'I just don't see how this ends': a sobering new film on the Afghan war

In The Longest War, documentarian Greg Barker places America’s intervention in Afghanistan under the microscope

For the past eight years, Showtime’s geopolitical thriller Homeland has spun twisty prestige drama from the goings-on behind the scenes of the war on terror. As Carrie Mathison, the CIA operative turned private contractor turned non-profit worker turned presidential adviser turned gulag prisoner at the center of the series, Claire Danes has put an expressive face on America’s deeply flawed, ethically dubious intervention in the Middle East. But for the final season, which wraps up this month, the producers wanted to de-sensationalize and get back to the hard facts.

That’s when Greg Barker got the call that would ultimately result in The Longest War, his new documentary airing this Sunday night on Showtime, in anticipation of the finale. “The executive producers of Homeland do this deep dive in Washington every year, talking to policymakers about whatever the next season’s themes will be,” Barker tells the Guardian. “In the course of doing that, [executive producers] Alex [Gansa] and Howard [Gordon] were stunned by the stories they were hearing about the war in Afghanistan.”

Gansa and Gordon went to Showtime and inquired about the possibility of putting together a companion report of sorts, to complement their last batch of new episodes. The top brass knew to approach Barker, who has established himself as a seasoned pro with a string of issue-driven films from the frontlines of US foreign policy. “I’ve got experience in that world,” he says, “I’ve been to Afghanistan. I’ve got a good partnership with [national security journalist] Peter Bergen, his wife and professional partner Tresha Mabile, who both know this world intimately as well. I said I’d definitely do it, and the project came out of the discussions about what the last season of Homeland would be.”

Barker zeroed in on America’s presence in Afghanistan, a disorganized campaign stretching back several decades to Carter’s administration in the 80s, as what he calls an “agency war”. Through the many presidencies spanning both political parties, the war’s constant has been the CIA’s string-pulling out of sight. “The agency has taken the lead on this war all the way through,” Barker says, “certainly in terms of its origins, which go back to the CIA efforts against the Soviets and the immediate aftermath of 9/11.” He assembles a clear timeline tracing the agency’s dysfunction from the headquarters in Langley to their base in Kabul, as ulterior motives and mission creep – memorably amended by one soundbite to “mission fantasy” – extend and worsen a single, unbroken war.

Naturally, Barker’s work of arranging and organizing information wasn’t as simple as reciting that chronology as it stands today. “It was a fast turnaround,” he recalls. “We started production in November. I had a massive team and a lot of help, but with something like that, we had to know what we were doing from the outset. Normally, in documentaries, you might have a year or more in the editing room alone, which leaves time to try out different structures. We did not have that. I said, ‘Look, we’ll divide it up into eight chapters.’ War against the Soviets, pre-9/11, post-9/11, real broad strokes. My goal was not to tell a comprehensive history, but to give a general overview of the emotional journey in this war. We had to stick to that structure, which luckily worked out in the end.”

The hasty production schedule dictated that Barker and his team would rely primarily on interviews and archival materials, in a departure from his more “experimental and granular” work. Barker and his close collaborators Bergen and Mabile came in knowing they wouldn’t have the latitude to do a “full-bore investigative” approach, but they managed to break new ground all the same. They gained access to some authorities who had never before gone on record, such as the recently retired CIA officer Lisa Maddox, who provides a sobering inside take on the subject. “I just don’t see how this ends,” she says quietly, in one of the documentary’s talking-head segments.

Maddox’s contributions underscore one of the key aspects of Barker’s portrayal: that this has been an across-the-aisle effort kept active through endorsements from generations of politicians. While his work touches on highly sensitive national themes, he refrains from side-taking. “I think Afghanistan is one of those wars where it’s not helpful to look at it through a partisan lens. It’s more helpful to think of it as institutional. It shows, for me, what happens when you lose your focus in foreign relations. A couple times, it was clear what the war was about: we’re going to depose the Soviets, we’re going to get Bin Laden. But for the many years in between, there was no focus in Washington while people were thinking of other things.“

Breshna Musazai in The Longest War
Breshna Musazai in The Longest War. Photograph: Courtesy of Showtime

He continues: “Obama, had he wanted to find a way to get out of Afghanistan, could have found a way out. The CIA needed the drone bases there too badly. It’s been tough to pull out. I think Trump wants to, though his policy stances don’t always hold up to analysis.”

In the film and the interview, Barker conveys his major bullet points in overarching terms, more crash course than college course. Showtime tasked him with covering a lot of ground in a compact allotment of time, which forced him to rethink the minutiae-oriented methods he bred back at Frontline at PBS. “Most storytelling, narrative or non-fiction, is a matter of knowing what to leave out,” he explains. “How much exposition is necessary? Particularly in talking about Afghanistan, which could fill an entire encyclopedia. I estimate that for an audience watching a 90-minute documentary, they might walk away remembering half a dozen moments. They’ll recall those moments more clearly when they’re grounded in emotion that can come back to you.”

He’s dead-on about the potency that a little bit of sentiment can wield in a work chiefly designed to educate. Discussing war lends itself to a focus on dates, figures and concepts, but the elusive human element ties Barker’s film together. He selects footage emphasizing that this shouldn’t be seen as some vague history, but rather a recollection of real things that happened to real people not so long ago.

“Peter and Tresha and I felt strongly about including Afghan voices in this film, so Peter went to Afghanistan in December, he had some contacts. It’s important to remember that all policy has a human face. Real people around the world suffer the consequences that people make on paper, in theory, in the abstract.”

In both The Longest War and Barker’s other upcoming project – his first narrative film, a biopic of the UN diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello due on Netflix this weekend – he puts globally scaled events in terms of the personal toll they exact. Having spent the first 85 minutes of The Longest War confronting his audience with troubling patterns of international negligence, Barker concludes on an optimistic note. He turns his camera on Afghan university scholars, fantasizing about the brighter future they might bring to their country. The moment lands as a rejoinder to Maddox’s learned hopelessness, a declaration that so long as decent people continue making the effort, war cannot extinguish the promise of a better tomorrow

“At the end of the film, those university students who still want to graduate and return to their country after surviving a terrorist attack – that’s the endurance of the human spirit I want to leave viewers with,” Barker says. “There’s a way out of the darkness. You have to cling to hope if you want to make a difference.”

  • The Longest War premieres in the US on Showtime on 19 April and at the UK at a later date


Charles Bramesco

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘This is what it was like’: reliving the devastating US withdrawal from Afghanistan
In the harrowing documentary Escape from Kabul, first-hand accounts and archival footage bring us back to a terrifying time in 2021

Adrian Horton

21, Sep, 2022 @6:57 PM

Article image
‘This massive undertaking was invisible’: film glimpses behind the curtain as Covid vaccine was made
Acclaimed film-maker David France’s How to Survive a Pandemic on HBO documents ‘a scientific undertaking unlike any in our lifetime’

Adrian Horton

30, Mar, 2022 @1:52 PM

Article image
Netflix’s Bubba Wallace docuseries ends up losing the race
The Nascar driver’s tumultuous time at the top is a fascinating story but a muddled and pandering series doesn’t do him justice

Andrew Lawrence

24, Feb, 2022 @7:06 AM

Article image
Hack the vote: terrifying film shows how vulnerable US elections are
In the documentary Kill Chain, the weaknesses of America’s basic election infrastructure are laid bare

Adrian Horton

26, Mar, 2020 @1:23 PM

Article image
‘Like a horror film’: revisiting the Fyre-esque disaster of Woodstock 99
A new documentary surveys the mess of Woodstock 1999 – a disaster of poor planning and a microcosm of toxic masculinity, raunch culture and entitlement

Adrian Horton

22, Jul, 2021 @2:47 PM

Article image
Life of Crime: a shocking film about three decades of addiction and incarceration
The often brutal HBO documentary follows 36 years in the life of a trio in New Jersey in the throes of vicious addictions

Adrian Horton

30, Nov, 2021 @3:03 PM

Article image
'A defining story of our time': the film-maker giving a face to family separation
In documentary Torn Apart, Ellen Goosenberg Kent tells the story of two mothers, detained from their children, seeking a better life in the US

Adrian Horton

10, Oct, 2019 @6:30 AM

Article image
‘The crisis was manufactured’: inside a damning film on the origins of the opioid epidemic
Alex Gibney’s two-part docuseries The Crime of the Century reframes the opioid crisis as a crime of fraudulent marketing and callous corporate greed

Adrian Horton

10, May, 2021 @6:07 AM

Article image
‘She’s more than just a murder victim’: the life and death of film-maker Adrienne Shelly
The HBO documentary Adrienne, directed by the late artist’s husband, explores the life, murder, and legacy of the writer and director of Waitress

Adrian Horton

01, Dec, 2021 @6:39 AM

Article image
‘This was Black Camelot’: looking back on Obama’s journey to the top
In a dense new docuseries, the personal and political journey of Barack Obama is explored along with the difficult tightrope he was forced to walk

David Smith in Washington

28, Jul, 2021 @2:48 PM