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PBS Frontline: 'The War Briefing'

Marcela Gaviria
Frontline Producer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008 11:00 AM

PBS Frontline producer Marcela Gaviria was online Wednesday, Oct. 29 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss her film "The War Briefing," which probes some of the most urgent foreign policy challenges facing the next president.

"The War Briefing" will air Tuesday, Oct. 28 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Gaviria won the 2005 Emmy for her documentary "The Storm," the prestigious 2003 duPont Columbia Silver Baton for "Truth, War, and Consequences," the 2002 duPont-Columbia Gold Baton for her post-Sept. 11 films "Looking for Answers" and "Saudi Time Bomb?" and an Emmy and a George Foster Peabody Award for the four-hour series "Drug Wars."

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Algonquin, Ill.: What is the U.S. strategy to eradicate the poppy fields and strip the Taliban of one of their primary revenue sources?

Marcela Gaviria: The strategy at this point is a combination of eradication and crop replacement. At this point, the Brits are in charge of the narcotics program. The data suggest that this year, the poppy yield has gone down slightly -- but obviously this is a huge problem. Some NATO commanders have suggested simply buying the crop.

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Anonymous: I am 28 minutes into "The War Briefing" and have yet to hear one good reason why the U.S. Armed Forces are in Afghanistan. What is the U.S. equity in Afghanistan? Why should we waste dollars and troops for what looks like a local issue?

Marcela Gaviria: We are clearly there because U.S. officials say that if nothing is done to stop the Taliban, Afghanistan and Pakistan may fall into the hands of extremists. Seven al-Qaeda attacks, such as the London bombings, have been traced directly to this region. They say that it's not a situation that America can allow to fester. But I agree that sending more troops to Afghanistan doesn't necessarily guarantee a resolution to the problem of an al-Qaeda sanctuary in Pakistan.

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Houston: Why isn't the Pakistan ISI held responsible for its actions with the Taliban, when most of their leadership always has been on the payroll of CIA?

Marcela Gaviria: This question is central to the whole issue. The new Pakistani government has vowed to rein in the ISI and hold them accountable. There are some indications that President Zardari intends to get tough, but it's clearly too soon to know if he will be strong enough to do so.

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Bethesda, Md.: During the second presidential debate, Sen. McCain asserted that the clear, hold and build strategy employed during the Iraq surge would not work in Afghanistan. On what was does he base this? Is it simply a case of not enough troops on the ground?

Marcela Gaviria: It's true that to clear, hold and build you need significant numbers of troops. Right now the U.S. military is in the "clear" phase of operations in much of Afghanistan. In general Sen. McCain has been a proponent of replicating the strategies used in Iraq in Afghanistan.

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Danbury, Texas: Is there any additional film footage, photos, or interviews of the soldiers? I believe my son is in Bravo Company and I thought we might get a glimpse of him.

Marcela Gaviria: Thanks so much for writing. I'd be happy to look for images if you send me a picture of your son. You can locate me through Frontline -- go to their Web site for more information.

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Anonymous: Will our tight finances influence our foreign aid distribution?

Marcela Gaviria: I'd be willing to bet on that.

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Carmel, Ind.: I was surprised you did not mention the role of the CIA and the U.S. government during the birth of the mujahedeen movement. Billions of dollars were sent through Pakistan to fight the Soviets. The mujahedeen became Taliban thanks to U.S. taxpayers, and now Pakistan is paying the price.

Marcela Gaviria: Thanks for pointing this out. We had a much longer version of the film that told that story in more detail, but we had to make some choices to make the film an hour. That said, this is territory well covered in other Frontline films. I encourage you to check out Frontline's Web site at www.frontline.org for more.

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Ottawa, Canada: As an admirer of PBS and Frontline in particular, I was disappointed that "The War Briefing" did not acknowledge the presence of troops from other NATO countries in Afghanistan, thereby suggesting to American viewers in particular (to the point of misinforming them) that the U.S. was alone in making sacrifices there or in having to decide on a way forward.

Marcela Gaviria: Absolutely true. I wish we could have had more time to address NATO's role. We were embedded in northeastern Afghanistan, where only the Americans operate, so that ultimately influenced our focus.

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Tampa Bay: Marcela, I'm a major working down at Central Command, where Gen. Petraeus is taking command this week. I'm also a pilot and English instructor at the United States Air Force Academy. I've had a lot of interest in the failed policies during both the wars and I've been tasked to write a paper on realistic strategies for the staff here. Is there any way of talking to you directly about my own research and the recommendations I plan on making to the Central Command staff?

Marcela Gaviria: My pleasure, I'd love to. Please e-mail me.

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Sydney, Australia: What could happen if the tribal lands became a separate sovereign country?

Marcela Gaviria: The tribal lands are basically autonomous and separate. The Pakistani government asserts virtually no control. I'm not sure I can predict what would happen, but the concern is that the extremism has spilled over to other parts of Pakistan and already is destabilizing the country.

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Arlington, Va.: Can the U.S. fully meet all of the expectations for the next president without a draft? Is there any support for this in Congress?

Marcela Gaviria: A draft won't happen, but one general told us that the lack of a draft makes it too easy to make these military commitments.

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Nazareth, Pa.: Did the administration consider using nuclear weapons in the most remote guerrilla areas to expel inhabitants inside the caves? This is a excellent report -- please produce another one ASAP.

Marcela Gaviria: In our reporting we never heard that option being considered.

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Reston, Va.: Would either President McCain or President Obama stop these two foreign wars, or are we going to keep fighting for many years or decades?

Marcela Gaviria: We got a sense from all our conversations with foreign policy advisers from both camps that America's commitment to both wars will be long-term.

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Norfolk, Va.: This is a very timely discussion and very well done show, but I want to ask the question: Why won't we destroy the poppy fields that fund their operations? They are not moving targets, and even if we only destroyed one field and made it clear to the other farmers that illegitimate use of the poppies would result in quick destruction of their fields, we may be able to keep them from buying weapons and arms.

Marcela Gaviria: As a journalist, I began my career in Colombia covering the drug wars. I can tell you that destroying crops is a daunting proposition -- the money is too good, and you need to provide alternatives to those who grow the crops.

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Rockville, Md.: As a citizen of India and the U.S., I feel that we have to be really careful in how we approach the Pakistan situation. Sen. Obama has indicated that he would consider attacking targets inside Pakistan. I feel if there is any reaction by Pakistani government it'll get out of control and a retaliation could be a strike on India, which would basically start a major war.

Marcela Gaviria: Thanks for posting this comment. You are absolutely right that the situation in this part of the world is very volatile. The new Pakistani government does seem to be reaching out to India and Afghanistan. It's a good sign.

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Anchorage, Alaska: Given the terrain, lack of infrastructure and educational situations, is it even feasible for another country that has a completely different cultural background to complete this momentous undertaking in Afghanistan?

Marcela Gaviria: We hope the film showed just how daunting this task is.

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San Clemente, Calif.: I noticed that at one point U.S. troops entered a village and all the young males are gone. The young soldiers felt they must all be Taliban. But might not another reason be past actions of U.S. troops in scooping up large numbers of these young men almost at random and shipping them off to Bagram?

Marcela Gaviria: That is certainly a possibility. The inability to build trust is at the heart of the matter.

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Bristol, Conn.: Congratulations on this show and the other show you produced a few years ago on Iraq. The images shot by the cameraman are also incredible. Can you describe what is was like for you to produce in the field this show? What were some of the most challenging moments? Thank you, and I look forward to your next show.

Marcela Gaviria: All the credit goes to Timothy Grucza. He was there -- he took the risks and had the right instincts. On this particular show I produced it from New York, but have plans to return to the region in the spring.

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Hartford, Conn.: I found your documentary last night to be extremely informative. Do you think that the Taliban can retake the region working from the tribal areas? On one side I see that they are untied against the U.S., but isn't there just as a great a chance that their shaky internal alliances between tribal leaders and differing Taliban leaders will tear them apart as they make further gains? Also, is there any indication that our forces are infiltrating these groups at all? Thanks for your hard work.

Marcela Gaviria: Those shaky internal alliances are what Gen. Petraeus hopes to exploit. The problem is that 30 years of war in Afghanistan have decimated the tribal structure. The trick will be to figure out which groups are reconcilable. I expect this will be much harder than it was in Iraq. I really don't know if we are infiltrating the Taliban; given their suspicion of outsiders, it seems unlikely.

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Washington: I think some misconstrue the past U.S./CIA involvement with the mujahedeen. Yes, American aid was given in their fight against the Russians, but those organizations probably would have existed in absence of such aid. They had to dislike the Russian presence in the first place. Second, what are the chances of a peace agreement, at least with some elements of the Taliban? I heard about talks recently in Saudi Arabia.

Marcela Gaviria: This is the big new idea. President Karzai seems fully on board. I hate to make predictions, but I think this is worth exploring.

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Anonymous: Isn't the viability of a military solution to Afghanistan/the Federal Tribal Areas' long gone, if it ever existed at all?

Marcela Gaviria: There isn't a clear military solution, but our interviews suggest that the only way to make progress in the tribal areas is to use a combination of force and soft power, such as foreign aid.

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Baltimore: This was a stunning show last night. It strikes me that we have another Vietnam in Afghanistan -- substituting valleys, ridgelines, and caves for streams and forests, and Laos for the Tribal Areas. There appears to be no clear way out, even if we commit vastly more troops and resources to the region. A sad situation. Given that the ultimate goal is to protect the U.S. and the world against acts of terror, isn't there another way to monitor and "control" the Taliban, such as using our technological superiority in surveillance and then taking quick-strike actions through on-the-ground Special Ops? I think another approach is desperately needed in our war against terrorism.

Marcela Gaviria: Thanks very much for your comment. It's true that the terrain is formidable in that part of the world. Technology certainly will play a role, but without significant troops on the ground it will be difficult to run an effective air campaign.

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Washington: Marcela, are there any plans to produce programs that highlight the work and lack of work being done in Afghanistan and Iraq by the State Department, USAID, NATO etc., that address crucial social issues and services like health care, education, water, electricity and economic rebuilding? We never get to hear about these, which makes people assume this too is an area not being fought well or even attended to. Thank you.

Marcela Gaviria: This will be critical, but until the military can secure the country, it's hard to get other projects off the ground. There is great work being done by humanitarian workers in Afghanistan, but if they keep on getting assassinated it will prevent real momentum.

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Salem, N.H.: Given the crisis as portrayed in the latest Frontline, and the dire economic straits the U.S. and by extension, the rest of the world is in, doesn't it create a perfect storm against our nation's abilities to act to bring a successful resolution to the issue. Bill Lind wanted to nuke Afghanistan immediately after Sept. 11. If emboldened Islamic terrorists strike soon into the next administration on the U.S. directly depending on the degree, won't there be a call to economize our response where we still maintain a massive (albeit deteriorating) ability to cauterize the cancer? We are a wounded animal as is, under the present circumstances. It would be hard for such a direct attack to not provoke a lashing-out response.

Marcela Gaviria: That is exactly the point made by Henry Crumpto,n the former head of counterterrorism at the State Department. For more on that please go to Frontline's Web site.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm a journalist who has been covering Pakistan and Afghanistan for 20 years, including living in Pakistan. That was an absolutely terrific show -- the best piece of journalism on the subject I have seen to date -- but it seems to me there might have been a bit more discussion about the on-again, off-again role of the Pakistan military in politics, and (following on what one poster noted) the role of the ISI and the CIA in creating and empowering the mujahedin in the first place, i.e. the "blowback" of that policy. Thanks.

Marcela Gaviria: Thanks! It means a lot coming from someone who has worked over there for so long. You are right -- we brushed against that, but you make a valid point.

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Southwest Nebraska: I believe our grandson is in Farah province and has seen a lot (too much) action. What is the influence of Iran in that Western province?

Marcela Gaviria: Thanks for writing. I honestly don't know an answer to that. Wish you well.

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Alexandria, Va.: Marcela, I only was able to catch the last half-hour of Frontline last night and plan to catch up, but from what I did see and what we've seen since 2001, it still amazes me that no lessons from the past were learned, and the U.S. seems to be if making the same mistakes that past countries have made (albeit for different reasons and ideology) during their time trying to control Afghanistan. It boggles the mind.

Marcela Gaviria: There is a lot of excitement in military circles about what they have been able to do in Iraq. The lessons from Iraq are starting to be applied to Afghanistan, but even Gen. Petraeus concedes that exporting the playbook from one country to the next isn't the answer. You get the sense that we are getting better at doing counterinsurgency.

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Woodstock, Ill.: What is India's equity in the Karzai-led Afghanistan? And what are the implications for Pakistan and their relationship with the Taliban? Finally, in your opinion, how well is the U.S. succeeding in balancing U.S.-Pakistan and U.S.-Indian relations?

Marcela Gaviria: A hard question, thanks. For more on this, look at Robert Kaplan's interview on the Frontline Web site.

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Jarrettsville, Md.: In all the discussions of a possible withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, there are two questions I have yet to hear anyone ask or answer: What is our response to a Sunni vs. Shia civil war, especially if, as is probable, Iran, Syria and the Gulf States intervene? Also, with or without an Iraqi genocidal war, where do our troops in Afghanistan stand with a hostile Iran on their flank with no counterweight to speak of? Do they not simply become so many hostages to the mullahs themselves?

Marcela Gaviria: That wasn't the focus of the film, but after six previous films on Iraq, I've learned not to make predictions about that country. Right now things are looking up, so hopefully the risk of a regional war has diminished.

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Anonymous: Anyone who is interested in getting an excellent overview of this Afghanistan/Pakistan/U.S situation for the past 30 years needs to read "Ghost Wars" by Steve Coll.

Marcela Gaviria: I second that -- Steve Coll is an incredible journalist who knows this story better than most. Our film owes so much to his analysis and insight.

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Toronto: How long did the program producer stayed in Afghanistan to get the intense reporting? What is the contribution of the Afghanistan national army toward pacifying the troubled mountainous area?

Marcela Gaviria: Timothy Grucza was in Afghanistan for 18 days, including 10 with Bravo Company in the Korengal. The issue you raise on the Afghan national army is a crucial one. I believe this is an area where Gen. Petraeus will focus his attention.

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Danvers, Mass.: Your program has inspired me to look further into the United State's insurgency in Afghanistan. Was the destruction of the Humvee incorporated into the piece to further demonstrate the limited number of troops and man/woman power on the ground? Although it was simply one vehicle, I found this to be a powerful example of our country's contribution to the worldwide financial crisis.

Marcela Gaviria: Thank you for watching.

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Toronto: Can you share your thoughts on the irony of the Taliban and the fostering of Islamic extremism in the tribal areas of Pakistan being the legacy of the Cold War (CIA)? Also, a question that was asked of former president Putin: What lessons, in your opinion, can the West learn from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan?

Marcela Gaviria: It is an irony that the history of this region is littered with broken armies. I think the lesson of the Soviet experience is that more troops doesn't always ensure success.

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Coon Rapids, Iowa: Do you agree with John McCain that leaving Iraq is a white flag of surrender?

Marcela Gaviria: I don't.

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