PBS Frontline: 'The Insurgency'

Matt Haan, co-producer of PBS Frontline's
Matt Haan, co-producer of PBS Frontline's "The Insurgency" (Courtesy WGBH)
Matt Haan
Wednesday, February 22, 2006; 11:00 AM

Co-producer Matt Haan was online Wednesday, Feb. 22, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the PBS Frontline film, "The Insurgency," which investigates the insurgents behind attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and what their motives are. The film looks at the initial stages of the insurgency, made up of Baathist loyalists after the fall of Saddam, and the increasingly prominent role of foreign fighters such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al Qaeda in Iraq. Frontline worked through intermediaries to obtain firsthand video and, through interviews with insurgents themselves, provides an in-depth look at those responsible for car bombs and other attacks that have claimed the lives of coalition troops and Iraqis alike.

The transcript follows.

"The Insurgency" airs Tuesday, Feb. 21, at 9 p.m. ET ( check local listings )

Watch more Frontline

Matt Haan has been working at October Films for the past 7 years. He has produced films on a wide range of subjects.


Washington, D.C.: How were you able to go into the Sunni Triangle, encounter these terrorists, have them cooperate with you, and still be able to be alive able to tell the world?

Matt Haan: We had to operate in extremely strict circumstances. The risks of trying to do this film were too high. We relied on the journalists we met while in Iraq to get to speak to members of the insurgency. The journalists in the film, Michael Ware and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, were fantastic in helping us achieve our goal.

We also dealt with other intermediaries. In one instance, we had to hand over our camera and list of questions to an intermediary who had contacts with a group of insurgents who we ourselves could not go and meet because the risks were too great. The footage which you see in the film is quite incredible.


Bethesda, Md.: Considering that the presence of "our troops" in that country is under the auspices of a premeditated invasion of a country that never attacked us, isn't it a little propagandistic to be examining "the insurgents who are attacking our troops"? I feel a bit like I'm in Tokyo in 1935 watching a newsreel on those "savage, ruthless Chinese mainlanders" who keep attacking our Emperor's holy troops as they nobly march toward Nanking.

I realize not many Americans can step back from this far enough to see it objectively - but then again that's endemic to the syndrome we are mired in.

Matt Haan: I don't think it is being propagandist to examine the insurgency. If that is what you felt after watching our film, it would be disappointing. I believe that our film actually provides an opportunity to listen to a number of people in the insurgency or have got close to the insurgency in the hope of providing an insight into who these people are. So little has been broadcast about the insurgency where you hear these people speak. The film demonstrates that there is a wide spectrum of people in the insurgency. There are some who are definitely savage, but there are also clever military commanders and strategists in the insurgency who are leading an organised operation. I think this comes across in the film


Bethesda, Md.: According to several independent analyses the Iraqi insurgency is comprised of (at most) 5-10% foreign fighters who fit the Al Qaeda profile. The president however has taken pains to give the impression that (1) all of the insurgents are "terrorists" and (2) if we don't get them there, those marauding Sunnis will be in Topeka next. He didn't desist on the first point, in fact, until the very Iraqi government fighting that insurgency effectively told him to can it.

Why do you think our domestic(ated) media has made such little effort to put his rhetoric into even a vaguely factual context?

Matt Haan: I think the points you make are still used when talking about the insurgency. Some people have misunderstood that parts of the insurgency are highly organised and effective. The focus on the foreign fighters, who members of the Iraqi government that I spoke to believe make up 15% of the insurgency, is mainly a result of the impact they have had on the course of events in Iraq. In many ways, despite their numbers, they have had a larger impact than other groups in the insurgency.

It does surprise me how often the speeches made by our political leaders can be left unchallenged. Especially when they can be so wide of the mark. Why do the media not challenge this? Difficult to say except when you look at the risk people like Michael Ware have taken to get a more accurate picture of what is happening in Iraq, it is obvious that it is hard to get to the heart of the matter.


Toronto, Canada: Re: Fallujah

1. It was interesting to note that in recounting the details of the initial clash between residents and U.S. military forces, it was noted "11 died", failing to add the important detail that the 11 were killed by U.S. forces, hence the resulting upheaval. This careful parsing of the language reflects a careful parsing of the reality. Why was there absolutely no mention of the effect of Abu Ghraib and its revelations of torture and murder mentioned? Why was there no post-incursion footage of the destruction of Fallujah that would have given viewers a more accurate sense of the effects of U.S. military ops in residential areas?

2. Did the access granted to you and your crew to US ops and officers compromise your professional integrity as journalists? Or was it compromised by your "patriotism"?

Matt Haan: In answer to your first question, we decided not to deal with Abu Ghraib and the effects of the incursion in Fallujah are well documented events. We wanted to show a side of things that had not been reported. It is also unfortunately very difficult to cover everything in an hour long film.

In answer to your second question, I myself am English so I don't know how that would fit in with the patriotism you describe. When you embed with the US military you have to operate within the realities of the situation. Exactly as when you speak with insurgents, there are a whole range of restrictions to the normal way in which we would report things. We attempted as best we could to get into areas that hadn't been seen or speak to people who hadn't been heard before. What happened in Tal'Afar was a victory for the Coalition that went largely unreported because the world's media was focused on the aftermath of Katrina. We felt it deserved recognition.


Union, N.J.: It has always been my understanding that the Islamist elements of the insurgency were the smaller faction with the nationalist Sunnis and ex-Ba'athists composing the largest part of the insurgency. Yet the film, while acknowledging the nationalist faction, seemed to highlight the Islamist faction and did not seem to make this fact clear.

Matt Haan: What you say is correct. The Islamic element is smaller but in some ways has had more impact on the evolution of the insurgency. One of the biggest points that we seemed to have missed in Europe and America is that the increasing Islamisation of the war in Iraq will be one its most defining factors. This is not to say that the nationalist Sunnis and ex-Baathists are not important. In fact, towards the end of the film, we discuss the elections and how the tide seems to be changing within the insurgency. Whereas during 2004 and some of 2005, Zarqawi and the foreign elements held sway, the nationalist Sunnis and ex-Baathists are having a greater influence in the direction of the insurgency.


Talladega, Ala.: How edifying! Watching U.S. troops hand out candy to little kids. Was there so little else to film in Iraq, what with a war going on and all, to show us so blatant a photo op? In the old days, journalism was considered a professional vocation, not careerist commercial-making for the U.S. military. You have given us a shallow, insubstantial and frankly, naive fairy tale, notwithstanding the odd bloody corpse to establish your street cred. What about civilian deaths? Abu Ghraib? Are these totally irrelevant to the insurgency and the motivations of those who participate?

Matt Haan: I think that if the only thing you were able to take from the film we produced was the image of Americans handing out candy, then that is a great shame. What of the blood on the streets in Baghdad that came just after the offensive in Tal'Afar. What of the questioning of insurgents on their views on whether Iraqi civilians should be killed in their war against the US and Coalition forces. I would have thought that these would have left a greater impression, maybe not.


Saskatchewan, Canada: Would your film have been different if you would have titled it "The Resistance" instead of "The Insurgency", and referred to "the invasion and occupation" rather than "the war"? (The question remains of how people resisting a foreign occupier can be called "insurgents" - this is an Orwellian use of language.)

Matt Haan: On one side, people talk about the liberation of a country; on the other, the occupation of a noble land. I think that if we had given the film a different title as you suggest, then we would have given the film a particular leaning. We have tried to be objective in giving both sides of the fight in Iraq the opportunity to explain what they believe has happened.


Columbia, Md.: Watching our military roll into Baghdad, my husband noted that the Iraqis said to a man "thank you for liberating us, now go!". How an insurgency could not have been anticipated is mind boggling. And certainly the President saying "bring it on" didn't help. The administration continues to redefine the nature of the insurgency but what is clear they are not deadenders or in the last throes. What would happen if the U.S. had a smaller "footprint"?

Matt Haan: I think the situation would be much different now. In the films and books I went through before going to Iraq, it always amazed that the people who said this was going to happen, just were not listened to. Then listening to Michael Ware in Baghdad tell us how what he saw just after the fall of Saddam and how he has witnessed the insurgency evolve into an effective organisation, it is just sad for the Iraqi people that the Coalition could not have done a better job.


Va.: All SOF troops are required to a learn a foreign language. How important is language in counterinsurgency?

Matt Haan: Very important. Being able to communicate with the local people, I would say, is essential. The US officers we spoke to were very aware of how the Iraqis who spoke the language, knew the terrain, understood the issues would be the key to any potential solutions.


Fairfax, Va.: If you and a film crew can get so close to the people you describe, why are our military and political people having such apparently awful problems doing the same?

Matt Haan: You would have thought so! The people we worked with on the ground in Iraq had the trust of people inside the insurgency. That is something the Coalition forces will never be able to achieve.


Bowie, Md.: Why hasn't the U.S. captured or killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? Obviously, this mad man is still on the loose!

Matt Haan: Well, I have read since my return from Iraq that on one occasion Zarqawi may well have been captured, but was then released because they did not know it was actually Zarqawi. You also hear stories of when Zarqawi has almost been killed, but managed to avoid traps set for him at the last moment. The question is this myth or reality?


Alexandria, Va.: How did you begin this project? How does one even begin the process of establishing contact with the intermediaries who had access to the insurgents? Does Frontline plan any further films on Iraq? Thank you for your work.

Matt Haan: We spent a long time trying to make the right contacts before going to Iraq and then when we were in the country. We relied heavily on some incredible journalists - Michael Ware and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad - who helped us enormously. We also met with intermediaries who claimed they had contacts with the insurgency. Those who readily accepted to go and film on our behalf, we did not work with. Those who looked frightened when we told them what we wanted them to do and accepted reluctantly, were the people we ended up working with.


Kansas City, Kan.: Thanks for the great program. What is your assessment of the developing U.S. strategy to reduce forces and depend more heavily on airpower? Can the U.S. military hide in major forts and successfully turn the battle over to the Iraqis before the 2006 elections in the United States? What do you think the insurgents will do?

Matt Haan: This strategy would be a way of reducing contact with the opposition and therefore reduce the number of casualties. But surely going down this route, would allow the insurgency total freedom of action on the ground - even though admittedly they have had this in some areas. It could also lead to an even higher civilian casualty rate.


Arlington, Va.: Did you get a sense with the former army members who turned to the insurgency, that they may not have gone that route if the Iraqi army had not been disbanded ?

Matt Haan: This does seem to be a strong possibility. The way it was described to me was that there was a moment in time after the fall of Saddam where the former army members as well as other Iraqis who had served in the Baath Party waited to see what would happen. The subsequent disbanding of the army and the civil service in Iraq would have lead them to believe that their concerns were not going to be included in the building of what was classed as the "new Iraq". They therefore appear to have taken up arms to fight for what they believe in ... in order to get their voice heard.


Peoria, Ill.: I recently finished Alan Poole's book, 'Tactics of the Crescent Moon'. The book was very informative and expertly laid out the origins, relationships and actions of the various factions as they relate to Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. I've also read several books on U.S. Army/Marine Corps actions regarding the war to date in order to better help me understand what took place on the front lines of the invasion as I worked as a Marine in behind the initial invasion forces providing logistics support during OIF I. Your highly informative '60 Minutes' was the icing on the cake for me in terms of putting it all together. I'm embarrassed to say that the only thing that I've seen regarding Tal'Afar is an Internet letter from the mayor praising 3d Cal's work as they prepared to depart for home. Your show said to me that al Qaeda has stepped in to take over the insurgency. My question: since your departure from Iraq, do you hear more of al Qaeda winning in its efforts to shut out the Iraqi nationalists from the insurgency?

Matt Haan: I think we have witnessed a period when the foreign elements in the insurgency did control its direction. This is what we document in our film. However in recent months we have seen that this ascendancy has come into question from other quarters in the insurgency. One of the journalists in our film, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, reported on how some members of the insurgency have been participating in the elections. This is different to when the foreign elements were driving the insurgency when the insurgency did not want to be involved. Does this mean that the nationalist elements are gaining more power again? In many ways, only time will tell.


New York, N.Y.: After learning what you did in making this film, would you say that these insurgents are in it for the long haul? Time seems to have a different affect on this region. After all it's seen its fair share of civilizations, governments, etc. Many of them have lasted longer then the 284 or so years that the US has been around. It seems that peoples of this area of the world have considerable experience enduring discomfort where our softer, western society can barely deal with a Taco Bell that closes at 11PM. I'm all for removing our troops and bringing them home but if it's at the expense of causing the new government to collapse then these men and women will have died for nothing.

Matt Haan: In our film, we have tried to leave this question open. In one sense, the removal of Coalition Forces from Iraq may well take away the primary cause for the insurgency. But Iraqi soldiers we spoke to were frightened of the chaos this might create. A real catch 22. In many ways, I feel that there is a certain responsibility on the part of the Coalition to stay until matters improve, but how many years will that be?


washingtonpost.com: Thank you all for joining us today.


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