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Courage under fire in Afghanistan

In `Green Berets,' U.S. forces and the Afghan army battle the resurging Taliban.

June 02, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

One of the Green Berets in the National Geographic Channel special "Inside the Green Berets" is sanguine about duty in the hinterlands of Afghanistan, where U.S. forces and the Afghan army are in a daily struggle to thwart a resurging Taliban.

"If we get blowed up, we get blowed up," he says. "If we don't, we don't."

Afghanistan was where the Bush administration's war on terrorism began in 2001 with the quick knockdown of the Taliban and the captive government in Kabul. Now Afghanistan has slipped from the front pages, edged out by the war in Iraq, but the fight continues.

National Geographic has done a yeoman job of explaining the "cat and mouse" nature of the conflict between Green Berets at Fire Base Cobra and Taliban insurgents hiding in the mountains.

The soldiers try to win villagers away from supporting the Taliban. The insurgents intimidate the villagers and try to kill the U.S. forces with snipers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Fueling the situation is a spy and communication network that enables insurgents to track the Americans' moves, planting roadside bombs along the way. (IEDs, says one Green Beret, are "the coward's way of fighting.")

The intrigue on the U.S. side includes electronic gear that helps hear the insurgents talking. Plus there's a $100 bounty for each IED turned in by a villager. It's a war that pits Western money and technology against jihadist fervor.

The Green Berets, young, bearded and engaging, are candid in their assessments. As one says of the Afghan soldiers, "They can bite you. You can't put your full trust in them, but we'll trust them as much as we can."

For openers, the National Geographic crew had to break through the secrecy that the U.S. Special Forces insists upon. The crew's stay with the unit was limited to 10 days, and only the soldiers' first names could be used. Afghan faces were obscured.

Just why the Green Berets find it necessary to hold themselves so aloof is never explained. The job the Cobra group is doing is not much different from what Marine and regular Army units are doing elsewhere in Afghanistan -- units that invite reporters to stay for as long as they like and are not reluctant to let their complete names be printed.

That quibble aside, "Inside" has great photography and quick pacing, and it packs an emotional wallop. The scenes of a nighttime mission as the soldiers try to out-fox an insurgent IED squad are heart-pounding. The denouement is heart-rending.

Rob, a Green Beret commander, feels progress is being made. Villagers are coming around, he says: "The Taliban is constantly threatening these people. I think they've just had enough." At a gathering in a village, elders appeal for help to stop the insurgents from bombing their communities.

The berets have a daunting task, and "Inside" makes no claim that victory is close, or even achievable. In fact, producer-director Steven Hoggard is clear on one point: All will be for naught unless the Afghan army is someday able to assume the security burden from the U.S.

In that regard, it sounds a lot like another war-torn country where U.S. troops are engaged in a war with no end in sight.


`Inside the Green Berets'

Where: National Geographic Channel

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-VL (may be unsuitable for children under 14, with advisories for violence and coarse language)

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