Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Afghanistan Issues

Every now and then something finally clicks into place.

It's taken me a long time - nearly a decade - to make up my mind on the utility of Australia's (military) commitment to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, but finally I'm there. There was no single event that changed my mind, not even the continuing stream of dead bodies and wounded soldiers that we are now seeing returning home. However I now believe it is impossible to argue the case for our current deployment - the strategy is simply not working.

These two columns from the Canberra Times might help explain why . . .


Canberra Times, Saturday 3rd July

Let's begin with what intelligence officers like to call the metrics. These are basically just numbers, but it sounds so much more polished and authoritative when you wrap the concept in a bit of jargon. The figures for Afghanistan tell a simple story. Security in the country is deteriorating and the coalition is accomplishing nothing. The only year in which fewer soldiers have were killed than in the previous year was in 2003. That year, 48 US and nine other soldiers were killed, for a total of 57. Last year 521 fell, and the current number of deaths, 322 is already set to exceed the number of fallen than in any previous year. More soldiers -- 102 -- were killed in action last month than in any previous month, ever. Most died without seeing their enemy, more than half executed impersonality by bombs.

Every year more soldiers are sent and every year more soldiers are killed. The overall situation remains unchanged.

Australia has now lost 16 soldiers. Five this year, four last year, three in 2008, three in 2007 and only one in all the years before that. The Army won't say how many have been wounded, nor do we have "metrics" relating to the number of roadside bombs or the number of Afghans that have been killed. Because the only numbers we’re being given show a consistent pattern of deterioration, it's difficult not to suspect the other statistics simply emphasise the fact that the war is being lost.

The only bright light is that the ink-blot strategy, adopted in Orūzgān province where our soldiers are based, appears to be working. Slowly, very slowly, patrols are venturing further and further into the countryside and gradually, very gradually, the diggers are being accepted. In another hundred years or so, these operations might eventually be successful. The only problem is that by then, the rest of the country will have well and truly fallen to the insurgents. In the meantime, the main function of our forces is to provide targets for the Taliban.

The NATO strategy for the country isn't working. This might explain why General Stanley McChrystal felt so frustrated that he was prepared to sound off about his commander-in-chief. Now he’s kicking his heels and probably thinking of retiring to Florida, if he doesn’t launch his own presidential election campaign to try and get the White House back on track, because all the appreciations and plans coming from Washington at the moment may as well just be prettily coloured paper-flowers, for all the good they’re doing. It’s now 2010, nearly a decade since the Taliban was swept, suddenly and decisively, out of power in Kabul by a rag-tag force of the Northern Alliance. The West decided that they, and a grab-bag of other insurgents were suddenly the good guys; simply because they hadn’t plotted with Osama bin Laden. It was their fight and they won (although the US did send in small teams of special forces to assist them overthrowing the Taliban). Very quickly Afghanistan returned to what it’s always been – a landlocked, impoverished country that no one really cares about.

Then someone had an idea. Afghanistan should become a developed beacon of light to demonstrate the advantages of the Western democratic process. The farcical ‘election’ of Hamid Karzai should have led to the immediate withdrawal of our forces but instead, courtesy of Kevin Rudd, they were reinforced and now our boys are dying to support one particular corrupt, illegitimate, repressive regime rather than another.

McChrystal came up with a new strategy. NATO forces – well, the ones that were prepared to fight, which reduced it to the US and UK – would take areas that could then be held by the Afghan’s. In February, more than 15,000 British, US and Afghan forces began a massive operation around the town of Marja, an area about the size of the ACT. The Taliban eventually fled and on February 18th, after the third attempt, the national flag was flying over the squalid and bullet-pocked central bazaar. Unfortunately Taliban snipers had shot and halted the first two goes at raising the standard, but finally it seemed victory could be declared. Within a month the insurgents were back. Four bombs were exploding every day. Anyone who cooperated with the Americans was killed. Today the government forces have given up, and the Taliban roam where they want. All the gains have been surrendered.

Their message is very simple. “Pull out guy’s. No one wants you here!”

Continuing to commit Australian forces in a failed strategy to prop up a corrupt government is pointless and obscene. If the war is worth fighting there is an urgent need to change tactics. ‘Clear and hold’ is just ‘dumb and dumber’. The only option remaining is to hand the country back, retaining a tight group of special forces in place to strike quickly at any resurgence of Al Qaeda activity. The war has been lost.

Our military has already begun to do this: it’s just that no-one is prepared to admit what’s happening. The structure of our forces has been changed, without any fanfare. The Provincial Reconstruction Team has been scrapped and today there's just the sharp edge of units from offensive combat arms. While the failed Rudd was PM the government was not prepared to admit that it -- like the US -- was attempting to get out, just as fast as possible. The main motivation behind the obscurity is political. No one wants to admit to the Australian people that the war is over and we've been beaten.

Particularly not while diggers are dying and Australia is spending $1.6 billion a year on the war. The po-faced Nicola Roxon wonders where the coalition will find the money to fund its vital, urgent and necessary mental health program. She should look again at her own government’s priorities. Money is being pissed-up building walls in Afghanistan while every four hours an Australian decides to kill themselves.

And presiding over this disgrace is Senator John Faulkner. The first time he spoke in parliament Faulkner promised to pursue the needs of those with disabilities. You see, before becoming an ALP apparatchik he’d worked for years teaching and helping disabled children to live happily, and as best they could. He promised, back then, to bring these issues to the attention of the Senate. How his priorities must have changed.

In the meantime, people continue to die.


Canberra Times, Tuesday 6th July

"So how do we get our message out?" The army officer appeared puzzled. The response was short, firm and decisive: "tell the truth". Her difficulty, however, was obvious. The ‘truth’ doesn’t always appear to be the message that will show the military in the best light, which was, of course, what she wanted to do. Former journalist Prakash Mirchandani was arguing that there’s a much bigger conflict out there: one where the winner will be the source that people believe is the most credible, even if there’s the occasional bump in the road on the way.

I first met Mirchandani while we were both reporting on one of those little ‘bumps’ on the road to military perfection. On the 31st of May, 1985, a serious storm had begun to whip itself up in Bass Strait. The Freemantle-class patrol boat HMAS Wollongong was caught in the frenzy and attempted to anchor so it could escape the fury, first at Mallacoota and later it sought shelter off Gabo Island. It was here, as the tops of the waves flecked with white and the rain battered itself against the bridge late at night, that the navy suffered one of its most ignominious moments. Its boat ran aground, sticking tight on a shallow ledge of rocks.

The story was a major embarrassment for the Navy. The boat's captain, Lieutenant-Commander Ian Gulliver, was court-martialed for negligence. At the hearing Gulliver was portrayed as an arbitrary martinet who brooked no challenge to his authority. Just before the boat had run aground the petty officer in charge of the foc’sle at the front had seen surf ahead and the silhouette of land. He flashed his torch. Gulliver's reaction had been abrupt. He'd demanded "what's that clown doing with the torch?" Twenty seconds later the vessel grounded on the rocks.

Gulliver was convinced he was made the scapegoat for the embarrassing affair and later continued to appeal his case, insisting that the Navy had amended its charts after the event and the existence of the rocks was not known at the time. He got an opportunity to put his case but he was convinced the jury of his peers were biased – that they were always going to find him guilty, which, of course, they did. Gulliver wasn't satisfied and decided to make his case publically.

At the time I was working for ABC radio. I'd attended all the hearings and was beginning to think Mirchandani something of a dilettante. As the television correspondent he seemed to waltz in and out, spending time chatting instead of listening to the evidence. But then, when Gulliver was found guilty, Mirchandani tapped me on the shoulder and beckoned me away. That was when I suddenly realised why he'd been spending all that time talking to Gulliver's defence counsel. I jumped into the news crew-car and we rushed off the base. The commercial networks had been left flat-footed on the biggest story of the month. They suddenly realised we had an exclusive, but it was too late to do anything about it and the high-speed car chase through the sedate streets of Sydney's Mosman didn't last long. Soon we were pulling up at Gulliver’s barristers’ house so we could properly interview the Navy officer; getting his side of the story as well as the inevitable result of the court-martial.

Airing Gulliver's views didn't change anything, and neither did his subsequent appeals. The admirals weren't happy, but it meant that people had the opportunity to hear both sides and work out what they thought was the truth. Putting the extra information out into the public arena may even have reinforced the idea -- surprising though it may seem -- that the Navy had got it right. Mirchandani went on and had his own ups and downs, but he was right about the most vital thing: truth.

The vital issue was credibility. People don't like to be told what to think, they like to make up their own mind about what's going on and the only way to do this is by making sure all the information is out there. This is a crucial issue in the wars of the 21st century.

Under Professor Hugh White, the ANU’s Strategic Defence Studies Centre is currently engaged in a real effort to attempt to tease out the fundamentals that determine success or failure in war. Back in the 1980s, in the days of the balance of nuclear terror, it had already cemented its reputation as one of the leading institutes for strategic analysis, but studies were then consumed with nuclear payloads and mega-tonnage. A genuine war between the two major adversaries appeared impossible because, in the wake of a nuclear exchange, the idea of victory was meaningless.

Today, however, all that has changed. Conflicts (like Afghanistan, previously considered "peripheral") have, in the wake of the World Trade Centre attacks become redefined as central to our existence. A real attempt is being made to investigate the broader dimensions of warfare. This includes the social dimension of the confrontation, which takes on a critical role in a Western democratic society like Australia.

Everyone "knows" that Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America (and Australia). The old black-and-white TV's vomited out pictures of naked, crying children running away from burning napalm and support for the war evaporated. It's the same today when it comes to Afghanistan. It's lovely to hear that our soldiers over there believe they're doing something vital and the diggers who are killed haven't given their lives in vain. But their ground-level view from inside fox-holes or behind the blast-barriers back at base isn't quite the same as the broader perspective of analysts who have been covering the region for years. Instead of simply spewing out its controlled, simplistic message of "our boys, doing the right thing", Defence has got to open up to provide a broader perspective of what's really going on.

Then we might begin to wonder why five Aussie diggers were wounded by improvised bombs over the weekend, simply for driving down the road. They didn't capture any Taliban, and it's difficult to believe they increased the security for the locals. Perhaps they were just providing targets. It would be nice to know the truth.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Nic

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