15 October 2009
no mistake, we are experts in the application of violence.” This
statement, delivered by a US Marine commander to troops going into
Afghanistan’s Helmand province, serves as the suitably sober beginning
of “Obama’s War,” an hour-long documentary aired by the Public
Broadcasting System’s “Frontline” Tuesday night.
In its first
documentary of the season, the “Frontline” program aimed to provide an
examination of the crisis facing the US intervention in Afghanistan.
public network’s timing could not have been better. The program aired
on the eve of yet another White House meeting between Obama and the
so-called “principals” to discuss strategy for rescuing the
eight-year-old US occupation from mounting popular resistance and to
determine how many more tens of thousands of US soldiers and Marines to
pour into this effort.
From a political standpoint, the approach
of the program and its producer-correspondent Martin Smith is
conventional, straying little from the official narrative of the two
big business parties that have prosecuted the war.
In a discussion with readers on the Washington Post web
site Wednesday, Smith described Washington’s official debate over
Afghanistan: “Are we there to nation build in order to prevent
Afghanistan from once again falling to the Taliban and becoming a
sanctuary for Al Qaeda? Or are we there to prevent another 9-11 attack
and do you need to occupy Afghanistan to accomplish that?”
considered in the film are underlying strategic objectives: “Are we
there”—in a war prepared well before 9/11—in pursuit of US hegemony in
Central Asia, one of the principal sources of energy on the planet.
does the film have much use for history. Unmentioned is the fact that
US military involvement in Afghanistan began 30 years ago, with
Washington providing billions of dollars in arms and funding to provoke
and sustain a protracted war against a Soviet-backed government in
This history is not merely ignored; it is falsified.
Obama’s special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, who is
described as a foreign policy “superstar” is asked at one point whether
the US is engaged in “nation-building” in Afghanistan.
replies, it is involved in “nation-rebuilding.” Afghanistan, he
asserts, “until it was wrecked by the Soviet invasion in 1978 was a
poor but proud and functioning country.”
Soviet troops did not
move into Afghanistan until December 1979. Moscow was responding to a
growing wave of attacks on the Kabul government by Mujahedeen forces
funded, armed and trained by the US government. As then-US national
security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has since acknowledged, Washington
intended to provoke the invasion in order to give the Soviets “their
This history is decisive in understanding the real
content of US policy today. But it does not fit into the framework of
the “Frontline” piece, which is driven by a wholly pragmatic question:
can US strategy work, can America “win” in Afghanistan.
being said, the interviews and images gathered with US troops “on the
ground” provide a devastating exposure of the debacle confronting US
Smith and a camera crew were embedded last summer
with Echo Company, part of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade sent into
Helmand province in the initial escalation ordered by Obama last March.
company is given a pep talk by an officer who tells them that someday
they will tell their grandchildren about their participation in the
“summer of decision” in Afghanistan. He adds that they are “going to
change history starting tomorrow morning,” when they are to take up the
southernmost position of the area being occupied by the Marines.
next morning, a member of the company, Seth Sharp, a 20-year-old Lance
Corporal from Georgia, is shot through the neck, an incident filmed by
an embedded cameraman. After the grim footage of the shooting and its
aftermath, the narrator notes that the Marine “didn’t make it.” The day
before, he had written home to inform his family that someday his
grandchildren would read in school about the battle he was to fight.
Marines’ mission, according to Echo Company’s commander, is to “be with
the people, and close to them, so you can work with them.” This is a
translation of the new counterinsurgency policy introduced under Gen.
Stanley McChrystal in which US forces are to forcibly wrest the Afghan
people away from the resistance.
To that end, the Marines set up
their base in an abandoned school next to a town market. In response,
however, the local people abandon the market and move out of homes near
the base. The Marines on foot patrol walk past empty stalls with no
movement in the market save wind-blown dust.
What contacts they
are able to make are fraught with intense frustration and mutual
distrust. Their translator, it emerges, is fluent neither in English
nor in the local dialect, making communication halting and utterly
lacking in precision.
At one point, a sergeant lectures a
captive audience of Afghan villagers, telling them “You all are not
cooperating,” and warning them that if they fail to answer his
questions they will be considered to be on the side of the Taliban. In
another scene, heavily armed Marines subject two Afghan men to a
full-body search and then warn them not to run from US patrols or
“stuff stuff in their pockets” as “it looks suspicious.”
by the resistance are a daily occurrence. The Marines and the
“Frontline” crew are forced to end one encounter with local residents
and dive for cover after coming under small arms fire.
response, the Marines unleash a torrent of automatic weapons fire, the
resistance is virtually invisible, rarely seen, much less engaged. Yet
snipers are ever-present, melting back into the population after each
attack. Mines and so-called Improvised Explosive Devices are also a
constant danger, driving up the casualties to their highest level since
the US invaded the country eight years ago.
What emerges from these scenes is a portrait of a dirty war of colonial occupation.
effectively cuts from the grim situation of the Marines in Helmand to a
Washington conference of the Center for a New American Security, a
so-called “centrist” military think tank with strong links to the Obama
administration. Present are high-ranking military officers and
so-called “counterinsurgency” experts, on the make for fat consultancy
contracts. Smith describes them as the “the best and the brightest”—the
phrase used to describe the architects of the Vietnam war—of the
“counterinsurgency brain trust.”
Gen. David Petraeus, the head
of the US military’s Central Command, uses an overhead projector to
pitch his proposal for a “full spectrum operation” in Afghanistan.
program also probes the corruption and impotence of the Afghan
government of President Hamid Karzai. One of the most effective scenes
is that of a group of Karzai’s ministers being ferried in a heavily
armed US military helicopter to a remote northeastern province. “This
is about connecting the government to the people,” says a US general
escorting the ministers. “That’s what they’re going to see today.” What
the local people actually see is corrupt members of a puppet regime
disconnected from their lives and wholly dependent upon foreign
occupation troops for their survival.
“Frontline” concludes with
a section on Pakistan, which it suggests is the real problem in the
region. The implications are clear—the war being fought in Afghanistan
must be increasingly extended across the border.
includes only one voice that even begins to question the essential
issues raised by the war in Afghanistan—that of Col. Andrew Bacevich
(ret.), a Vietnam veteran and professor of international relations at
“I guess the piece that bothers me is, as a
people, having accepted the proposition of open-ended war,” says
Bacevich, pointing to the implications of the unchecked growth of
The final word, however, is given to one of
the counterinsurgency “experts,” Lt. Col. John Nagl (ret.), who invokes
the attacks of September 11 and states that Afghanistan is “necessary
war … a war that America needs to win.”
The program’s title is
somewhat misleading. Obama features little in the narrative—he is never
shown and his name is mentioned just four times in one hour. There is
nothing about the transition from the Bush administration or the
fundamental continuity in the pursuit of military aggression.
is one voice-over of Obama from his March speech announcing the war’s
escalation. The American people, he says, “deserve a straightforward
answer” as to why US troops continue “to fight and die” in Afghanistan.
He provided none, and ultimately, neither does the “Frontline”
(“Obama’s War” can be viewed online at the PBS web site.)