Lost in the Movies: Frontline: The War Briefing

Frontline: The War Briefing

Ah yes, the "forgotten war." It's become less forgotten in 2008, as the candidates turn their attention from Iraq to Afghanistan, where a resurgent Taliban, an unstable Pakistan, and a weak Afghan government are reminding us of forgotten promises. This, the most recent episode of "Frontline," focuses on conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan now, following soldiers in the line of duty, examining the tribal areas of Waziristan nominally under Pakistani control, and asking what we can do about it. Its title frames the issue as something the next president must focus on, and indeed after years of flirting with Iranian strikes, and dealing with the distracting mess in Iraq, we're back to square one: Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Pakistan.

In my write-up on Iran, I noted that I'm far more worried about the nuclear situation in North Korea (ruled by a possibly deranged despot) and especially Pakistan. Were the Pakistani government to fall, which is the stated aim of insurgents in Pakistan's wild west - the tribal areas of Waziristan - jihadists could likely have a nuclear arsenal in its hands. For years, with this in mind, the U.S. backed President Musharraf and his dictatorial regimes, and we got the worst of both worlds. Not only was it undemocratic, the regime was rife with divided - if that - loyalties.

Fears of Indian influence in Afghanistan, long-standing ties to the Taliban, an inability to enforce the law in the tribal regions; all of this came together to leave Pakistan with multiple connections to our enemies in Afghanistan. Now we have Benazir Bhutto's widower in charge, but his position is tenuous. Some worry that U.S. airstrikes on Pakistani territory without the government's permission will undermine their legitimacy and lead to an overthrow. On this issue, Obama is actually more hawkish than McCain; will strikes in Waziristan break the stalemate in which we wait for insurgents to attack and then drive them back, or will it further enflame tensions?

Though "Frontline: The War Briefing" necessarily focuses much of its attention on Pakistan, its central subject is of course Afghanistan. What we see here indicates that, indeed, the Taliban was not defeated in 2001 but merely, as one interviewee puts it, "brushed aside." Well, they've come back and are far more tenacious fighting as guerrillas than they were with conventional warfare. In the regions they control, women are once again stoned for not wearing burqas, political opponents and "sinners" are executed and strung up (the footage of this is extremely graphic), and Al Qaeda flourishes again. But there's little we can do about it for the moment. American force levels in Afghanistan are crippled by the attention on Iraq, and so they end up sitting in the mountains, firing rockets back and forth, trying to rescue Humvees from sliding off the steep roads (they fail), and taking enemy fire. The situation has "quagmire" written all over it.

The "Frontline" show is a good hour of television, sober and sobering. It uses some footage from earlier specials (some from the Al Qaeda series, which I will be examining tomorrow) including footage from Waziristan taken by a Pakistani journalist - the region is far too dangerous for any Americans to trespass into. It focuses more on the problems than the solutions, though mention is made of applying Patraeus' "surge" strategy in Afghanistan, both in terms of troop levels and counterinsurgency tactics. At the end of the movie, we see that Humvee incident, in which the troops, after taking fire (two Afghan contractors are injured) cannot retrieve the vehicle; setting it on fire, they hope to keep it out of enemy hands.

And as I watched the car burn, I hoped I was not seeing a metaphor for the growing tangle in Afghanistan. A rescue operation turned into destruction, a time-consuming effort becoming riskier as we remain immobile, and in the end a cutting of losses and taking it as a wash. We've been here before, leaving the country to its own ends after supporting the mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets, and we saw how that turned out. There is too much at stake in this war - terrorism, human rights, nuclear weapons - and shrugging it off will create more problems than it solves. As the Iraqi conflict winds down, no matter who is president, he will be focusing on Afghanistan. Hence, the old war becomes new once again, and the forgotten war not so much so. One hopes it's not too late.

[Note: Apparently, this morning Patraeus took command of Centcom and is now officially in charge of the Afghan operation. Story here.]

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