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TV PREVIEW

A Riddle in a Powder Keg on a Quagmire

'Frontline's' Sobering Look At the War in Afghanistan

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

In the puzzling (and for PBS, weirdly coincidental) wake of the American president's Nobel Peace Prize last week, "Frontline" begins its 27th season Tuesday with "Obama's War." It is a frank and even fatalistic primer on the buildup to a much bigger engagement in what the program portrays as a hopelessly corrupt, lethally fractious Afghanistan.

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"Frontline" lays it out for us in its inimitably sober manner. Let us at least mark it here for reference a few years from now, when people ask, "Where were the media?" if the losses in Afghanistan ever grow to be worse than the U.S. war in Iraq. Producer and correspondent Martin Smith and producer Marcela Gaviria have summoned all of "Frontline's" strengths in breaking down complex matters and making them as understandable as they'll ever get.

"Obama's War" seamlessly glides from the design and theory of a counterinsurgency to the actual occurrence of it -- back and forth from a granular narrative about the 8th Marine Regiment (2nd Battalion, Echo Company) and its dangerous patrols this summer in the Taliban stronghold in the southern Helmand province, to the "Frontline"-style questioning of people deeply enmeshed in swaying the outcome: Pakistan's interior minister, Afghanistan's intelligence director, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Adm. Mike Mullen, go-to envoy Richard Holbrooke.

The report opens with the death, while on patrol, of Lance Cpl. Charles Seth Sharp, 20, this past July. His base camp is renamed in his honor as his buddies continue their daily hikes along irrigation canals to encourage frightened villagers to return to some semblance of life (under America's watch) before Taliban intimidation. A Marine tells a villager: "We are here to kick the Taliban out. Why are you not helping us?"

"What can we provide for you?" the villager says. "You have planes, tanks and guns. What do we have? We're simple people. . . . If you can't win, how can we?"

Yeah, really. That's Afghanistan all over, helpless and sinister all at once. The report makes clear that the challenge of Afghanistan is only made worse by the duplicity of Pakistan. ("I absolutely have to hold my nose when I work with the Pakistani government," says John Nagl, a retired 43-year-old Army lieutenant colonel and counterinsurgency expert. "But I don't have a better alternative.")

This will seem remedial stuff to anyone who's been following along, but "Frontline" rightly assumes most of America has not been tuned in. And people who have been following the Afghanistan saga will glean something new, too, or at least have their knowledge affirmed. "Frontline" is, after all, TV journalism for people who find "60 Minutes" too elementary yet still prefer moving pictures to think-tank paperwork. ("60 Minutes" also just aired its own similar story Sunday night about the cultural barriers to winning a war and nation-building in Afghanistan.)

"Obama's War" assembles the American brass for an honest-as-possible appraisal of America's chances here at anything resembling solution. "How does this end?" Smith asks Brig. Gen. William Mayville, director of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

"We're going to leave here under shades of gray," Mayville predicts. "We'll have a firm understanding here that more has to be done. But in the end, you'll have an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem." (Which is exactly what people said about Iraq.)

Not the least bit reassuring, but certainly required viewing. Meantime, as the U.N. determines the validity of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's reelection, there's actually very little in "Obama's War" about Obama. Except in the abstract, where it's perfectly clear: The Nobel Peace Prize recipient in the White House has a lot of war to consider. You'll be exactly up to speed on the issues when "Obama's War" is over, and thoroughly filled with dread about what happens now.

Frontline: Obama's War (one hour) airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on Maryland Public Television and 10 p.m. on WETA.



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