REVIEW: Tonight's FRONTLINE Documentary "The War Briefing"



With the presidential election only one week away and the candidates pounding the pavement in search of every last vote, the tension of war seems a long way off. It's the economy, character and taxes that are splashing across America's headlines, not war, extremism and failed states.

But just as America makes its final consideration of who should be the next commander in chief, a Frontline documentary examines the tough national security challenges the next White House will face. Though the documentary -- which airs tonight on Public Broadcast System stations nationwide -- is titled "The War Briefing" as if it were the battle update an incoming president would receive upon reaching office, the show focuses heavily on the deteriorating situation on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Correspondent Martin Smith leads the questioning of some of the country's most experienced analysts, journos, leaders and experts to see where we are, what went wrong and how we can fix it. Footage from heavy firefights and ambushes in Afghanistan add gritty shock value to the script, as does rarely before seen footage of Islamic militant camps and villages in the lawless tribal regions of eastern Pakistan.

As usual, Frontline delivers an impressive show with all its "sky is falling" drama and jaw-dropping sound bites.

"They thought they could control [the Taliban]. It turns out they can't," says the New York Times' Dexter Filkins. "They're out of control. Frankenstein's gotten off the table."

Watch the trailer HERE...The documentary makes a compelling case that the stability of Pakistan is probably the number one national security priority for the next president. A resurgent Taliban, an al Qaeda 2.0 that has woven itself deep into the fabric of Pashtun society, a government clawing for legitimacy while teetering on the brink -- and, oh yeah, let's not forget those 50 nukes sitting in Pakistani warehouses.

"Pakistan, as a very, very large country with nuclear weapons has a very fragile government that is challenged by jihadis," Colin Kahl of the Center for a New American Security explains. "The nightmare scenario for the U.S. interest in the region -- it's not Iraq, it's not Afghanistan, it's a failed state of Pakistan."

But "The War Briefing" is most exceptional for what it is not.

In its promotional materials, "The War Briefing" summary screams "the next president of the United States will inherit a foreign policy nightmare: wars on two fronts, an overstretched military, a resurgent Taliban and a reconstituted al Qaeda base far from America's reach." Now, let's not spend the whole time dissecting each statement there, but "nightmare" is a pretty strong word.

No single expert with a solid reputation on the subject thinks the Afghan war is unwinnable. The sheer delta of casualties belies the hyperbole of the documentary's promo materials. More than 4,000 U.S. troops have died in Iraq over five years of conflict. So far about 625 U.S troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. Afghanistan is a major problem -- but a nightmare?

And the al Qaeda base is a long way from "far from America's reach." Commando raids on Sept. 3 and near constant Reaper strikes on top Taliban and al Qaeda leaders throw that contention into serious doubt.

And what ever happened to Iraq? Where's the update on that "front" in the president's "War Briefing?" A revamped counterinsurgency strategy, a bolstered diplomatic initiative and a surge of troops helped set that war on the course to victory, but you wouldn't know it from Frontline's idea of what the next president will be told as he looks at America's national security landscape.

Another glaring omission from "The War Briefing" is the total lack of consideration for NATO's role in the conflict -- for good and for ill. The word NATO is mentioned only twice in the entire documentary and neither reference has anything to do with what those troops are accomplishing there.

What ever happened to the idea of consulting our allies, asking for cooperation and the risks of a "go-it-alone" strategy? Afghanistan is the poster child for cooperative engagement, but at whose feet does Frontline place the specter of defeat in Afghanistan? Not the Germans, Italians, French or Spanish who have so many restrictions on their employment for combat that bad guys are basically allowed to run amok in their operational areas - creating what some might consider a sanctuary within Afghanistan itself. Nope, it's all America's fault.

Obviously "The War Briefing" only has an hour to deliver its message that the U.S faces some serious challenges as the next president takes his seat in the Oval Office. But are Afghanistan and Pakistan the only aspects of the "foreign policy nightmare?" Iran is looking for nukes, North Korea is still spiraling, Lebanon is waiting to erupt again and the Georgia/Russia conflict is far from over.

And let's not forget that there hasn't been another attack on the United States since 9/11; that al Qaeda was dealt a crushing defeat in the Philippines, Afghanistan and Iraq, is on life support in Europe and is facing increased soft-pressure from U.S. forces in North Africa.

"The War Briefing" does a good job of showing Americans part of the challenge the next president will face in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but does little to shape the overall debate over the direction that executive's national security policy should take.

-- Christian

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