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Koppel tackles war, its toll on U.S.

March 10, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

The thesis of "Koppel on Discovery: Our Children's Children's War," set for Sunday night on the Discovery Channel, is direct and unsettling: The U.S. war on extremism has only just begun.

"We'll need a generation to face down this threat," newly retired Gen. John Abizaid, former commander of the U.S. Central Command, tells Ted Koppel.

Abizaid is speaking of the much wider conflict outside Iraq, particularly in Afghanistan and Africa. And he warns that it is probably just a matter of time before a non-state-actor -- read: terrorist group -- gets its own nuclear weapon.

"Koppel on Discovery" visits Djibouti and Ethiopia and various points in Afghanistan, with a side trip to North Carolina to visit the headquarters of Blackwater Inc., which provides a kind of private army that is doing battle for the U.S. in Iraq and elsewhere.

It's a top-notch effort, very Koppel-esque, reminiscent of the best of his "Nightline" years, no punches pulled, serious journalism to the core. The point of view is strong but not doctrinaire.

"Listen to much of the political discourse these days and you could easily draw the conclusion that once U.S. troops pull out of Iraq, America's involvement in the 'long war' will be over," says Koppel.

That conclusion is not only wrong, it's delusional and dangerous, "Koppel on Discovery" suggests. Osama bin Laden and his spawn are ready for decades of conflict, including strikes in the U.S.

And much of that conflict will require the U.S. military to do something different than its classic mission of overwhelming an enemy force. The phrase "hearts and minds" is in disrepute. The new buzz phrase is "human terrain," but it still means winning friends among people prone to distrust all outsiders, particularly Americans.

"But if that is the terrain the U.S. is trying to conquer, the war is not going well," Koppel concludes.

Fanned by Arab media and the insurgents' adroit use of the Internet, hatred of America is rampant, "Koppel on Discovery" suggests. Among the populace, "standing up" to America is a virtue, whatever the consequences.

It's only an aside, but there are hints in "Koppel on Discovery" that by invading Iraq, the U.S. fell into a kind of terrorist trap of overreaction. The theory is that every civilian casualty, whether caused by the U.S. or the insurgents, rebounds to the detriment of the U.S. effort to win over the civilian population.

"Koppel on Discovery" believes that the U.S. is not geared up for a long struggle, not in its politics nor in the size and capability of its active-duty military.

The job of training a commando unit of Ethiopians is given over to a National Guard group from Guam, for example.

"Our military is quite stretched," explains the former CIA official who runs the for-profit Blackwater. "They have trouble being all things to all people."

Enter the contractors -- Koppel tries mightily to get them to admit they're modern mercenaries. Hundreds have been killed in Iraq. They function largely outside of public view and are almost as secretive as the U.S. Special Forces.

The Discovery Channel is Koppel and his crew's new home, and this in-depth documentary is a result of the freedom they have there. In such perilous times, it's good to have them on the beat.


`Koppel on Discovery'

Where: Discovery Channel

When: 9 to 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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