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FRONTLINE: America And The Taliban, Parts 1-3

FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith speaks with Taliban officials and the governor of Helmand Province in Afghanistan.
FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith speaks with Taliban officials and the governor of Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

Premieres Tuesdays, April 4, 11 and 25, 2023 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV / PBS App

How did the U.S. lose the war in Afghanistan? Who bears responsibility? And what has been the human cost? FRONTLINE investigates those questions in an epic, three-part documentary series, AMERICA AND THE TALIBAN, premiering April 4, 11, and 25, 2023 on PBS and online.

Drawing on 20 years of on-the-ground reporting and revealing new interviews with both U.S. and Taliban officials, award-winning producers Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith chronicle how what began in the wake of the 9/11 attacks as an effort to eliminate Al Qaeda and oust its ruling ally, the Taliban, became America’s longest war — and how it ended in defeat in August 2021 with U.S. troops withdrawing, the Western-backed government collapsing, nearly 50,000 Afghan civilians dead, approximately 2,400 American servicemembers killed, and the Taliban once again in control.

FRONTLINE: America and the Taliban (Part 1)

“For all the lives and money spent, over two trillion dollars, Afghanistan has regressed to what it was before America invaded, a country where women are denied an education, music is banned, beards for men are mandatory and homosexuality is punishable by death,” says Smith, who hasmbeen covering Afghanistan and the Middle East for FRONTLINE for two decades. “Our new series traces the mistakes, miscalculations and hubris that allowed this to happen.”

Over the last 18 months, Smith pressed former U.S. military leaders and officials — including retired Gen. David Petraeus and retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute — about America’s approach in Afghanistan, and sat down with U.S. soldiers and Marines who carried that approach out. He spoke with U.S. diplomats, among them former ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the 2020 deal with the Taliban to end the war.

On the ground in Afghanistan, Smith met and asked tough questions of numerous Taliban officials, many of whom have never before spoken publicly, among them senior members of the powerful Haqqani clan and the governor of Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province. Smith also interviewed former high-ranking members of the Afghan government, the former commander of Afghanistan’s Special Forces, and numerous Afghan civilians — including, in powerful split-screens, people he first met while reporting in Afghanistan years earlier and tracked down again now to see how their lives have changed. Ultimately, Smith and the rest of the film team pieced together a trail of missteps and missed opportunities dating back to the war’s very beginning.

FRONTLINE Presses Taliban Officials About Conditions in Afghanistan | America and the Taliban

“People asked, what was the American strategy? The Americans did not have a strategy for Afghanistan,” says Barnett Rubin, former special advisor to the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan and a leading American expert on Afghanistan.

Over the course of three nights in April, the documentary series shows how America’s defeat in Afghanistan became inevitable. Smith presses retired Gen. Petraeus and retired Lt. Gen. Lute on Afghan civilian casualties incurred during “night raids” by U.S. forces — part of a pattern of Afghan civilian casualties that undercut the U.S. military’s effort to win “hearts and minds.”


“The accumulation of civilian casualties — mistakes, all mistakes, to be clear — I mean, we were very, very tough,” says Petraeus, former commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.“War is full of mistakes. Full of incredible loss, tragedy, heartbreak, hardship and casualties.”

“We virtually never held anyone accountable for civilian casualties,” Lute tells Smith. “I mean, we paid condolences and sometimes we said, ‘It wasn’t us. We’re sorry. It’s a mistake.’ But we never held anybody accountable.”

FRONTLINE: America and the Taliban (Part 2)

Tracing the war effort across four U.S. presidential administrations, America and the Taliban unspools how the Taliban was able to regain ground over the years — and ultimately retake control of Afghanistan in the chaotic and deadly final weeks of the U.S. withdrawal.

“We have a responsibility to understand our role in leading to this tragedy,” Lute tells Smith about how the war ended. The third and last hour of the series traces that ending, and what led to it, in devastating detail. “We didn’t just feel like we were being cut out,” says Hamdullah Mohib, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s closest aide and head of the National Security Council, of how the U.S. government excluded the Afghan government from 2018-2020 peace negotiations with the Taliban. “We felt that our government was being de-legitimized. The signal was, the Taliban are the key player now and that is who is coming.”

The film team spoke with women and girls who have been profoundly impacted by the Taliban’s return to power in their country: “When my brother goes off to school I feel like I’m unable to grow anymore,” a teenage girl named Arifa says. “I feel like I’m living in a prison. I feel like I’m no longer a member of Afghanistan.”

And they spoke with U.S. soldiers who believe their military and political leaders failed them.

“Let’s not say, ‘Oh, well, at the end of the day, it was worth it,’” retired Army Lt. Colonel Jason Dempsey, who served two tours in Afghanistan, tells Smith. “It wasn’t. It was not worth it. We wasted tons, billions upon billions of dollars, thousands of lives, both ours and Afghans, and we did not achieve what we wanted to achieve. And let's not pretend otherwise.”

U.S. ‘Virtually Never Held Anyone Accountable’ for Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan War, Former White House Official Says

Premiering as FRONTLINE marks 40 years on the air, AMERICA AND THE TALIBAN is one of nearly 20 documentaries from the acclaimed investigative series involving the war in Afghanistan and its far-reaching consequences. Smith and Gaviria have been behind a number of those investigations, including "In Search of Al Qaeda," "The War Briefing," "Obama’s War," "Kill/Capture" and "Return of the Taliban."

RELATED: 18 Essential Documentaries on Afghanistan, the Taliban and America’s Longest War

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Watch On Your Schedule:

AMERICA AND THE TALIBAN airs Tuesdays, April 4, 11 and 25, 2023, at 10/9c on PBS and on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel. Each episode will also be available to stream starting at 7/6c the night of its release at and in the PBS App.

FRONTLINE: Afghanistan Undercover


A FRONTLINE production with RAIN Media, Inc. The producers are Brian Funck, Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith. The writers and directors are Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith. The correspondent is Martin Smith. The co-producer is Scott Anger. The executive producer and editor-in-chief for FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath. Distributed internationally by PBS International.