On the Front Lines of War

blog post photo

by Tresha Mabile, Talibanistan producer

On assignment for National Geographic Explorer in October 2009 and February 2010, cameraman Richard Parry and I traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan to document the ongoing war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Although I have produced three documentaries in war-torn Iraq, and another on the drug war in Afghanistan, I have never before pondered the concept of “being shot” versus “being shot at.” Odd that the topic came up while I was documenting a military mission to “win hearts and minds.”

Afghanistan, October 2009

I met my husband, Peter Bergen, in Afghanistan, so needless to say the country is very special to me. Afghanistan and Pakistan loom above our kitchen table like the Hindu Kush Mountains loom over Kabul.

I have wanted to document how counterinsurgency works in the field ever since General David Petraeus and his team of counterinsurgency experts changed the course of the Iraq war with their “surge of ideas.” A new army program that helps the military better understand the culture where they are operating, known as the Human Terrain System, is part of that surge.

In a counterinsurgency war, success is more likely if the military can separate the public from the hard-core militants and then focus on fighting them alone. The goal of the social scientists and anthropologists is to provide the military with research about the tribal structures and to help lure the public to side with the Afghan government.

Journalists traveling to forward operating bases throughout Afghanistan normally route through Bagram Air Force Base. So, it was here that I spent my 42nd birthday awaiting military transport to Kapisa Province. As birthdays go it wasn’t one to savor — I had lunch at Burger King; I went shopping at the commissary for Dove soap; and had an MRE (military-issued meal ready to eat in a box) for dinner.

At midnight, Richard and I hopped a military transport helicopter and a few hours later were unceremoniously dropped, along with our gear, in a dark and vast field as the helicopter departed leaving a mushroom cloud of dust. I should add that the combined weight of my armored vest and my backpack is at least my body weight. I have never been much help to Richard, who juggles a tripod and numerous bags that, as he is apt to remind me, used to take a team of four to transport.

As we stood in the dark, I realized that my flashlight was not on hand and that I had no hope of locating my phone in my huge purse. I dreaded the “what next” question that I knew Richard was about to ask… just as I was mentally re-visiting how and why I had landed here on my birthday, a tall thin man emerged from the dust cloud and began piling our gear onto a golf cart that, now visible, was parked nearby. Richard hopped into the back and I squeezed between the driver and the tall man in the front seat and then we were off.

The tall thin man was Matt Arnold, the team’s social scientist. Matt has a PhD in international relations from the London School of Economics and has worked in Africa and Asia as an aid worker. Now, he is in charge of mapping the cultural terrain in Kapisa Province. John Green, an attorney from Austin, Texas and former Army colonel is in charge of the team. The head of the program, Steve Fondacaro, and the lead social scientist in charge of the program, Dr. Montgomery McFate, were also traveling with us.

It was Matt who pointed out the difference between “being shot” and “being shot at.” The next day we were going to meet with locals who had complaints about a construction project. Matt suspected the Taliban might try to disrupt the meeting.

A shura is a gathering of local tribesmen and villagers who come to hear what the elders have to say. In Afghanistan nothing gets done without first having a shura.

I have attended more than my fair share of these meetings. They begin with a serving of tea and nuts, and then massive portions of food are doled out, and then the meeting usually escalates into an emotionally charged debate. At about 20 minutes in I’m usually read up on the facts. At this point my local guide stops translating; a few hours later, it’s on to the traditional gift-giving; and then more tea, followed finally by more traditional gift-giving and then warm goodbyes.

But this shura was different. The team had expected a huge crowd. Only the elders bothered to show up. This was a sure sign that a Taliban attack was imminent. As the human terrain team and the locals began to hash out the details of the construction project, the Taliban started to fire from the mountains.

The firefight raged for about two hours. Inside the compound the meeting proceeded as if gunshots and Hellfire missiles were not whizzing about. Now I understood what Matt meant: much better to be “shot at” than “shot.”

Video Preview: Risking Death With Each Step

Pakistan, October 2009 and February 2010

To venture into the tribal region of Pakistan, a journalist risks being murdered, kidnapped, or being struck by a drone. But I desperately wanted to film the notorious graveyard of empires and to see the vast network of mountains where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding. So, I asked a Pakistan general to take me there. And, he agreed to do so.

Since I began working on this documentary, the Pakistani military has launched two major campaigns to root the Taliban out of their country.

What was immediately clear to me was that the Pakistan military had achieved what has eluded Western forces in Afghanistan for eight years — the wholehearted support of the public.

In Pakistan, the Taliban have certainly helped the military and government to win support of their people. As we traveled the country in October 2009 and February 2010, it seemed as though we were only one step ahead of the Taliban’s war. As we traveled between Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Kohat, Khyber, and Swat we witnessed the tragedies that the Taliban had unleashed on the civilians of Pakistan. Bombing markets, a school for girls, and police stations, they seemed to constantly stoop to a new low.

There have been legitimate questions in the past about the Pakistan military’s will to fight the Taliban. On the frontlines of their war, I met Lt. General Masood Aslam — the Pakistan equal to General Stan McChrystal. I had interviewed General Aslam in early October in Swat as he was busily going about the work of a man finishing one campaign and preparing to execute another (South Waziristan). When I asked him about the complications of a military fighting its own people, he dryly explained the history of the tribal people, why it was difficult and necessary to fight them, and then regaled me with history, as military men are apt to do.

When I saw the general again in February, he was a changed man. He carried the look and the burden that only a parent who has lost a child knows. The Taliban had recently shot his only son in a mosque at Army Headquarters. When I asked him about the tragic day, he told me that he was no different from hundreds of other mothers and fathers who had also lost children in this war.

Check the Explorer “Talibanistan” site for the next airing.

Heading on over to the other war, catch “Inside the Iraq War” airing Sunday August 1 at 9P et/pt.


  1. sarnold
    June 10, 2010, 3:19 pm

    I think that this show is excellent, it not only provides rare views of Afghanistan and Pakistan that we only read about but also gives insight into reasons the conflict is ongoing and so difficult.

    I’m Matt Arnold’s mom and I must say that although he has written about the Taliban attacks that are carried out throughout their meetings, it was difficult for me to actually see this taking place.

    His writings have put a face on the Afghani people for me, helping me to realize the horrible enduring difficulties they live with.

    Matt’s role in life seems to be evolving to one of artiulating the needs oppressed, suffering people. In his work with the UN he conducted interviews and then wrote about plight of the Sudanese, those in East Timur and Miramar and many others.

    So I’m proud of Matt but as a mother can only worry when he’s quoted "It’s better than to be shot at than to be shot"

  2. quaint123
    June 13, 2010, 7:38 pm

    Steve Fondacaro was fired.

    Read review of NGC US Army backed Talibanistan at zeroanthrpology.net

    Read 30 pieces on HTS troubles at cryptome.org or just use search engine to find more about HTS. NGC clearly did not do due diligence here.