NBC Reporter Richard Engel's Clear-Eyed Look at Afghanistan

It's some of talented NBC Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel's best reporting yet, and it couldn't have come at a more timely moment.

Engel's documentary airing Sunday night at 8 on MSNBC, Richard Engel: Tip of The Spear, comes on the eighth anniversary of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. It greatly expands on his Emmy-winning "NBC Nightly News" series on that embattled country, much in the news these days as President Obama ponders U.S. military strategy there.

Engel, a top-notch reporter who speaks Arabic (!) and who carries no political baggage around the Middle East, made his seventh appearance on Charlie Rose's PBS interview show this week to promote Sunday's doc, and it was one of the more worthwhile and newsworthy interviews Rose has done lately. Engel, who's spent months with an American infantry unit in a remote Afghan valley, gave his clear-headed, up-close version of what's been going on in that far-away embattled land. Some of his more interesting answers (from my notes, and at some points I paraphrase):

  • Engel's description of Kabul today:

It's a weird place. You'll be sitting in a hotel lobby, and some guy walks in dressed in white carrying a tennis racket. Restaurants and taxis are all operating. It looks like a normal city, with a lot of expats in the hotels. But 20 miles away, in the villages, there are firefights and bombing going on.

  • Engel on how the Afghans look at Americans in their country:
  • "They don't really hate us. They just look at us oddly and say, 'Are you still here? Why? Very little has changed in eight years," the youthful Engel, who was previously stationed in Iraq for ABC News, told Rose.

  • Rose asked Engel about the distinction increasingly heard about the difference between the Taliban and Al Qaida. Engel shrugged:
  • There really isn't that much of a difference any more. I had a Taliban commander tell me exactly that recently. They both have the same goals.

  • Rose asked if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't largely the same. Engel:
  • Not at all. In Iraq, you had a civil war, Sunnis killing Shiites, and vice-versa. You'd have Iraqis run up to American soldiers and beg them to restore some stability. It's not the same thing in Afghanistan at all. We're just the latest occupiers to them.

    Engel also said the Pakistan government and army hasn't gotten enough credit for their push back against the Taliban and Al Qaida lately, though he added, "I'm not sure it will do much good."

  • How do the Afghans regard the Taliban? Rose asked.
  • Nobody wants the Taliban to come back, but neither do they want a bunch of foreigners telling them how to run their government.

    Engel showed Rose a few clips of Sunday night's show, with Viper Company engaged in a fierce firefight with Taliban soldiers - a daily occurrence, Engel said. "Our troops have gotten a lot better at this kind of fighting," said Engel. "But so have the Taliban."

  • Should we get out of Afghanistan? Rose asked the intrepid NBC reporter.
  • Yes, replied Engel, but it's not going to be easy - or quick.