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Frontline: "Kill/Capture"

Illustration for article titled Frontline: "Kill/Capture"
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The title "Kill/Capture" refers on a shift in U.S. military strategy in Afganistan, one that is said to have resulted in the killing or capture of "more than 12,000 militants in the past year." Depending on whom you ask, the kill/capture campaign represents either an abandonment or an expansion of the highly touted counterinsurgency campaign, whose stated aim was to win over the hearts and minds of Afgans who might otherwise be tempted to throw in their lot with the Taliban. "Counterinsurgency doctrine," a poreless-looking Pentagon advisor explains, "believes in killing people, it just believes in killing the right people. And what's happened over the past five years is we've gotten far, far better at correlating human intelligence and signals intelligence to paint a very tight, coherent picture of who the enemy is and where the enemy hangs his hat. And we've gotten better at using precision firepower to give those people very, very bad days."

According to the familiar voice of the Frontline narrator, the kill/capture campaign "is waged by both special operations forces and conventional troops. But leading and directing the program is a secretive counterterrorism unit within special forces known as Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. It was JSOC that carried out the operation that killed Osama bin Laden." And, in turn, it was the killing of bin Laden that made this episode of Frontline even timelier than it was when it was put into production last year. The reporting isn't a rush job—the filmmaking team worked on it for six months—but the episode wasn't originally scheduled for broadcast this week, and maybe, in the race to get it on the air, a few nuts and bolts that otherwise would have been tightened up in the editing room were allowed to remain loose. This is not Frontline's most precisely laid-out hour. But the episode does make a compelling case that, when the warm glow cast by the death of bin Laden dissipates, what's left behind is an approach that may be doing as least as much harm as good. What really sets it apart, though, is that it includes an impressive selection of things not going the way the military press liaison figured they would when he approved the filming, something that has been lacking in news footage from combat zones since the Pentagon wised up after Vietnam.

Early on, the cameras tag along with the 101st Airborne Division as they charge into a town where they believe a Taliban leader is hiding out. What happens is described by the narrator in blunt terms: "They discover their intelligence is wrong. They've raided the wrong place. This is the home of a tribal elder who claims to support the government, not the Taliban." Actually, his claims to support the government dry up pretty much as soon as he sees their boots coming through his front door: ranting (in subtitles), "This is why people are so upset. This makes me feel like joining the Taliban to fight against you. You're disrespecting me," the guy sounds like a Chicago ward boss threatening to switch his party allegiance after receiving an FBI warrant to go through his fridge. Finding a small cache of weapons but not the man they were looking for, the soldiers decide to make the elder in for questioning—whether regretfully, or to avoid the embarrassment of going home empty-handed, it's hard to say. In any event, the elder was "released without charge a few hours later."

The U.S. soldiers are careful to conduct these raids while accompanied by Afghan forces. But to judge from what we're shown here, this doesn't mollify the crowds who gather to chastise the Afghan soldiers, it just makes the soldiers shame-faced and causes them to wonder if they're in the wrong line of work. You get a sense of how frustrating, if not deranging, life has become for the locals in an interlude involving a former Taliban commander named Abdul Aziz, who got tired of running from U.S. forces and switches sides. Now he works for the Afghan government, and leads a small force of armed man who are supposed to be tracking down his old Taliban comrades. When the Frontline crew checks in with them, they haven't tracked down shit. They also haven't been paid yet by their new employees, and "are cold and hungry. And they are very worried that at some point, they might actually have to fight their former Taliban friends."

Aziz complains bitterly about his situation to the camera: "When I was with the Taliban, things were different. People used to welcome us. When we came to a village, they would invite us in and they would be very hospitable. The people were so happy to see us then. Now they're not. I don't know why. They're not welcoming any more. Now we have to work with no support." When one of Aziz's men comes to tell him that he's been informed—by someone who mistakenly assumed that he himself was still with the Taliban—that there are wanted men hiding in his house, Aziz excuses himself to go see the man himself and negotiate, and then, forgetting that he's still wired for sound, he finds the man hiding the Taliban and resumes his bitching: "I joined the government side about a month ago, but the Taliban are still my brothers. Look, we don't like the Americans. We've had bad experiences with them. They're infidels. They are the enemies of our religion, our nation and our honor. If God makes the Taliban successful, then we will be Taliban again. Do you understand? On that day, we will be Taliban." What makes this  segment both weirdly funny and weirdly poignant is that Aziz falls so far short of the public image of a Taliban leader as a wild-eyed fanatic. He's just a guy whose midlife career change isn't working out and whose pension plan isn't all that rosy. He's trying to make the best of a situation that doesn't make sense to him, and in that, he's got a lot of company.

"Capture/Kill" also reports on an air strike in Takhar last September that killed several people, and that the military regards as a success because the body count included the man who was the stated target of the mission—only the Afghan government itself, as well as investigative group called the Afghan Analysts Network, believes that the dead man was innocent of Taliban involvement and U.S. military intelligence had confused him with someone else, who was a player with the Taliban and who's still alive. The least charming irony on display in the program may be that the people who were killed were campaign workers who were said to be in a celebratory mood over the coming of the democratic process to Afghanistan.


The narrator cites the U.S. commanders' argument that "this unprecedented violence could actually be a sign that the strategy is working." That may not exactly be Catch-22, but it is, New Yorker reporter Dexter Filkins says, "one of the great paradoxes of the war. What the military commanders will tell you is, look, things are going to get worse before they get better. And so right now, they're worse." "Capture/Kill" leaves you with an image of chaos fueling chaos, of violence that's intended to stamp out violence feeding the anger and rage that produces more violence. And this violence is in the service of a fledging democratic government that seems so weak that even the people who think the strategy is working are unconvinced that, if the U.S. ever leaves any part of Afghanistan, the Taliban won't immediately roll back in and retake control. It leaves you with the simple feeling that this shit is never going to stop.