The War Briefing
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The War Briefing

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ANNOUNCER: Afghanistan is now a deadlier battlefield than Iraq.

Adm. MIKE MULLEN: I'm not convinced we're winning it in Afghanistan. And frankly, we're running out of time.

Sgt. LUCAS YOUNG: [gunfire] Where's it coming from? [gunfire]

ANNOUNCER: A resurgent Taliban attacks and then retreats across the border into Pakistan.

CROWD: Taliban! Taliban!

RONALD E. NEUMANN, Ambassador to Afghanistan, 2005-'07: Every attack in the west, every one of them traces back to this area.

Prof. VALI NASR, Council on Foreign Relations: The U.S. military does not have the critical mass on the ground to be the deciding force right now. Everybody in the region knows this.

MICHAEL SCHEUER, CIA, 1982-2004: Mr. McCain or Mr. Obama will find that their dreams of straightening things out with two brigades are exactly that, they're dreams.

ANNOUNCER: Can Afghanistan be won? Tonight on FRONTLINE, The War Briefing.

NARRATOR: The Korengal River Valley, northeast Afghanistan. Along this mountain range, a strategic smuggling route used by the Taliban to bring weapons and fighters from nearby Pakistan, American forces man small combat outposts and wait. They come under attack, sometimes daily.

Sgt. JAMES SOWERS: They're coming a lot closer when they start firing on us now, for some reason. So it's this whole month— I expect this whole month to be bad. It's already been a bad few days for our company. Lost two guys in one day.

NARRATOR: Without significant ground troops to engage the enemy, the Americans rely on artillery to keep the Taliban at bay.

NARRATOR: More often then not, they also call in air strikes.

SOLDIER: We just intercepted I-COM chatter right now, which is enemies talking on the radios. And we get degrees from the KOP so that the Apaches will fly along that degree and see if they see anything.

Sgt. JAMES SOWERS: Well, it's been a lot more heavy since Ramadan started. It was going two or three days without a tic [troops in contact]. But since Ramadan, it's been every day, three or four times a day. They just dropped another bomb.

NARRATOR: On this day, dozens of bombs and missiles were dropped by American forces on these mountains.

SOLDIER: There it is! There it is!

NARRATOR: The strikes went on all afternoon and into the night. Tomorrow, they will do it all over again.

It has been called the forgotten war, a war that military commanders concede has deteriorated markedly over the last two years. Attacks are at an all-time high. Afghanistan is now a deadlier battlefield than Iraq.

MICHELE FLOURNOY, Center for a New American Security: Afghanistan is a place where we took our eye off the ball. It now needs to become a focus again for our new administration.

STEVE COLL, The New Yorker: This is a war that has been of secondary importance since the invasion of Iraq. It has not received the strategic attention, the top-level attention, that it has required. And that's why it's deteriorated.

Afghanistan is quite a different environment from Iraq. It's a much larger geographical territory. It's a much more difficult terrain. The enemy is more dispersed. The enemy is of a different character. The national forces, the army, and the police are far behind, where the Iraqi army looks to be. If U.S. policy is based on the premise that U.S. troops are going to fight this war for five or ten years, then that policy is likely to fail.

MICHAEL SCHEUER, CIA, 1982-2004: The next president will face a situation where in the next year or two, he will have to make the decision that faced the Soviets in 1988, either to massively reinforce and to wage a war very aggressively, or to get out. That's the inheritance of the next president. And Mr. McCain or Mr. Obama will find that their dreams of straightening things out with two brigades are exactly that, they're dreams.

NARRATOR: Today, there are 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan trying to secure a country that is larger than Iraq. It's a tenuous holding strategy.

DAVID KILCULLEN, Fmr. Adviser to Gen. Petraeus: We have about 160,000 troops in Iraq. We've got about a quarter of that in Afghanistan. Afghanistan's got a larger population and a substantially larger territory than Iraq. So it tends to suggest that our policy is that Iraq matters more than Afghanistan.

COLIN KAHL, Center for a New American Security: Every single operation you are doing in Iraq is an operation you can't be doing in Afghanistan. On a day-by-day, hour-by-hour basis, there is a direct trade-off between what's going on in Iraq and what's going on in Afghanistan.

THOMAS E. RICKS, Author, Fiasco: The next president will be told, "You can't get out of either war in Iraq or Afghanistan. You need to spend more money on training troops. You need to re-capitalize the military in equipment. And you might have to think about increasing the size of the military." As one officer at the Pentagon put it to me a couple years ago, "We're out of Schlitz. There are no extra troops left on the shelf. We're at our limit."

NARRATOR: U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are saying they urgently need more soldiers to stem the Taliban tide. They've requested 15,000 additional combat troops, but only 4,500 are currently available.

Lt. Col. JOHN NAGL (Ret.), Fmr. Adviser to Gen. Petraeus: The soldiers in Afghanistan have the great advantage of fighting what's also known as the "good war." They just wish they had a little more support. They don't feel that they've had all the resources they need to do what's been asked of them. They understand that they're conducting what's called an "economy of force" operation, which means, "We give you what we can afford to give you. Do the best you can."

NARRATOR: The men from Bravo Company, from the Army's 1st Infantry Division, are just beginning their rotation in Afghanistan. For many of them, it's their first tour. Their assignment, the deadly Korengal River valley, a center for Afghan resistance. These mountains have a reputation as a place to avoid.

TIM HETHERINGTON, Photojournalist: Being in the Korengal meant, you know, daily coming under attack. You feel almost like bait. You're on the top of a mountain ridge, like a piece of bait, and you know the insurgents are coming towards you.

NARRATOR: Across the valley, Camp Vegas, a small outpost, is under attack. The soldiers of Bravo Company were accompanied by FRONTLINE cameraman Timothy Grucza.

TIMOTHY GRUCZA, FRONTLINE: What's that bang-bang?

SOLDIER: That's Vegas. They're in a tic. They're taking contact. Apparently, they've got enemy a hundred meters outside their wire, which is good because you can actually see them to shoot them.

Sgt. LUCAS YOUNG: What did they say?

NARRATOR: Along the way, Bravo's Afghan translator picks up radio chatter.

SOLDIER: Talking about, "They are not here yet, but get ready."

NARRATOR: It could signal an impending ambush. But just as likely, it's the militants taunting the soldiers.

AFGHAN TRANSLATOR: When you hear this, you are ready to kill someone or you are ready to die.

NARRATOR: On this day, the troops are on their way to the hamlet of Karangal.

Sgt. LUCAS YOUNG: Keep pushing forward.

PFC RYAN SHRINER, Bravo Company: They always watch us. I know they're watching us. You can't really pinpoint on them. You just got to keep on scanning, keep your head on a swivel. That's all you can do, and hope the Apaches get them, or mortars.

NARRATOR: Open paths expose them to snipers.

Sgt. JAMES SOWERS: While we're out on patrols, we don't know they're there until they start shooting at us. It's kind of scary knowing you got a sniper out here.

NARRATOR: The company lost two men this week. They are all on edge.

PFC RYAN SHRINER: When we were rolling up, I noticed three women running by in front of a house, just sprinting. Women don't do that. You know, they don't do that around here. They covered their faces, ran, and it looked like one of them had an I-COM, a radio, to be able to contact the enemy. I'm, like, "Yeah, we're going to get hit." Pretty guaranteed, 100 percent guaranteed.

Sgt. LUCAS YOUNG: [gunfire] Where's it coming from?

They got us pinned down in a tight spot. Break. Every time we move, they are shooting at us. So I need a presence here into Karangal. I just need to push into Karangal.

PFC RYAN SHRINER: It was just, like, wherever I looked, there was, like, no cover. I mean, like, all I had was, like, those bundle of branches. Bullets were just kicking up all over the place. "Man, I'm going to get hit, I'm going to get hit, just keep on running." It was like slow motion because I thought I was going so slow. But before I knew it, I was already up the hill.

OFFICER: Stay down! Stay down! Stay down!

SOLDIER: [loading weapon] I got two more left.

OFFICER: Hold onto them!


Sgt. LUCAS YOUNG: You stopped the bleeding, right?

Sgt. JAMES SOWERS: Doc, Doc, Doc—

MEDIC: I just need you to hold on, all right?

FSS KENNETH ALEXANDER: Right now, our position is wide open from this ridge line, but this is the best place for air medevac so we kind of have to stay here. And I'm shooting 1-5 just to keep the freakin' enemy from wanting to come over here and shoot us from this side.

SOLDIER: Hey, Jaeger, you ready for red smoke? You ready for red smoke?

NARRATOR: The men light a red smoke stick, which signals the helicopter to beware of hostile fire.

Bravo Company has lost five men in the first two months of their stay here. Their tour will last another year. The soldiers rarely see who is shooting at them. They call the fighters "ghosts." But the Taliban and al Qaeda issue a steady stream of propaganda videos, and they are growing in strength and numbers.

Prof. VALI NASR, Council on Foreign Relations: We're seeing a much broader campaign of violence taking hold. They're asserting control politically by eliminating any semblance of Kabul control over the territory and by constantly wrong-footing, intimidating and harassing NATO forces.

NARRATOR: They are waging a war of attrition.

RONALD E. NEUMANN, Ambassador to Afghanistan, 2005-'07: The insurgency is still a fairly weak movement overall. But the problem is, it's opposed by a weak government, so it looks strong in comparison. And it is getting stronger and the situation is worse. There's no question about that. Provinces close to Kabul are now having incidents that didn't have incidents before.

Prof. VALI NASR: You really don't want every shopkeeper in Kabul to believe that the Taliban are winning and they're going to be there very soon. If that sort of a mentality takes over Afghanistan, then all is lost.

MILITANTS: [subtitles] Praise to God!

STEVE COLL, The New Yorker: The Taliban have had this plan for insurgency from the very beginning. From the time that they lost power in late 2001, their leaders declared, "We'll be back, and we're going to follow a script that we have followed before. We're going to slowly build an insurgency. We have patience. Our clock is a lot longer and more elastic, and we will gradually build our way back." And that's precisely what they've done.

SAID T. JAWAD, Afghan Ambassador to the U.S.: The Taliban were not defeated in 2001, Taliban were pushed aside. There was never enough military presence to completely defeat them. They were pushed into Pakistan. They were pushed into the countryside. And there they found the ideological, logistical and financial support to regroup.

NARRATOR: The Taliban have been able to expand their reach thanks to a growing source of revenue.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN, Cntr. for Strategic and Int'l Studies: The Taliban now controls much of the narcotics inside Afghanistan, which is an immense new source of funding. So this is an extremely serious problem.

STEVE COLL: As the opium economy revived, they have inserted themselves into that as taxers. They have taken advantage of permissive territory in Pakistan to connect themselves to smuggling and other rackets to develop revenue bases. And they have now many tens of millions of dollars, whereas in 2003, 2004, they were struggling to meet payroll.

NARRATOR: The Taliban's revival has also been fueled by growing dissatisfaction with president Hamid Karzai, who runs a government that is considered weak, corrupt and ineffective, despite $15 billion in foreign aid since 2001. The Taliban have stepped in to fill the void.

[ Analysis of Karzai's challenges]

Lt. Col. JOHN NAGL (Ret.), Counterinsurgency Expert: This is an enormously poor country. It's human infrastructure has been destroyed by 40 years of war. So I think we have to think of Afghanistan as a much longer-term project and a much harder project than even the fight in Iraq has been.

STEVE COLL: President Karzai— well, he runs a national government that receives a great deal of international support, but the territory that he effectively controls as a president has been shrinking over the last few years. And his ability to govern in a meaningful way from Kabul seems also to be waning.

[ Read the interview]

Prof. VALI NASR: Well, you have a very weak state, and part of the problem in Afghanistan is that you are trying to create reconstruction, run a government, run a state and manage a war in a territory that really doesn't have even the basic rudimentary administrative, bureaucratic, economic infrastructures necessary. So the military campaign in 2001 removed the existing authorities, which were the Taliban. But what did replace them? Nothing.

MICHAEL SCHEUER, CIA, 1982-'04: What we did was destroy the Taliban, or at least its hold on the country. And in doing so, we also destroyed the first stability and the first reliable law-and-order regime that Afghanistan had in 25 years, and we didn't replace it. So now we have a country that's infested with everything from the Taliban and al Qaeda, on the insurgency side, to bandits and warlords to narcotics traffickers. So you're really fighting a beast with 100 heads.

NARRATOR: And without significant ground troops to fight all the factions, American and NATO forces have relied on air strikes to fight the war.

Amb. SAID T. JAWAD: It's unfortunate that so many air strikes are taking place. The reason for that is the economy of force. We don't have enough boots on the ground in Afghanistan. If we had had more troops on the ground, then a lot of these operations could be carried out in a lot more precise way.

NARRATOR: The bombing campaign has taken a toll on the Afghan population. Civilian deaths have doubled over the last two years.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Insurgencies historically are among the most bloody of all wars. You're facing an enemy without a uniform who lives among civilians. So it's a disastrous situation for the United States. You can either win or you can lose, but you can't do what we're doing at the moment, trying to do it on the cheap with very few casualties. That's a slow death for the United States in Afghanistan.

NARRATOR: In the Korengal, years of air strikes have pushed many families to support the insurgency.

1st SOLDIER: The Korengalis— they're fighting because it's their area. I mean, this is theirs. They don't like outsiders.

2nd SOLDIER: Whether you're American, you know, or whether you're from Kabul or— you know, if you're not Korengali, you're not one of them. And it's really their mentality.

1st SOLDIER: I mean, they've supported us, a lot of them have, you know, been helping us with projects and things like that, but this is their spot.

PFC RYAN SHRINER: There's no one in there that likes us. I don't think even the little kids like us. We try to help them out. It's so backwards around here, it's ridiculous. It's like we take one step forward with these people and we take five steps back.

ELIZABETH RUBIN, The New York Times: There'll be a firefight, rockets slam into a village. The next day, they're trying to make peace by giving them humanitarian aid, you know? And so they're always talking about, "How are we supposed to win the hearts and minds of people who don't want us here, whose houses we're bombing because the insurgents are firing from those houses?" But they've got to try.

Lt. Col. JOHN NAGL: The secret to success in counterinsurgency is not holing up on large forward operating bases but by pushing out and living among the population.

AFGHAN TRANSLATOR: He says someone has died. They are going to the cemetery, graveyard, you know?

Sgt. LUCAS YOUNG: Going to the cemetery?

AFGHAN TRANSLATOR: Yeah. He says, "Let them know, don't shoot at us."

Sgt. LUCAS YOUNG: Where's the cemetery?

NARRATOR: American bombers have mistaken funerals, weddings and other family gatherings for insurgent activity.

Sgt. LUCAS YOUNG: Roger. Just want to pass it up that we'll have a group of elders going to the Aliabad cemetery.

NARRATOR: The Korengalis have lived in this valley for hundreds of years, relying on the timber trade for a living.

Sgt. LUCAS YOUNG: Where's he going?

HAJI AHMAN SHAH: [subtitles] I'm escorting them to the village down there. Then I'll go home.

NARRATOR: The people here practice Wahhabism, a strict form of Islam.

Sgt. LUCAS YOUNG: Well, that's fine. We won't keep him and the children. They can have a safe journey back to where they're going. Just tell him to be careful.

HAJI AHMAN SHAH: [subtitles] Allah is my protector. My destiny is his will.

NARRATOR: Today the soldiers are headed to the hamlet of Obunaw. The men from Bravo Company want to find out why a village that was once friendly has turned hostile.

Sgt. LUCAS YOUNG: Potentially a dangerous spot for us. Just make sure my guys keep their eyes up on the ridges and choose their next cover and steal position if we were to take contact.

NARRATOR: It's only a few miles away, but it takes the soldiers almost an hour to get there. Only the village elders are in sight. Women are behind closed doors. All the young men are gone. The soldiers say they've left to join the insurgents.

Except for this man. He says he is visiting an uncle, but the soldiers suspect he's here to see if anyone collaborates with the Americans.

Capt. JAMES HOWELL, Bravo Company: The elders in the villages really want what we're trying to do. They really want the projects. You know, they want the road to come down so they can bring their crops and wood out and everything like that. But the Taliban don't want them to do it, and so they're going to continue to tell them, "Hey, listen, we're going to kill you if you cooperate." You know, they'll target a guy every now and again just to keep them from jumping on board with both the—

Sgt. LUCAS YOUNG: How are you?

PFC RYAN SHRINER: One second, some guy will be smiling and shaking your hand and saying, "Sen gei"— you know, "What's up?" And then the next second, they can shoot you in the back.

ELDER: [subtitles] I am good. How are you? And how are your friends?

AFGHAN TRANSLATOR: Be careful when you guys are coming here and just want security for yourselves. We are telling you it's peace here, but maybe they come from over the mountains and they shoot at you guys.

ROBERT D. KAPLAN, The Atlantic Monthly: Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan means breaking up whatever alliance there was between the local population and the insurgents.

Sgt. LUCAS YOUNG: We just want to make sure that they're safe and that we're safe so we can continue to provide what they need. I know we brought school supplies last time. We're still trying to get the concrete and the pipes, but they keep shooting at us on the road and shooting everywhere, nobody wants to bring the stuff that they need.

ROBERT D. KAPLAN: What a lot of people don't understand is many of the people in the Taliban are not necessarily our enemy. There is Taliban that can be won over to our side, and there's Taliban that's irreconcilable, that we can't do anything against.

AFGHAN TRANSLATOR: There is peace. Nobody's fighting from this village.

Sgt. LUCAS YOUNG: So nothing else— nothing else happening, nothing else they want to tell me?


Sgt. LUCAS YOUNG: The problem is, the Taliban is scaring them more than we do, so they're not going to give us any information if they know that they could be killed over it. They know more than what they say, but you know, just us being here, creating a presence, letting them know that we're still going to be here, regardless of what they do to us, I guess is saying enough.

DAVID KILCULLEN, Fmr. Adviser to Gen. Petraeus: There are some people who just won't talk to you and you can't offer them anything to make them stop fighting you. But that's probably 1 to 2 percent of the people we're fighting in most of the these places. The other 98 or 99 percent are willing to reconcile under some circumstances. The better you are at dealing with the irreconcilables — cleaning up the al Qaeda cells, for example — the more likely it is that the tribes are going to cooperate with you because they see you as the likely winner.

NARRATOR: These ideas are the core of the Pentagon's new counterinsurgency doctrine. They were applied recently in Iraq, where they played a key role in reducing the violence. But the doctrine emphasizes that winning over the population takes resources, and especially troops.

[ Lessons from Iraq]

Lt. Col. JOHN NAGL (Ret.), Fmr. Adviser to Gen. Petraeus: In Afghanistan, we simply don't have enough boots on the ground to provide security on the ground in order to convince the young men that, "If you work with us, we will not only keep you safe, but we'll work with you to build a better future for you and your family."

STEVE COLL, Author, Ghost Wars: The only way al Qaeda can be marginalized, the only way that the Taliban can be subdued, in the long run, is to change the conditions in which they thrive. But that is a daunting, and by any realistic measure, long-term project.

NARRATOR: And the key to changing those conditions is ultimately not within the reach of U.S. troops. It lies just over the border, in the tribal areas of neighboring Pakistan.

After 9/11, U.S. Special Forces chased hundreds of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters into one of the most isolated regions on the planet.

ROBERT D. KAPLAN: This is one of the most twisted and rugged landscapes imaginable, where one hillside melds into the shoulder of another mountain. It's full of caves and outcrops, and it's perfect guerrilla country.

NARRATOR: Today, the tribal areas provide the Taliban and al Qaeda with a sanctuary where they can plot and plan attacks. After 9/11, FRONTLINE was one of the first Western news organizations to film inside the tribal areas. Pakistani journalist Hayat Ullah Khan filmed these scenes for FRONTLINE.

[FRONTLINE, "Return of al Qaeda," 2002]

HAYAT ULLAH KHAN: This is a tribal jirga.

NARRATOR: They were some of the first glimpses inside Waziristan.

HAYAT ULLAH KHAN: In the village, one of the Maulvi [mullahs] always address about al Qaeda and against the United States.

NARRATOR: Like the Taliban, the clans that live along this tribal belt are Pashtun, the ethnic group that dominates the border region.


LEADER: Praise to the great one!

CROWD: God is great!

LEADER: Islam!

CROWD: Everlasting!

LEADER: America!

CROWD: Death to it!

STEVE COLL: The Taliban are a product of Pashtun identity, Pashtun grievances, Pashtun aspirations, to be sure. And many of the tribal and other sources of historical sort of solidarity that the Taliban draws upon spill across that border without reference to the distinction between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

DEXTER FILKINS, Author, The Forever War: There's 45 million Pashtuns. I mean, it's Pashtunistan, 45 million people on both sides of the border, so it's enormous. And they're all— they've all been linked for generations, so they don't really see the border in the same way that we do. I mean, this is just a line that was, you know, drawn by the Brits.

[ See more of this footage]

MARY ANNE WEAVER, Author, Pakistan: They're completely autonomous. They never wanted to be part of Pakistan. They still don't.

NARRATOR: The Pashtun have protected their land from foreign invaders for hundreds of years. Alexander the Great, the Mughal dynasty, Afghan kings and the British have all tried to assert control over this area. They left their mark, but the region remained indomitable.

ROBERT D. KAPLAN, Author, Soldiers of God: No government, neither the British nor the Pakistanis who inherited it, have ever really governed this region. When Winston Churchill was in his mid-20s, he wrote that you couldn't occupy this area. It's too big, it's too vast, it's too rugged.

NARRATOR: Churchill was a 23-year-old reporter with the British army in 1897 when he wrote, "Every tribesman has a blood feud with his neighbor. Every man's hand is against the other, and all against the stranger."

[ More of Churchill's writings]

NARRATOR: The British struggled to contain a fierce insurgency on the North West Frontier. British troops were buried in this cemetery in Peshawar, the gateway to the tribal areas. After almost a century of sporadic fighting, the British were finally driven out in 1947.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, they suffered the same fate. After a nine-year war with the mujahideen, they were defeated and forced to withdraw.

ROBERT D. KAPLAN: The lesson of the Soviet experience is something we're learning to our heartache. Unless you can shut down that rear base, you can't make progress.

STEVE COLL: The Soviet Union could never control Afghanistan because it could never control the sanctuaries in Pakistan to which they returned when they were exhausted by war. That's the role of the tribal territories. It is a sanctuary in a quite literal and physical sense.

NARRATOR: In the late '80s, al Qaeda also found safe haven here. They moved from places like Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Egypt and formed an alliance with the tribes.

Gen. JACK KEANE (Ret.), Army Vice Chief of Staff, 1999-'03: Al Qaeda and radicals at large have been forced-marrying into these tribes for 25 years. They're part of the fabric of life. They are the families. They are the merchants. They're the guy that cuts your hair during the day and is willing to shoot a rocket at night. To eliminate the al Qaeda sanctuary that's in that region is considerably more complicated.

RONALD E. NEUMANN, Ambassador to Afghanistan, 2005-'07: There's always been a kind of symbiotic relationship. The Taliban was a host to al Qaeda. Al Qaeda provided fighters for the Afghan civil war on the Taliban's side. But lately, the impression is that the leadership levels are tighter. What you have is a situation that tells you if the Taliban return to power, al Qaeda will be there with them.

NARRATOR: The Taliban has also had a long-standing connection with the Pakistani spy agency, the ISI. It's an alliance that grew out of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Prof. VALI NASR, Tufts University: Pakistanis, since the jihad against the Soviet Union, found extremists to be a cheap man's weapons system. They found the value of what the military calls asymmetric warfare. In other words, fanatical guerrilla fighters trained militarily, organized religiously, can be an extremely effective tool in furthering a country's foreign policy.

NARRATOR: In the years after 9/11, the ISI grew worried that without the Taliban as a counterweight, Afghanistan would fall under the influence of its nemesis, India.

Prof. VALI NASR: The fundamental issue is this. Pakistan owned Afghanistan until 2001. We essentially turned Afghanistan into a neutral territory, and the Pakistanis fear that it's actually going to become an Indian territory. That to them is an absolute strategic loss, and they're going to fight it.

STEVE COLL: The Pakistan army supports the Taliban out of a fear, and that fear is located in the belief that the United States is collaborating with India in Afghanistan to essentially encircle and weaken the Pakistani state.

NARRATOR: The ISI viewed Afghan president Hamid Karzai with particular suspicion.

ROBERT D. KAPLAN: President Karzai has been provocatively pro-Indian. He has allowed the Indians to open consulates in Jalalabad, in Kandahar, in other places around Afghanistan. So the Pakistanis are enraged about Karzai. They see this as a pro-Indian state. And in this very difficult, violent part of the world, bad things happen in this situation.

NARRATOR: When the Indian embassy in Kabul was blown up by a suicide bomber in July 2008, the evidence pointed to Pakistan's ISI and a long-time Afghan Taliban commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani.

STEVE COLL, The New Yorker: There's recent evidence that the Pakistani intelligence service apparently facilitated an attack by Haqqani's group against the Indian embassy in Kabul, the capital.

DEXTER FILKINS, The New York Times: A very senior member of the ISI told my newspaper that, "Jalaluddin Haqqani is one of our assets, and we're not ashamed to say that." Now, that's a pretty remarkable thing to hear from a senior Pakistani official. Pakistan claims to be fighting the Taliban and getting a lot of money from the United States to do that, when, in fact, elements within the Pakistani military and intelligence services have kept the Taliban around. You know, they kept them alive as a kind of insurance policy. I mean, as a former Pakistani official said to me, "We're saving the Taliban for a rainy day."

NARRATOR: Early on, the Pakistani military cooperated with America's war on terror. The ISI captured several al Qaeda suspects and promptly handed them over to the Americans.

RICHARD ARMITAGE, Dep. Sec'y of State, 2001-05: In the initial years after 9/11, I think that Pakistan was much more helpful, and the ISI particularly was much less involved in support for the Pashtun Taliban. In recent years, my opinion is that has reversed itself and that some elements of the ISI are more involved in supporting the Taliban because they're not sure who's going to win in Afghanistan.

NARRATOR: Since 2001, the Pakistani army has captured 10 al Qaeda leaders, but only one senior Taliban commander has been arrested.

Prof. VALI NASR: The problem for the Pakistan military is the following. Fighting against al Qaeda in Waziristan is alienating the local tribes and it's creating Pashtun resentment.

CROWD: Taliban! Taliban!

Prof. VALI NASR: You have an attitude among some in the Pakistan military saying that Pakistan will end up paying the price for what the U.S. wants and that price may be too high.

NARRATOR: When the Pakistani army has fought the militants in the tribal areas, they've suffered heavy casualties.

ROBERT D. KAPLAN, Author, Imperial Grunts: The idea of getting Pakistani forces to engage against the Taliban in the tribal areas is a few years old, and it hasn't gone well. Pakistani troops have been trained for the most part in the most staid, conventional, World War II-style tactics, so they tend to move around in large numbers and they don't do well fighting tribal warriors who are literally part of the landscape. And so they've tended to get very bloodied, and then they've tended to make deals.

NARRATOR: After the Army suffered a bruising defeat in 2004, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf sent a top general to South Waziristan to negotiate with a Taliban commander, Nek Mohammed. The Pakistani army paid him half a million dollars in exchange for a promise to lay down arms. FRONTLINE asked then President Musharraf about the deal.

["Return of the Taliban," October 3, 2006]

MARTIN SMITH, Correspondent: The United States military was frustrated when they saw the approach you took. Was that a successful strategy?

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, President of Pakistan, 1999-08: I think it didn't prove good, but one should never speak with hindsight. You have to apply all instruments. We thought if we reached an agreement, that would be the end of it. Now, it proved wrong because the people who got involved on the other side, they double-crossed.

NARRATOR: The pact with Nek Mohammed didn't hold. The Taliban kept the money and continued its jihad.

RICHARD ARMITAGE: I don't think the deals have held up very well. The fact of the matter is, those who, I think, practice extreme violence can be rented for a short period of time, but they can't be bought. And that's what the government of Pakistan is finding out.

NEK MOHAMMED: [subtitles] We are all citizens of Pakistan. Why should we be enemies of the Pakistani army?

NARRATOR: Since 2004, there has been a series of deals with the Taliban, the most recent in January 2008.

DEXTER FILKINS: It says, "We, the Taliban, agree not to attack the Pakistan army, not to attack the government." You know, "We recognize your authority." There isn't a single sentence in that agreement about cross-border infiltrations into Afghanistan. There's nothing in there. Nothing in there about military training camps, turning over al Qaeda, attacking the Americans, not a word.

MARTIN SMITH, Correspondent: So why did the Americans tolerate their ally making these deals with the Taliban?

DEXTER FILKINS: I think that they feel like the Pakistanis have them over a barrel. What are they going to do?

NARRATOR: On the other side of the border, in neighboring Afghanistan, American forces have been directly affected by the deals. Each time the Pakistanis sign a ceasefire with the Taliban, cross-border incursions into Afghanistan have gone up by as much as 300 percent.

Barred by the Pakistanis from sending ground forces across the border, the Americans have been forced to fight the war remotely.

DEXTER FILKINS: For years, they've put up these unmanned Predator aircraft that have missiles on them, and like, little cameras, and you know, some guy back in the United States steering them with a joystick and firing them and killing militants.

MICHAEL R. GORDON, The New York Times: What we're doing now is a policy of sort of selective air strikes against key leaders, assassinations, if you like. And even that has caused a huge amount of political controversy.

NARRATOR: In June 2004, a Predator killed a major Taliban target. It was Nek Mohammed. He was buried as a martyr. His grave became a shrine. And in his place rose a new commander, Baitullah Mehsud, the ruthless new Taliban boss of South Waziristan. In these images, Mehsud is interviewed by a reporter from Al Jazeera, his face obscured.

STEVE COLL, Author, Ghost Wars: Baitullah Mehsud is a local tribal radical who has forced his way into the leadership of Pakistani Taliban, by violence primarily. He's essentially an Islamist smuggler who is rooted in South Waziristan and has gradually built up a militia that has became the most powerful of its type in South Waziristan.

NARRATOR: Bands of young men have taken control over much of the tribal areas. This militia, called the Vice and Virtue Brigade, operates near Peshawar. Like Mehsud's militias, it enforces brutal Taliban justice. Women who don't wear full hejab are stoned. Men who drink alcohol are tortured. Political rivals are killed.

DEXTER FILKINS: The Taliban has decimated the tribes. Here's a tribal structure that's been in place for hundreds and hundreds of years. They've just killed the tribal leaders. The Taliban has basically replaced them.

[ More on Baitullah Mehsud]

NARRATOR: Baitullah Mehsud has cemented his control over the tribal areas by forming an alliance of some 40 factions. They call themselves the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, and they've vowed to take power and bring to Pakistan a new Taliban rule.

STEVE COLL: Today, Baitullah Mehsud is operating in a comfortable alliance with other Taliban leaders in a broader cause. He has built this federation from South Waziristan all the way up towards the Himalayan mountains. So you now have an organization, at least in name, and to some extent in fact, that is operating across the entire Afghan/Pakistan border on the Pakistani side for the purposes of overthrowing the Pakistani government. That's its stated ambition.

NARRATOR: Mehsud's militias have moved outside of the tribal areas and have now taken over swaths of the neighboring North West Frontier Province, and in June 2008, closed in on its capital, Peshawar.

STEVE COLL: They have gradually come down from the hills into settled territory in Pakistan. They control territory not just in a military sense, they also are administering territory. And right now, the Taliban are in control of this territory and they're not about to hand it over to Pakistan.

DEXTER FILKINS: The war's coming home to the Pakistan government. For years. they've had this relationship to the fighters and the Taliban in the tribal areas. They thought they could control them. It turns out they can't. I mean, they're out of control. Frankenstein's gotten off the table.

MARY ANNE WEAVER, Author, Pakistan: This is now a full-fledged insurgency. You have individual Pashtun Pakistani tribal leaders rising up and revolting against the central government. Pakistan is in danger of becoming a failed state with 50-plus nuclear weapons.

LEADER: [subtitles] Anyone who is friends with America—

CROWD: [subtitles] —is a traitor!

LEADER: [subtitles] Anyone who is friends with America—

CROWD: [subtitles] —is a traitor!

COLIN KAHL, Center for a New American Security: Pakistan, as a very, very large country with nuclear weapons, has a very fragile government that is challenged by jihadists. And so I think the nightmare scenario for U.S. interest in the region— it's not Iraq, it's not Afghanistan, it's a failed state of Pakistan.

NARRATOR: Many people pinned their hopes on former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. In 2007, after years in exile, she returned to Pakistan to challenge President Musharraf in the upcoming election.

BENAZIR BHUTTO: [subtitles] These extremists have set up an unauthorized government!

NARRATOR: At a rally in December, she vowed to stand up to her country's growing Islamist insurgency.

BENAZIR BHUTTO: [subtitles] We will handle them! I will handle them! You will save the country, and so will I!

NARRATOR: As she departed, the crowd shouted "Long live Bhutto!"

STEVE COLL: The evidence is that the suicide bombers who killed Bhutto were dispatched by Baitullah Mehsud. Whether he was acting alone or as part of some other collaboration with elements of the Pakistani state I think is a mystery that may never be resolved.

NARRATOR: Bhutto's assassination was the culmination of a wave of extraordinary violence which ultimately led to the resignation of President Musharraf.

DEXTER FILKINS, The New York Times: If you just look at what's happened, President Musharraf, the military leader for nine years— he's gone. Benazir Bhutto, the woman that everyone thought would come back to kind of save the country, came back from exile— she's dead. You have a wave of suicide bombings, maybe 60 suicide bombings. You now have in the tribal areas themselves today this gigantic movement of the Taliban spreading in both directions, into Afghanistan, into Pakistan, pretty clearly out of control.

NARRATOR: In September, Benazir Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, became Pakistan's new president.

ASIF ALI ZARDARI, Pakistani President: May Allah almighty help me and guide me. Amen.

HUSAIN HAQQANI, Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S.: General Musharraf may have looked upon the war against terror as an opportunity of getting American cooperation and assistance. President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani look upon the war against terror as Pakistan's war. And the reason why they see it is because Mr. Zardari's spouse, Benazir Bhutto, became a victim of terrorism. So this elected government is very committed to eliminating terrorism.

MARTIN SMITH, Correspondent: The United States government is talking about how it has every right to go across the border. All the candidates are saying it. What's going on?

Amb. HUSAIN HAQQANI: First of all, the United States does not have the right to go into a sovereign country that is its ally without permission and approval and consent of that ally. My response to that is that when you have a government in Pakistan that wants to act responsibly anyway, give that government a break.

NARRATOR: But Washington was unwilling to wait. Days before President Zardari took office, American Special Forces were sent into the tribal areas without prior approval.

DEXTER FILKINS: The danger is, is that the Americans are going to squeeze too hard. This is a very weak government. They were just recently elected. And they got the United States leaning on them, saying, "Go in, go in, go in."

Pres. ASIF ALI ZARDARI: We will not tolerate the violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity by any power in the name of combating terrorism!

NARRATOR: While President Zardari was talking tough, the Pakistani Taliban sent its own message. Two hours after his first address to parliament, insurgents bombed the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. It was one of the worst attacks in Pakistan's history. More than 50 people died, including two Americans. Pakistani officials suspect the suicide bomber came out of Waziristan, but Baitullah Mehsud denied any involvement.

Back in northeastern Afghanistan, in the Korengal River valley, Bravo Company is bracing for many months of cold weather. Even with the snow, the insurgents will keep crossing over from Pakistan. A top U.S. general in Afghanistan predicted it will be the most violent winter yet.

Unable to drive the Americans from the Korengal, the insurgency has adopted new tactics. They've been threatening Afghan contractors that help at the base and have started planting bombs along the road that the Americans just built.

On this day, the men of Bravo Company must rescue a Humvee that has fallen into a ditch. It's a time-consuming task, which makes them easy targets. They are attacked repeatedly. In one firefight, two Afghan contractors are wounded. And in the end, nothing can be done to save the Humvee.

SOLDIER: There it goes. There it goes. There it goes!

NARRATOR: The soldiers destroy the Humvee to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.

Prof. VALI NASR, Tufts University: The stakes in Afghanistan are very high. The U.S. military does not have the critical mass on the ground to be the deciding force right now. The assumptions about how do you have outcomes in these conflicts — who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, how do we win, how do we avoid losing — have all fallen apart.

Everybody in the region knows this. And I think part of the challenge of the next president is not just to get bogged down in the bean counting with brigades and troops, et cetera, but rather try to put his hands around what do we do with this region as a whole.

SOLDIER: Don't get too close!

SOLDIER: Go~! Go! Go! Go! Go!

The War Briefing

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A FRONTLINE coproduction with RAINmedia, Inc.

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© 2008
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ANNOUNCER: This report continues on FRONTLINE's Web site, including briefings for the next president, what is the biggest threat from Central Asia, what lessons from Iraq can apply to Afghanistan, what should our strategy be toward the tribal areas, more on the history of the tribal areas, including Winston Churchill's vivid descriptions from 1897, a profile of Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, plus extended interviews from the program. And watch the full program again on line. Then join the discussion at

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posted november 10, 2008

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