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Frontline: "Fighting For Bin Laden"

Illustration for article titled Frontline: "Fighting For Bin Laden"
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(You can watch "Fighting For Bin Laden" here.)

Timing is everything on Frontline, which just happened to have scheduled a piece called “Fighting for Bin Laden” for this week, long before the news came down late Sunday night that U.S. forces had killed the Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan. Originally scheduled as the lead story, this report from Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi was instead flip-flopped with the planned back-up feature, “The Secret War,” focusing on the CIA’s covert operations along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.

As reported by Martin Smith and Stephen Grey, “The Secret War” proves especially relevant in light of the revelation that Osama bin Laden had been hiding right under the noses of the Pakistani military. Although updated with a few voice-over references to Sunday’s events, the reporting for the piece dates back to last December, when Smith and Gray tagged along with a CIA-backed Afghan militia known as KPF and charged with preventing Taliban and Al Qaeda forces from crossing the border from Pakistan. Even then, it was clear to everyone involved that Pakistan was, at best, turning a blind eye to Taliban activities within its  borders and, at worst, fully supporting them. A Pakistani military spokesman appears at regular intervals throughout the piece to offer sputtering denials of these outrageous accusations, but his words ring awfully hollow in the aftermath of this weekend’s events.

Indeed, it’s clear that Taliban leaders are still moving freely around Pakistan, and one of them even agrees to an interview, in which he confirms Pakistan’s support for their cause. Of course, that support isn’t unconditional; according to Frontline’s sources, those insurgents who support Pakistan’s agenda (that is, the domination of Afghanistan) receive the country’s support, while others are rounded up and arrested as a dog-and-pony show to demonstrate cooperation with the West. The “Secret War” segment is capped by a brief interview (conducted within the last couple of days) with Steve Coll, author of The Bin Ladens, in which he explains that while pretty much everybody believes Pakistan was cooperating with Osama bin Laden, the U.S. is unlikely to pursue the matter at the risk of destabilizing a country with nuclear capabilities.

It’s hard to say how much this segment was altered over the past 48 hours or so, although I got the sense it originally focused more heavily on the CIA’s tactics, such as using remote Predator drones to fire missiles on strategic targets gleaned from on-the-ground human intelligence. In any case, next week’s episode will focus more in-depth on the ongoing U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. This week’s second segment ties into the same subject from a different angle, and while it raises more questions than it ultimately answers, it’s actually the more absorbing, fascinating piece. Hearing that Al Qaeda forces are once again active within Afghanistan, Najibullah Quraishi arranges to meet up with a mujahideen group operating in the north of the country. After trekking through the mountains for several days, Qurashi is met by a band of machine-gun wielding, motorcycle-riding insurgents, who promptly search him, blindfold him, bind his arms, and march him for several hours to meet their leader, known only as Khan.

Quraishi’s experiences with this group play out like a bizarre cross between The Road Warrior and a Monty Python sketch, punctuated with moments of sheer terror. It’s hard to take Khan and his group seriously as major players within Al Qaeda, as they spend much of their time patrolling a virtually deserted post-apocalyptic landscape on motorcycles. But serious players or not, they certainly appear to be dangerous; they’re heavily armed, they’re training pre-pubescent children in the use of those arms, and they apparently kill a man they accuse of being a spy for the infidels (although this happens off-camera and Quraishi doesn’t have the stomach to check on the body). Although many of their claims are laughable (internal estimates of their numbers range from 3-12,000, while outside observers think a total of 100 would be on the generous side), it’s genuinely chilling to watch them “relax” while listening to MP3s of their favorite Afghan clerics spouting virulent anti-American rhetoric. By the time they get around to threatening Quraishi with suicide bombers should his report turn out to portray them in a negative light, the reporter decides it’s probably about time to get back home. He vows never to return, which is kind of a shame, because I wouldn’t mind seeing a follow-up report, if only to learn whether or not Khan and company think this segment did portray them in a negative light.


Stray observations:

  • In addition to listening to radical clerics ranting about the imperialist American pig-rapers, Khan and his men like to unwind with a sport that involves throwing big rocks backwards over their heads. I didn’t catch all the rules to this one, unfortunately.
  • One Afghan shepherd’s succinct summation of why he supports the insurgents over the local government officials: “They don’t steal my sheep.”
  • Osama bin Laden: still dead.