PBS Frontline: 'Obama's War'

Martin Smith
Frontline Producer
Wednesday, October 14, 2009 11:00 AM

PBS Frontline producer Martin Smith discussed his film "Obama's War," an examination of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The film is available for viewing here: Obama's War: Obama's War. It airs Tuesday, Oct. 13 on PBS (check local listings).


Wichita, Kan.: As stated by Nagl in the program, and by others elsewhere, our population-centric COIN doctrine calls for 640,000 troops for Afghanistan. This is clearly not possible. How can the doctrine possibly be applied if this is the case? Without the troops suggested by the new Army Field Manual, do we even have any chance of success?

Martin Smith: You are correct, 600,000 troops are not possible. Currently there are 68,000 Americans, 40,000 from NATO, 100,000 Afghan National Army, and about another 100,000 Police. That's roughly over 300,000. The idea is to train more, but in the meantime deploy existing forces to key areas in what is known as an ink spot strategy, securing key areas in the hope that gradually over time security and stability can spread.


Anonymous: Is there any real evidence that Karzai as head of state is corrupt? And if there's such a compelling evidence why doesn't the U.S. confront him with the evidence.

And if he's corrupt beyond repair, why the U.S. and allies cannot remove Mr. Karzai since they put him in office in the first place?

Great program as always.

Martin Smith: There's no conclusive evidence that President Karzai himself is corrupt. There are allegations about his family, notably his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, a politician in Kandahar who has been accused of involvement in the drug trade. These charges are currently under investigation and have been widely reported in the media.

As for your second part of your question, the Americans are trusting the election process to sort things out, but it's not going well.


Lyndhurst, Va.: A very fascinating and informative Frontline as usual, Mr. Smith, but I was struck by the lack of any examination of the so-called Afghan National Army (ANA) and what, if any, impact they are having now, some 8 years into the NATO presence in Afghanistan.

Given the doctrinal requirement of 600,000 troops for a COIN strategy a la the Petraeus/McChrystal prescription for Afghan nation building, as well as, a non- functioning Afghan national government/partner, plus the likely lessening of other NATO country's participation sooner rather than later, and, lastly but not least, the limited numbers of American troops at even the maximalist numbers available -- doesn't it really come down to a realistic assessment for the U.S./NATO of whether or not the ANA even credibly exists now, at this moment, after 6 or 8 years of supposedly standing them up, and can a 2 or 3 hundred thousand operationally capable (able to at least stalemate the Taliban/Al Qaeda) ANA force develop in a politically viable (for the U.S.) timeframe of a couple of years, if ever?

Martin Smith: We saw a lot of training and cut sequences about it. The Army training is by most accounts on track, but the Police training is far far behind. In the end, we couldn't find room in the space of one hour to expand on this issue, but it's a subject that is well covered in the media. We chose to go with material we thought was freshest.


RH: I was involved in the first Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) initiative in early 2003. From my experience then, I realized that no amount of "hearts and minds" projects to include schools, clinics or roads would really ever win over the population.

What is your opinion regarding the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people as a function of how much money we spent to develop the country.

And, lastly, your Frontline reports are extremely valuable to informing the public. Understanding the depth of the issues and challenges has allowed you and your staff to ask the tough questions.

Afgh/2003; Iraq/2005; HOA; 2007/08

Martin Smith: Your experience carries a lot of weight here. We met with many people working in provincial reconstruction and sensed a lot of skepticism that it's simply a matter of more money. The fact is that if Afghans don't have faith in their own institutions, it is very hard to get buy-in. Corruption will remain a huge obstacle, as will security. Between 2001 and 2005 there was a real window of opportunity for civilian projects to take hold and gain traction in the provinces. But after 2006, the Taliban gained strength rapidly and the security situation deteriorated. It became difficult for anyone but soldiers to carry out reconstruction efforts. That placed a great burden on the military and weakened the overall project.


Austin, Tex.: Thank you for the program.

Two quick questions:

1) What is the morale of our troops serving in Afghanistan?

2) Is anyone discussing alternative ways of keeping AQ out of Afg that does not require occupation?

Martin Smith: Morale seemed remarkably high under the circumstances with the Marines whom I was embedded in Helmand.

There are many who believe we should rely on surveillance, drones, and the use of special forces when necessary to go after terrorists who threaten the US. Vice President Biden has been vocal in this regard. There are others who support him like Col. Andrew Bacevich. If you'd like to read his interview, go to www.frontline.org for more.


Martin Smith: Good morning. Thank you for your questions and I'll do my best to answer as many as I can in the time we have. Martin.


Washington, D.C.: First, thank you for producing such an excellent documentary, and for putting yourself at some real risk in doing it. You've done a great service for everybody in getting at some of the most difficult questions and problems we are facing.

Like many people I am torn almost daily asking the questions about the right strategy going forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Like Coll and Bacevich I really question whether putting 40,000 more troops into the mix to fight in the morning and do governance and local politics in the afternoon is the best move. But then again, I find McChrystal to be very realistic in his approach and fairly convincing in his argument that, sure it's a difficult problem, but it's really critical that we get this right and forge a newer direction and focus. Do you feel like Gen. McChyrstal is at least offering a strategy, whereas critics like Coll and Bacevich, while sympathetic, may not be offering any specific options?

Martin Smith: There is a meeting at the White House going on right now that is probably addressing this. But I don't think that deploying 40,00 more troops is the central question. It's defining the objective. 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? Coll and Bacevich are asking for a clear definition of the objective and an explanation of how those 40,000 troops will achieve our ends. Bacevich believes that we can use drones, intelligence, and surveillance to prevent another 9-11, that nation building is overly ambitious and won't work.


Anonymous: The commentary blamed the interpreter for not knowing the local dialect -- whereas I saw a U.S. soldier who could not speak clear and precise English. Is there any training for troops dealing through an interpreter?

Martin Smith: As Lt. Col. Cabaniss says in the opening moments of the program, his Marines are "experts in the application of violence." And while I found them extremely well versed in counterinsurgency, it seemed that for many of them it was well out of their lane. I'm not aware of the extent of their training but it doesn't appear to be enough. The scene you witnessed was not an isolated incident.


Freising, Germany: I find it interesting that Pakistani General Athar Abbas maintains that, "There is no truth that insurgents stage attacks on American forces from the Pakistani side of the border".

I don't think that anyone can imagine an armed force galloping from Pakistan into Afghanistan to attack a specific fort, but certainly Mullah Muhammad Omar's Quetta Shura and presumably the father and son inspired Haqqani Network operate from Pakistan.

Did you arrive at any impression on how an offensive by the Pakistani Military on the Taliban and al Qaeda strongpoints in Waziristan would affect the situation in Afghanistan?

Martin Smith: I think all US and NATO military commanders, including intelligence officers that we spoke to, thought such an offensive would have a tremendous effect on the war. Many are angry at the lack of progress on the Pakistani side of the border. They are reluctant to speak openly about this, because they are under orders to leave these matters to Special Rep. Holbrooke and others. But many I spoke to are seething. It's their Soldiers and Marines that are being killed.


Boston, Mass.: Should the recent surge of Marines into Helmand have gone to bigger population centers like Kandahar instead? Was the reason they didn't because the military commanders thought there wasn't enough time to redo logistics and planning away from the "counterterrorism"- focused McKiernan plan they went in under (per Joe Klein's piece)? Would McChrystal have put those Marine troops in Helmand if it was his choice? Could he/should he have ordered a stop order to make sure the resources were deployed correctly per his counterinsurgency strategy? Now that they are there, does that mean we can't pull them out of Helmand, undercutting the people who have worked with us there and U.S. lives lost already? Does that mean we have to send more troops to Afghanistan than we would otherwise to fulfill McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy?

Martin Smith: You are correct that General McChrystal was handed that plan by his predecessor General McKiernan. McChrystal would have preferred going into Kandahar first.


Madison, Wisc.: Hello, If I were in a war zone I would probably be spewing four- letter words right and left, as we saw in the documentary last night. Does Frontline get a pass from the FCC to air such things? Just curious.

Martin Smith: PBS, WGBH, and FRONTLINE believe that the language in "Obama's War" is not indecent. To hear a cascade of intrusive "bleeps" in the midst of harrowing firefight, just before the wounding and death of a young Marine, would diminish the experience and be less truthful to the reality of what happened. Frontline gets no special pass, the FCC has to decide these matters on a case by case basis.


Orlando, Fla.: The commenter mentioned that the Taliban leader had distributed a 30- page treatise to all his commanders. Is there a translated copy of this treatise available to read/print on the Internet? Is Mr. Smith aware of anyone in the Obama administration evaluating/incorporating/using best practices of this treatise as a blueprint for our own military forces?

Martin Smith: Yes. Please go to Frontline's website at www.frontline.org and you can read translated copy. I know that General Mike Flynn, Director of ISAF Intelligence is aware of Omar's booklet, but I don't think that the concepts in either the Taliban's treatise or McChrystal's Counterinsurgency Tactical Directive are especially new. The idea of winning over the population has been around for a long time.


Phoenix, Ariz.: We want coalition partners, yet very little credit is given to them where they exist.

The U.K. has had a major contingent in Helmund with very heavy casualties Why no mention?

Martin Smith: This program was made for a US audience with a focus on US policy.


New York, N.Y.: Great Report Frontline ... I am beginning to understand what we are actually doing in Afghanistan. ... My question is: Should our solders be mandated to learn the local dialects in order to improve our relationship with the Afghan people? Thank you.

Martin Smith: It's a good idea but it might be entirely impractical. There are only a handful of career foreign service officers that have mastered these languages, to expect Marines and Soldiers to learn them is a very tall order.


Columbus, Ohio: Good show. The administration's chief, or only, justification for the war is that if the Taliban take over in Afghanistan al-Qaeda will be able to set up a safe haven there to attack the United States. Some people, like Richard Barnett, the UN's Taliban and al-Qaeda monitor, say that a triumphal Taliban won't "want al-Qaeda hanging around" because it will only draw fire (NT Times last Sunday). What is your opinion on this key issue?

Martin Smith: Even before 9-11 there were Taliban who weren't particularly keen on hosting Al Qaeda. But there are still Taliban who do support them. There is a divide within the Taliban. In truth, we really don't know what would happen if the Taliban were to return to power. Our intelligence about the Taliban remains fairly weak.


Ashburn, Va.: Based on the newly proposed increase in force levels, it would seem that we are digging in for a long-term engagement. However, I don't see our mission there to do anything more than keep a force large enough to prevent a Taliban resurgence. It isn't large enough to stabilize the entire country, much less nation build. Do you agree with my assessment?

Martin Smith: Yes. So does General McChrystal. The question is whether we need to stabilize Afghanistan in order prevent a resurgence of Al Qaeda? That is a thornier issue.


Washington, D.C.: Your conversations with the Pakistani army and intelligence spokesmen were really eye-opening. They seem perpetually stuck in a "spin" cycle. No wonder, as Nagl says, you have to hold your nose in dealing with them. I know you aren't a mind-reader, and can't say whether you might be good at playing poker, but do you really think these spokesmen actually believe what they were telling you was the truth, or are they just plain covering up.

Martin Smith: I believe they are covering up. I have spoken to at least one former Pakistani military official who described to me how he was trained "to lie."


Eastchester, N.Y.: You pointed out how relations between U.S. and Pakistan are poor. But shouldn't the Afgans and the Pakistanis detest us after we abandoned them in the nineties? How arrogant of us to be disappointed in them. Aren't they rational to be measuring our exit?

Martin Smith: I agree, there is a lot of distrust. Some US officials think we have a moral obligation to remain in Afghanistan for the very reason that we have abandoned them in the past. In their view, American credibility is at stake. David Kilcullen voiced this view in his interview.


Alexandria, Va.: Martin,

How much of this is Obama's (or really our war), and how much of it is NATO's?

Doesn't the implications of Afghanistan/Pakistan effect the rest of the world, especially the other nations that have provided troops for NATO?

Is NATO proposing a surge, and can we count on them in the future.

Also, what are Afghans views of NATO vs. U.S. Forces?

Martin Smith: A resurgent al Qaeda would be a threat to Europe as well as to America. Getting this right is everybody's problem. Afghans view Americans as clearly in charge.


Silver Spring, Md.: Enjoy Frontline, but didn't see this episode. However, I wonder if you think this show was created "without bias"? Is that even possible? If so, how do you (attempt to) accomplish that?

Martin Smith: We aim to be as fair as we can be in our reporting. That is our job. We take it seriously.


New York: I understand the British are adding a small number of troops to Afghanistan, but isn't NATO a big part of the problem there? The Taliban is resurgent because most of our allies aren't prepared to fight them. Would any Obama plan dismiss the use of NATO? Thanks for an awesome -- and sobering -- report.

Martin Smith: Compared to Iraq, NATO is heavily involved in Afghanistan. Would Americans like more NATO troops? Yes. But commanding a coalition of such diversity has it's own challenges.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Let us suppose we could get 640,000 troops there. The question I would like to ask then is: why then? Would this then be a long drawn out war with a guerrilla nationalistic operation fighting in village by village and, even if one side wins militarily, will the victor have won the support of the populace?

Martin Smith: As John Nagl says at the end of the program, there are no guarantees here. Anyone who thinks there is an easy answer here is fooling themselves.


New York City: Excellent program. I was struck by the extremely academic and theoretical tone in almost all of the military officials you spoke with in regards to counterinsurgency -- yet clearly it is not yielding the expected results. Is the military suffering, perhaps, from "Patraeus Syndrome" when it comes to actually carrying out its task in Afghanistan?

Martin Smith: That's a hard question to answer. I do wonder why General Petraeus has been so quiet of late.


Annandale, Va.: With Iraq, all the surrounding countries (Iran, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, along with SA) had a stake in and engagement with the process of a post-Hussein world. Apart from Pakistan, where are the other regional stakeholders who care what happens to Afghanistan, and what are they doing that helps or hurts?

Martin Smith: Several people we spoke to said that getting Afghanistan right will involve having American's talk to people they don't like, Iran, Russia, China. That's Ambassador Holbrooke's and Secretary Clinton's job. I sincerely wish them both good luck for all our sakes.

That's all the time we have today. Thanks for tuning in and for all your excellent questions. All the best, Martin


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive