Thursday, October 30, 2008

PBS's Frontline Report On Afghanistan

After watching the latest Frontline report on Afghanistan and reading their "Presidential Briefings," I am left with the impression that things are grim indeed.

I'm also under the impression that this impression is exactly what was intended.

While a number of experts on national security and counterinsurgency were consulted, the two who were quoted at the outset, eerie central Asian music in the background, setting the tone for the program, were the most negative of the experts. When you read the "What the next President will face" portion (under "Briefing,") you will see that Mr. Nasr and Mr. Scheuer are the most negative. Mr. Scheuer has written articles for You can draw your own conclusions about his objectivity as a commenter on Afghanistan from there.

Mr. Scheuer's grim prediction that the next president will find that his "dreams of straightening things out with two brigades are exactly that; they're dreams," sounds dire indeed. It actually sounds like it comes from someone that objectively analyzes information and has come to a profound conclusion. This is not true.

From a review of Michael Scheuer's book, "Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq,;"

Scheuer holds that the U.S. was safer with Saddam Hussein in power, that America's defeat in both Iraq and Afghanistan is a foregone conclusion, that federal support for democracy abroad is a terrible policy, that America's alliances are a hindrance, that "freedom fighter" is often a more apt term than "terrorist," that the theory of the Democratic Peace is "silly," that the U.S. should have little concern for civilian casualties in its war against terrorism and that Israel's continued existence isn't worth a single American dollar.

Most compellingly, Scheuer argues that we should take Osama bin Laden at his word: Al-Qaeda is attacking American foreign policies — support for "Arab tyrannies" and Israel and U.S. boots on the ground in the Middle East — not America's liberty and way of life.

Scheuer has a penchant for dubious statements, some of which include:
» "There's a clear necessity to have religion in order to have morality."
» After 9-11 we should have "firebombed Kabul and Khandahar, demolished whatever ruins were left, and sown salt over the length and width of both sides."
» Woodrow Wilson was "a human scourge who is not often enough ranked with the twentieth century's top bloodletters."

I disagree strongly with Michael Scheuer this very basic point; we are part of the world. Focusing on ourselves and our own interests only is the type of narcissistic self-fascination that we are famous for. Our foreign policy has been clearly flawed in many areas that have been dissected by far smarter people than myself. I don't have all of those answers; but I believe, because I have seen, that what happens in little valleys on the other side of the world sends tiny ripples across the face of the globe that reach into our neighborhoods here. It's like ecology.

If you pour a can of motor oil into a tiny stream up in the mountains, it will poison the lake miles and miles away. It will affect the river that flows from that lake, and it will pass through hundreds of not thousands of miles of countryside on its way to the ocean.

Butterfly in the Amazon; whatever. We are part of a big world, and we not only affect it, we are affected by it. It shouldn't take thousand-foot towers crashing to the ground in New York to see that. The world has become polarized, and Mr. Scheuer says that we should not take sides. While egalitarian of him, I agree with the statement that "all that is required for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing." He wants to be the fat kid who sits rocking in the corner counting his own candy and muttering to himself self-righteously, but who wants everyone to like him.

This fails to recognize that we are one of the poles. That's the way that it is. We have a job to do. One thing that I know of our allies, from having served with them, is that they expect us to lead and to support them. While they don't appreciate it when we are demanding and arrogant, what really pisses them off is when we don't lead. Leading is by example.

Mr. Scheuer has a relationship with PBS, having been a source for them before. That's the only reason that I can see why he is included in this panel of experts who are quoted throughout the report. Granted, Mr. Scheuer's bona fides should stand him in good stead; 22 years in the CIA and at one point the head of CIA's "bin Laden unit," he has also been complimented by bin Laden. He teaches at Georgetown. Well, Bill Ayers teaches at UIC, but that doesn't mean he's not a nutcase.

All I can say is that there is a chip on that man's shoulder.

He makes some good points; like when he says that we are fighting in Afghanistan "on the cheap." No doubt. I've said that. I'm still surprised, with his bent, that PBS included him on a panel with men such as LTC(R) John Nagl. I wonder if Dr. Nagl knew that Mr. Scheuer was also included. Mr. Scheuer is quoted more pointedly than Dr. Nagl, who is an expert on counterinsurgency and a strong critic of Big Army's failure to develop into a truly effective counterinsurgent organizational culture.

While Vali Nasr makes strongly worded statements, he is very strategic and, while critical, does not appear to be defeatist or isolationist. Mr. Nasr has been a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and is currently a professor at Tufts University.

One of Frontline's basic errors is in concentrating on the most isolationist and violent little valley in Afghanistan. Focusing your study of counterinsurgency on the Korengalis is like focusing a study of the economic picture of America on Cincinnati's Over the Rhine neighborhood.

The most egregious errors in Frontline's examination of counterinsurgency is in focusing on Americans doing forays into Afghan villages without ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces.) Americans can keep the hard-core Korengalis bottled up in the Korengal so that the Pech is not infected further, but the failure to look at what can and is happening in areas where the ANSF are actually able to do their job is a tremendous failure indeed.

The Korengal is not Afghanistan. It is in Afghanistan. It is a trouble spot like no other, but it is not representative of all of Afghanistan. It makes for compelling television, but it is a keyhole shot of Afghanistan; the worst part of Afghanistan.

Nuristan is likely to be just as tough a nut to crack. The Korengalis are originally from Nuristan. Look at the reddened beards; that's a Nuristani thing.

In any case, Frontline has chosen the most dire of situations on which to focus, with no mention given to areas where the ANSF are doing well, where the IRoA holds sway or is at least contending strongly. Those areas would paint a more accurate picture of the challenges of counterinsurgency than a snapshot of vicious battles in the Wahhabist Korengal.

Most of Afghanistan is not Wahhabist. Does that matter? Yes.

The report fails to explore the issues that are concerns for Afghan men-on-the-street. Frontline fails to look at the tendencies in the Afghan government that are losing support for Kabul. It fails to examine and make recommendations on how to clean up the Afghan MoJ (Ministry of Justice) and MoI (Minstry of Interior.) These two ministries could have more impact on security in the huge area of Afghanistan that is not the Korengal than the Korengal has on them.

Frontline's examination of the state of the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area) of Pakistan is timely. In the later parts of the program, Frontline examines how the Taliban have taken a strong role in Northwest Pakistan and are attempting to threaten the Pakistani government itself. It also discussed the failures by the Pakistani military and government to effectively control their own territory. One of the key roles of the Korengal is in its facilitation of movement across the Pakistani border; but that is not the only route (rat line) by far.

While Frontline's examination of the situation in Pakistan gives insight into the situation across the border and the challenges facing the Pakistanis in governing their own country, this program is fundamentally flawed in its examination of the state of affairs in Afghanistan as a whole. An excellent study of the Korengal, it totally ignores the development of the ANSF except for in a few comments by Dr. Nagl, a champion of advising and mentoring indigenous people to handle their own governance.

This failure to carry the only message that will bring success in Afghanistan or any other developing country casts this documentary into the "interesting view of the worst valley in Afghanistan" category. Frontline has showed us the freaks of Afghanistan; even the Afghans view the Korengalis as crazy.

Successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan cannot be performed by Americans. We can add combat power in the hot spots, we can add mentoring, advising, logistical support and expertise to the ANSF, and we can demand good governance. We can treat corrupt officials as the great threat to security in Afghanistan that they are. We can push for economic development, opening markets to Afghan goods and Afghanistan to development of their own (tremendous) natural resources; but we cannot, must not attempt to govern Afghanistan.

Frontline's documentary is a great story of the Korengal, a poor study of Afghanistan on the whole, and an interesting primer on the Pakistani Taliban. As a briefing for a new president, it falls far short. As a briefing for Americans (its true audience,) it is deceptive. I don't know whether the deception was intentional, theatrically dramatic, or journalistically and intellectually lazy, but it is deceptive all the same. You never see 98% of the picture.


  1. As usual, stellar analysis. As much as I love Long War Journal and SWJ, I enjoy reading this blog much more. Keep up the great articles.

  2. Excellent review and thank you your insight and service.


  3. Boy, that's a great post, and it raises a very important caution regarding the recent drumbeat of 'let's get to work in Afghanistan' stories I've seen: many of them focus on the most difficult areas, and then erroneously generalize that situation and the techniques applied to the rest of our efforts in Afghanistan. The PBS Frontline's lead in footage of the Korengal Valley is a case in point.

    As you make clear, the Korengal Valley is not representative of all of Afghanistan; it is exceptional, maybe even unique. The blend of geographic, social and linguistic isolation that characterizes this transplanted Pashai tribe makes it very tough to get through to them. When you add the fact that they've been making their money by an illegal timber trade for the past eighty years, it becomes obvious that it's not only tough to get through to them, they have reason NOT to be got through to. And then you add Wahabbism on top of that, and you actually have a pretty difficult problem, one in which the population does not see any physical, moral or cultural reason to side with the government. In fact, doing so would threaten just about everything that makes up their culture. So they fight.

    This is emphatically not the case in other parts of the country. In fact, it is not the case just 5 kilometers to the north or 10 kilometers to the east, where the Safis of the Pech and Kunar Valleys have very profitably allied themselves with the government and are enjoying some of the greatest progress those areas have probably ever seen. And these are areas that are themselves famous for resisting Kabul -- the Safis proudly claim that the 'jihad' against the Soviet Union began in this area.

    So, to show the hard fighting of the Korengal Valley and then to use that to shape an understanding of the overall situation in Afghanistan or the overall character of Allied efforts in Afghanistan is so inappropriate as to be misleading. In that sense, it is a shame that so many journalists have spent so much time focusing on that area; it's not where the key story is. In another sense, of course, it's nice that they do so; the young soldiers who fight there deserve the acclaim and respect of their countrymen, so it is good to see the coverage. But to show the frantic daily fights in the Korengal and then to suggest that it forms the basis for policy decisions is wrongheaded in the extreme.

    It's nice to see someone out there with actual knowledge who is trying to set this stuff straight. Keep it up!

  4. Great review and i must thank you for your insight and service


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