Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Obama's War and The Fixer

Obama’s War. The title I imagine is very controversial to some, I know it piqued my interest since we have been at war for 8 years, the majority of which he was not Commander in Chief. Although I think that the title is more a realization that no matter what happened in the past the war is now in the hands of our Commander in Chief and therefore he is ultimately responsible to devise a strategy that ends the conflict. I must say I was pleasantly surprised that despite what many would consider a controversial title the documentary was objective, insightful, and very daring both in the footage obtained in harm’s way and daring via the questions asked of the true key players in Operation Enduring Freedom. Fellow classmate and blogger Cameron Schaefer provides some very well written and intelligent discussion on his blog, and recently I have adopted him as a pseudo information funnel regarding our nation’s war strategy (or lack thereof depending on your view). He highly recommended Obama’s War and I must thank him for doing so. The documentary coupled with my watching Charlie Wilson’s War last week have, sadly I must admit, greatly expanded my awareness of not only how we got into the crisis at hand, but the immense difficulties we face strategically moving forward. Below is the summary of the 55 minute masterpiece concocted by PBS. I like my adopted Afghanistan Guru friend highly recommend watching this show, especially if you are currently serving and will likely be headed over there.

In Obama's War, veteran correspondent Martin Smith travels across Afghanistan and Pakistan to see first-hand how the president's new strategy is taking shape, delivering vivid, on-the-ground reporting from this eight-year-old war's many fronts. Through interviews with top generals, diplomats and government officials, Smith also reports the internal debates over President Obama's grand attempt to combat terrorism at its roots.

"What we found on the ground was a huge exercise in nation building," says Smith. "The concept's become a bit of a dirty word, but that's what this is. We started with the goal of eliminating Al Qaeda, and now we've wound up with the immense task of re-engineering two nations."

The brunt of the work is falling on rank-and-file soldiers, and nowhere is it more difficult than in the dusty, unforgiving landscape of Helmand province, the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, where FRONTLINE embedded with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. Since the Marines' arrival in July, Helmand has become the most lethal battlefield in Afghanistan. But FRONTLINE found the Marines trying to act as armed diplomats, attempting to build the necessary trust for badly needed economic development.

"It's trying to change the culture of the organization," Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, tells FRONTLINE of the administration's plan. "At the end of the day, our best counterinsurgents are going to be young sergeants who just have an ability to deal with people. We've got to give them the flexibility to make decisions."

Even as American soldiers struggle to make progress in Afghanistan village by village, equally vexing challenges remain across the border in Pakistan. "In Afghanistan we know what to do; we just don't know if we have the resources or the time available to do it," David Kilcullen, a leading counterinsurgency expert, tells FRONTLINE. "The problem in Pakistan is we're not really sure what to do."

When FRONTLINE confronts the Pakistani army about its reluctance to take out key Taliban leaders, the military's chief spokesman, Gen. Athar Abbas, argues that the accusations are misplaced. There is no truth, he claims, that insurgents stage attacks on American forces from the Pakistani side of the border. "They operate from Afghanistan. If somebody claims that everything is happening from this side of the border, I am sorry, this is misplaced, and we refute it."

Barred from sending troops across the border, the United States is left with few good options. No quick fix will solve Pakistan. "If we have a strategy in Pakistan," says George Packer, a staff writer at The New Yorker, "it's to build up the civilian government to the point where it can be a kind of counterbalance to the military and begin to reorient their own sense of their destiny. Is that even thinkable for a foreign power to do? Even as I say it, I think, why do we think we could even begin to accomplish that?"


Update: After I originally drafted this post I watch and HBO on demand documentary entitled "Fixer." A fixer is an individual who facilitates interaction between journalists and those they are out to capture on film. In this case the fixer was a twenty four year old Afghan named Ajmal. The documentary shows Ajmal and his American journalist counterpart interviewing Taliban members, corrupt Afghan elected officials, and terrified commoners. Between the candid glimpses of daily Afghan life and the candid real discussion of the fixer and journalist it is an incredibly powerful documentary for those interested in what is going on overseas. The documentary eventually shifts to tell how Ajmal along with an Italian journalist were captured by the Taliban. The Taliban (alleged by many including the makers of this documentary to be puppets of Pakistan) eventually negotiate a release with Karzai. While the Italian is celebrating his return Ajmal is never actually released and is eventually murdered by decapitation. The film shows Ajmal's father and his disgust for his government. He is appalled that Karzai would negotiate with terrorists to release a foreigner while they sit idly by while his son whose rights the government has sworn to protect are violated. The true value of the film, like Obama's War above, is the illustration of the difficult political interactions of all the players besides the Taliban. Ajmal in a very powerful scene in the film is lecturing his elder American journalist, who is supposed to be an expert on the conflict, that this is not a war against the Taliban. Ajmal states that it is an "international war." Pakistan, the US, and Afghanistan are deeply intertwined in every consequence of this conflict and to see it unfold with Ajmal's tale as a backdrop is truly incredible. I have included a trailer below.

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