Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Frontline: 'Obama's War'

Everyone should see this program, which aired this evening. If you missed it, you can go to the PBS website and watch it online.

I'm not going to write at great length about it, but of the various disquieting aspects -- and there were several -- perhaps the most disturbing was to hear the Pakistani Interior Minister and the Army spokesman deny that the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network are even in Pakistan (let alone that the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, has been supporting them). And then to hear, after that, Richard Holbrooke say he was sure the Pakistanis know these groups are a threat to them as well as Afghanistan. Know they're a threat? The Pakistani officials don't acknowledge they're even in the country!

"Obama's War" is a well-done, informative piece of journalism, with the scene shifting between Helmand province, Kabul, Islamabad, and Washington. The counterinsurgency position in the current debate, about which I had lots of doubts to begin with, seems even less persuasive to me after watching this. I don't think that's because the program is unbalanced but because the difficulties involved become so evident, particularly in one moment in which a Marine, with an inadequate interpreter, interacts with some local people in Helmand. He asks for their help and they reply: "how can we help you? We don't even have swords. If you can't defeat the Taliban with all your weaponry, then we can't help you." Their reply mostly misses the point -- he wasn't asking for their military help -- but it underscores the difficulties involved in what is euphemistically called "cross-cultural communication" as well as the broader difficulties of entrusting this kind of mission to well-meaning but -- to the local population -- very foreign young men with guns. You can't overgeneralize from one encounter, but the effect nonetheless is very sobering.

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