistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

MARTIN SMITH: Holbrooke is regarded as a kind of foreign policy superstar. He is here to address political and regional issues.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, Special Rep. for Afghanistan and Pakistan: But we have to remember why we're here. We're here to help the Afghan people stand up on their own feet--

We inherited a very difficult situation in Afghanistan. It would take a long time to catalog the things that we felt were done wrong. The government was weak and corruption was rife. And we set out to try to take all these issues on at once. It's a very daunting job.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Is what we're doing here nation building?

Amb. RICHARD HOLBROOKE: It's nation rebuilding. There is a nation in Afghanistan, and until it was wrecked by the Soviet invasion in 1978, it was a poor but proud and functioning country. This is not nation building.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] But whatever you call it, the project is in trouble. The government of President Hamid Karzai, in office for almost eight years, has never been willing or able to take on entrenched corruption.

ALEX THIER, Editor, The Future of Afghanistan: I had hoped that President Karzai would embrace the idea of a more accountable and just government. Instead what he has done is, in fact, rehabilitated some of the worst actors that have given the worst reputation to the Afghan government.

MARTIN SMITH: Just consider Karzai's running mates. On the right is Karim Khalili, once a leader of a militia with a reputation for brutality and torture. On the left is warlord Mohammed Fahim. While never convicted, he is widely reputed to be involved in heroin trafficking.

In Afghanistan, corruption is the rule not the exception.

STEVE COLL, Author, Ghost Wars: It's an enormous challenge. You have it at the petty local level, where a policeman will not carry out his duties without being paid by whoever it is he's confronting. You have local ministries where the bureaucrats, starved for salaries, exact fees from citizens to perform services that they should perform for free. You have regional corruption where governors, at least poor governors, take resources intended for the benefit of the population and direct them to their cronies or to their own bank accounts. You have corruption at basically every level of the political economy.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] What progress has been made in terms of combating corruption in Afghanistan in this year?

Amb. RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I don't-- I think we have been able to begin to get some arrests, some prosecutions, but we've just begun to scratch the surface. This is tough stuff, as you know. I feel that at least we are focused on the issues.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] But across the country, corruption has consequences.

VALI NASR, Adviser to Amb. Holbrooke: If the government's not providing electricity, if the government's not providing justice, if there is no investment in roads and infrastructure, if the population gets fed up with arbitrary rule, they get fed up with corruption, then they turn to the Taliban because the Taliban promise them some kind of rudimentary, brutal order.

MARTIN SMITH: According to U.S. intelligence sources, 70 percent of Afghanistan lies outside government control. In most areas, the Taliban offers their own shadow government, with their own administrators and courts.

ARTURO MUNOZ, Former CIA, 1980-'09: They are dispensing justice at the local level, and this is what a lot of people want in the countryside. They want law and order. That's how the Taliban came into power the first time.

SETH JONES, Author, The Graveyard of Empires: They have developed a very sophisticated tribal engagement policy. The U.S. and Afghans really have developed nothing.

MARTIN SMITH: This spring, the Taliban's chief commander, Mullah Mohammed Omar, even issued a 30-page booklet on how to engage the population. "Keep good relations with the local people," it says. "Our mission is to keep people safe."

[www.pbs.org: Excerpts from the booklet]

ANDREW EXUM, Adviser to Gen. McChrystal: In southern Afghanistan, the Taliban now has ombudsmen. So they send people out into southern Afghanistan and they say, "How are we doing? What do you think of your local shadow governor? Is he just? Is he doing a good job?" They ask questions like this. And you know what it is, is a direct challenge to the way that NATO-ISAF and the government of Afghanistan have been doing business for the past eight years.

MARTIN SMITH: To counter the Taliban's gains in the provinces, the coalition has made fighting local Afghan corruption a military priority.

Brig. Gen. WILLIAM MAYVILLE, Director of Operations, ISAF: I understand that to say we're going after corruption in some comprehensive way is a tall order. But corruption at a local level is a military necessity. You can't hold the ground and build if you haven't, at a local level, dealt with this.

MARTIN SMITH: On this day, the military was taking several high-ranking ministers from President Karzai's administration to Kunar province in northeastern Afghanistan, part of an ambitious project to stand up local government institutions.

SETH JONES: The U.S. has spent a lot of time trying to build a strong central government in Afghanistan. That is completely ahistorical in Afghanistan. Where the U.S. has not adopted a systematic strategy is dealing with local tribal institutions, where a lot of power resides. If all politics is local, well, that is truly the case in Afghanistan.

MARTIN SMITH: So instead of bringing the provinces to Kabul, the military is bringing Kabul to the provinces.

Brig. Gen. WILLIAM MAYVILLE: This is about connecting the government to the people. That is what they are going to see today. You've got the minister of finance, you've got the minister of customs, you've got the minister of agriculture, you got all the key stakeholders. It's very important that the provincial leadership and the locals here understand that they have a national government that is here to listen and here to solve problems.

MARTIN SMITH: The people of Kunar have survived for many decades smuggling timber and gems into Pakistan from the nearby mountains. They are deeply distrustful of Kabul. Many tribesmen share their profits with criminal gangs, the Taliban, even al Qaeda.

The military is trying to break their habits. Under the protection of an early warning blimp, General Bill Mayville toured a small tea farm.

GOVERNOR OF KUNAR: This is the best area for tea.

MARTIN SMITH: The idea is to get locals excited about alternatives to timber smuggling.

MINISTER OF AGRICULTURE: Then in the winter, they just cut these things.

MARTIN SMITH: Next was a trout farm.

MINISTER OF AGRICULTURE: Maybe this is a frog farm, for Chinese food. [laughter]

MARTIN SMITH: And finally, an afternoon of speeches.

MINISTER OF FINANCE: [subtitles] This plan needs money, and I promise that money. With your help, we will get this done.

MARTIN SMITH: Kunar's tribal elders listened, but there was no time left for questions.

[on camera] In all due respect, it seems enormously ambitious to look at a society and believe that you can change all its dynamics, and that you as a military organization are charged with that entire task.

Gen. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL, Commander, ISAF: It is ambitious, but it's also important. And it's one step at a time. It's a big job and it's enormously complex, and there will be as many frustrations as there are times when you think you got it right. But I think there's a no alternative.

IMAM: [subtitles] God is great! God is great!

CELESTE WARD, Dep. Asst. Sec. Def., 2007-'09: We have a strong interest in stable Afghanistan, but I'm not sure that the only way to conduct that mission is through large-scale nation-building efforts in Afghanistan. The problem is it's terribly vague about what exactly it is that you're required to build, and to what point. And how do I know when I'm done? Until you have specified what the end state you're aiming for is, then counterinsurgency is a recipe for presence in perpetuity.

MARINE: Hey 3-6, this is 6. We'll be ready to go in a second.

Col. ANDREW BACEVICH, U.S. Army (Ret.), Author, The Limits of Power: The nation-building project, it seems to me, tends to assume that that political culture can be changed. I think it's spectacularly ambitious. I guess the piece that bothers me is that, as a people, having accepted the proposition of open-ended war-- I mean the so-called long war, now eight years old, has become the longest war in our history. And there's no end in sight.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] How does this end? And how long is it going to take?

Brig. Gen. WILLIAM MAYVILLE: We're going to leave here under shades of gray. We'll have stability, at least reasonable stability. We'll have a firm understanding that more has to be done. But in the end, you'll have an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem, and that'll be good enough.

[www.pbs.org: Watch this program on line]

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Afghanistan is an incredibly difficult situation. But you have to take a deep breath when you look to the east, where the Taliban has its sanctuary and where Al Qaeda is headquartered, Pakistan.

Peshawar is the gateway to the lawless tribal areas that border Afghanistan. Anti-American sentiment runs high here. Throughout the summer, fundamentalist religious parties turned out to protest against U.S. and NATO troops in the region.

CROWD: [subtitles] Crush, crush, USA! Crush, crush, USA!

MARTIN SMITH: The ruthless leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, had just been killed by an American drone.

SPEAKER: [subtitles] American forces are here, NATO forces are here, and there are drone attacks. The obstacle we face is America.

CROWD: [subtitles] Go, America, go!

MARTIN SMITH: In the face these protests, even the Pakistani government feels compelled to condemn the killing of Mehsud.

REHMAN MALIK, Interior Minister, Pakistan: These attacks have been coming against our wish. And whether we like or we don't like, they are continuing.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] You're saying that this was not approved?

REHMAN MALIK: Oh, it was not approved. The position of the government of Pakistan remains there. No drones.

MARTIN SMITH: Do you support or protest the attack that killed Baitullah Mehsud?

Maj. Gen. ATHAR ABBAS, Spokesman, Pakistan Army: The government and the military stance is very clear on this. We consider it that it does more harm than it helps, and therefore it is seen by the people as a breach of sovereignty.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] The U.S. partnership with the Pakistanis is troubled. But American hands are tied.

DAVID KILCULLEN, Adviser to Gen. McChrystal: We are not in Pakistan in the way that we're in Afghanistan. We don't have an international security assistance force helping the Pakistanis. We don't have an American general and an American army operating in Pakistan. We're basically working with a partner in Pakistan who doesn't want us to be there.

MARTIN SMITH: But over the last two years, the Pakistanis have faced a serious Taliban problem of their own. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians have been killed in scores of Taliban bombings and assassinations. But when the Taliban took over the Swat Valley just a few hours drive from the capital, the Americans leaned on the government.

Lt. Col. JOHN NAGL (Ret.), Fmr. Adviser to Gen. Petraeus: There was an extraordinary effort made by everyone from the president through the secretary of state, secretary of defense, Ambassador Holbrooke, all leaned in hard to convince Pakistan that it could not yield to the Taliban, that it had to fight for control of its territory.

MARTIN SMITH: The Pakistanis responded with what one officer described to me as an iron fist. The U.S. military was encouraged.

Gen. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL: I think they've got a serious insurgency inside Pakistan, and they've taken very energetic and aggressive action against it. I think they've found it difficult, but I think they've also found the resolve internally to deal with it.

MARTIN SMITH: But it's not clear if the Pakistanis can or will carry the fight forward.

ANDREW EXUM: The Pakistanis, I believe, now share our interest in going after some of the insurgent groups that are bent on destabilizing Pakistan. But they do not share our interests, as of yet, in taking an aggressive stance against the groups that are seeking to destabilize Afghanistan.

MARTIN SMITH: American commanders point to two Taliban groups in particular, both with ties to al Qaeda. They are led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son, Siraj, in North Waziristan, and Mullah Omar in Quetta.

Over the years, both groups have received substantial financial and logistical support from the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, which has historically seen the Taliban as an asset, a proxy force for protecting Pakistani interests inside Afghanistan.

DAVID KILCULLEN: There are elements within the Pakistani national security establishment that have traditionally regarded extremists like the Taliban as a tool of international relations, and they can't quite bring themselves to let go of using those guys as a tool of foreign policy.

AMRULLAH SALEH, Director, Afghan Intelligence: The headquarters of the enemy is still in Pakistan. It's bad.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Have you gone to the ISI and asked for meetings with Mullah Omar or Jalaluddin Haqqani?


MARTIN SMITH: And the ISI tells you?


MARTIN SMITH: You dislike Pakistan.


MARTIN SMITH: You sound as if you dislike Pakistan.

AMRULLAH SALEH: Sure, because they are causing a lot of trouble for this country.

MARTIN SMITH: On the key issue of Pakistan dropping its affiliations with those that they have considered over time as their assets, people like the Haqqanis or Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura, is there any evidence that they're going to go after those people?

KARL W. EIKENBERRY, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan: Martin, still today they remain extraordinarily dangerous threats to U.S., NATO and Afghan forces who are fighting in southern Afghanistan and southeastern Afghanistan.

MARTIN SMITH: And what are the Pakistanis doing that gives you any confidence that they're changing their approach?

Amb. KARL W. EIKENBERRY: There, Martin, I'd refer you to the Pakistani government.

MARTIN SMITH: Is the Pakistani government interested in going after the Haqqani network?

REHMAN MALIK, Interior Minister, Pakistan: Well, I categorically deny there is no any such operation of Haqqani group in Pakistan. Yes, when we took over the government, there were allegations. I'll clarify you, sir. And we were reported that they have some dens, some of the points where they are operating, and Mullah Tamachai, Maulvi Namdar. And we struck against them.

MARTIN SMITH: The Americans and the Afghans, they say that you know where Haqqani is and that you know where Mullah Omar is, and that you could, if you chose to, go after them.

Maj. Gen. ATHAR ABBAS, Spokesman, Pakistan Army: No, that's not correct. There is no truth in the Mullah Omar and Siraj Haqqani remaining in Pakistan side of the border.

MARTIN SMITH: Why do they say that they operate from here, if that's not the case? Are they lying?

Maj. Gen. ATHAR ABBAS: Who's-- who's lying-- who said that?

MARTIN SMITH: Stanley McChrystal, other generals in the eastern part of Afghanistan, U.S. generals, Amrullah Saleh, the head of intelligence.

Maj. Gen. ATHAR ABBAS: They have their business--

MARTIN SMITH: As well as General Flynn, who's head of army intelligence.

Maj. Gen. ATHAR ABBAS: I-- I-- I refute that. No one has shown any intelligence to the Pakistani.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Last year, Admiral Mullen and a senior CIA official traveled to Islamabad with evidence that the ISI was continuing to support the Taliban-- in this case, intercepted communications between ISI officers and militants.

Adm. MIKE MULLEN: We laid out some very specific areas that we thought needed to be addressed to both the military, the intelligence and the political leadership. We had a series of meetings.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] You laid out the ISI's involvement with the militants that were based inside Pakistan?

Adm. MIKE MULLEN: We spoke to, clearly, the ISI's relationship with various militant groups, that they've had for some time.

MARTIN SMITH: How do I understand this? The Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA, U.S. military and Afghan intelligence all points to ISI and Pakistani cooperation and support for segments of the Taliban.

REHMAN MALIK: I think, sir, they have quite--

MARTIN SMITH: Are they all lying?

REHMAN MALIK: I think it's outdated intelligence. They must be talking of the past. We are cooperating. We will continue to cooperate because we believe safe Afghanistan is safe Pakistan.

MARTIN SMITH: You've been frustrated in the past, during the Bush administration, with how soft the policy was on Pakistan.

AMRULLAH SALEH, Director, Afghan Intelligence: Right.

MARTIN SMITH: You think that there's a major change in the approach to Pakistan under this administration?




MARTIN SMITH: In other words, you're still frustrated that the administration is soft on Pakistan.

AMRULLAH SALEH: You see, here is the fundamental problem. They say, "Pakistan is not a helpful country. Let us help them to become helpful." I disagree with that principle.

MARTIN SMITH: So how would you do it?

AMRULLAH SALEH: Let's put pressure on them to help.

MARTIN SMITH: What kind of pressure?

AMRULLAH SALEH: You cannot incentivize bad behavior or else this is going to be a vicious circle.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] For years, the Pakistanis have struck peace deals with the Taliban in the tribal areas. The latest was signed in February 2008 with the tribes of North Waziristan in what is Jalaluddin Haqqani's stronghold.

Getting results from the Pakistanis is the responsibility of U.S. special representative Richard Holbrooke.

[on camera] Is Pakistan on board with going after Haqqani?


MARTIN SMITH: What evidence is there of that?

Amb. RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Just let me leave it at that.

MARTIN SMITH: We know that they've gone after those who are threatening their state, but yet there doesn't seem to be convincing evidence that they're willing to go after the Haqqani network or Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura.

Amb. RICHARD HOLBROOKE: They are quite clear in their own minds that Haqqani poses a threat to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

[www.pbs.org: Read the interview]

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Privately, several administration officials told FRONTLINE they worried about the duplicity of Pakistani officials and how to develop a clear policy towards Pakistan.

DAVID KILCULLEN: We're not really sure what to do. I think the outlines of the new administration's Pakistan policy are a lot harder to discern than the Afghan policy. There hasn't been an equivalent to the new strategy on the ground that General McChrystal is advocating. I'm confident that we're going to start to see that over time, but I just don't think we've seen it yet.

STEVE COLL, Author, Ghost Wars: This could not be a more complicated war. If you think about it, the United States is essentially waging a war against its own ally. The Taliban are a proxy of the government of Pakistan. We are an ally of the government of Pakistan. We are fighting the Taliban. In the end, the Taliban will be defeated strategically when the government of Pakistan makes a strategic decision that its future does not lie in partnership with Islamic extremists.

MARTIN SMITH: The United States continues to pour money into Pakistan, $2 billion to $3 billion in military assistance and $7.5 billion in civilian aid over the next five years.

[on camera] Does it give you pause to hand them billions of dollars?

Lt. Col. JOHN NAGL: I absolutely have to hold my nose when I work with the Pakistani government. But I don't have a better alternative than continuing to work with this Pakistani government and continuing to nudge it forward toward taking more effective action against the Taliban.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] On August 20th, Afghans went to the polls to choose a new president. The Obama administration had high hopes that whoever the winner, the election would validate the Afghan government.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, President Karzai's main challenger, ran on an anti-corruption platform.

Dr. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: [subtitles] I want to rescue Afghanistan from a corrupt government. I want to rescue Afghanistan from a cruel government that the people don't trust.

MARTIN SMITH: But the election results were tainted by clear evidence of fraud. It was a disaster for the American project.

STEVE COLL: The United States is investing blood and treasure to support the government of Afghanistan. And if that government engaged in fraud in order to perpetuate itself in power calls into question the very basis of these American investments and sacrifices. I think it's appalling.

MARTIN SMITH: The U.N. has overseen a recount. At a time when Afghanistan most needs a government, the nation is paralyzed.

VALI NASR, Adviser to Amb. Holbrooke: We have to have an Afghan government that is functioning in Kabul. But if the Taliban have strategic depth in Pakistan, they can continue to threaten Afghanistan. And if they threaten Afghanistan, then terrorism of one form or another will be back.

MARTIN SMITH: So what does America do now? Are more troops the answer? Or should the focus shift eastward to the tribal areas of Pakistan?

Col. ANDREW BACEVICH: There seems to be some presumption that Afghanistan is jihad central, that if we can simply succeed in pacifying Afghanistan that the problem of violent Islamic radicalism goes away. It won't. All we care about is that al Qaeda not use the place as a sanctuary, and you don't have to occupy the country in order to prevent that from happening.

MARTIN SMITH: Proponents of a counterinsurgency war, on the other hand, argue for a much larger deployment.

Lt. Col. JOHN NAGL, U.S. Army (Ret.), Fmr. Adviser to Gen. Petraeus: By classic counterinsurgency measures, success in Afghanistan would require 600,000 counterinsurgents. We're well below half that right now.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Are you saying there have to be more American troops on the ground?

Lt. Col. JOHN NAGL: Initially, there need to be more American troops on the ground. The long-term answer, and our exit strategy, is more Afghan troops on the ground.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] In late August, General McChrystal submitted a grim assessment to President Obama, warning that America is in danger of losing the war if more troops are not sent. He requested as many as 40,000.

MARINE: They ran somewhere in between you and me.

MARTIN SMITH: President Obama put the troop request on hold. His administration is split over the way forward.

MARINE: All right, just about three minutes ago, I heard a boat taking off. It sounded like across the river. So they may have gotten away, if that's what they're using.

MARTIN SMITH: McChrystal says he welcomes the debate.

Gen. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL: Any war or conflict you enter where you are likely to lose more Americans is something worthy of very detailed debate. I know before an American soldier is put in harm's way, I hope that not just the political leadership but the American people give it a lot of thought.

MARINE CHAPLAIN: Great God in heaven, dear Jesus, we pray for our leadership, from every corporal all the way up through the president, that you'll allow them to make wise decisions and have wise discernment on what to do at each turn. We pray for those families--

Col. ANDREW BACEVICH: If we do indeed have a full-court press application of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, certainly more American soldiers are going to die. And I think it's very, very important to be absolutely certain that there-- that no alternative exists. And I think the people who insist that it has to be done through counterinsurgency have not seriously examined all the alternatives.

Lt. Col. JOHN NAGL: The president has said -- correctly, in my eyes -- that this is a necessary war. What we learned on September 11th was that vipers can grow in ungoverned spaces and that in a globalized world, they can harm us. This is a war that America needs to win. But there are no guarantees here.

MARINE: Radio check. Here you go, sir.

MARINE: You good?

Capt. ERIC MEADOR: Yeah, we're good.

MARTIN SMITH: From Mian Poshteh, Helmand, Echo Company reports that they are making some headway. They've taken more ground and are slowly building relationships with the local villagers.

MARINE: Sangay.

MARTIN SMITH: But people have not yet returned to the market next door. Attacks come regularly, and there have been more casualties. The Taliban still hold 100 miles of territory between the border with Pakistan and Combat Outpost Sharp.


Marcela Gaviria & Martin Smith

Jason Schmidt

Will Cohen and Timothy Grucza

Martin Smith

Timothy Grucza

Scott Anger
Danfung Dennis
Jason Longo

Ben Howard

Asrar Ghani
Zakir Ghani
Bilal Sarwary

Jim Ferguson

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Lindsay Utz

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Marines of Echo Company
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A FRONTLINE Co-Production
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© 2009
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FRONTLINE is a production of WGBH Boston, which is solely responsible for its content.

ANNOUNCER: This report continues on FRONTLINE's Web site, where you can watch the program again, read the extended interviews, plus analysis of top generals, diplomats and government officials, explore a map of the region, a timeline of our involvement there since 9/11, and then join the discussion at PBS.org.

Next time on FRONTLINE: Long before the economic meltdown--

The market was doing great, and the country seemed to be doing great.

ANNOUNCER: -- one woman sounded an alarm.

She could see the crises coming down the road.

That made her the enemy of a very, very large number of people.

ANNOUNCER: Who knew, and who ignored?

They were all part of a very concerted effort to shut her up and to shut her down.


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posted october 13, 2009

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