Friday, October 28, 2011

Impressions of Afghanistan

The unit of journalism is the 'story'.

Everything is composed around that idea. Beginning, middle and end. The narrative drives inexorably in one direction.

But sometimes it's not possible to fit everything into this formula, and that's why I chose a different approach with today's column . . .


Sometimes, being a journalist is like being a prospector. Every now and then you find a little gem that you think points the way to a mother lode of comprehension. Unfortunately, only too often, these nuggets send you traipsing off down the wrong path. It can take ages to find your way back to reality.

Finding ‘truth’ in a war is virtually impossible. Facts are relatively easy to come by, but stitching them together into a narrative that makes sense is quite another matter. No single story can possibly explain, or encapsulate, everything that’s happening. There’s often no single way to pull the disparate threads of truth together.

And yet today, more than a decade after our involvement in Afghanistan began, a failure to ask (and attempt to answer) the major questions represents a culpable failure of the political process. It’s now exactly a year since our parliament first ‘debated’ the conflict – an exercise in futility that only succeeded in raising more questions.

With both sides of politics inexorably determined to avoid raising the issue, this seems like a good opportunity to ask if anything has changed over the past year and examining how much progress has been made.

“Are we winning the war?” Define victory.

Will things have improved enough for us to pull out in 2014?” The political decision has already been made to get out then, regardless of the situation on the ground. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. That’s why the military strategy is operating to that time-line. Our forces will pull out, regardless of any requirement for some units to remain in an ‘over-watch’ role. This is a generational war. Nobody’s planning to be there at the end.

“So what is the best we can hope for?” There’s no silver bullet. Strengthening governance and training Afghan forces might at least postpone the Kabul government’s collapse – perhaps even indefinitely.

“Is the number of troops we have deployed ‘about right’? Politically, yes. Militarily, no.  The government made it quite clear that it won’t send any more diggers to fight. Nor do we need tanks or artillery. Almost exactly a year ago, however, our politicians and highest brass culpably and outrageously failed when they refused to send out another battalion to match the American force ‘surge’. It’s too late to increase the levels now.

“How’s the poppy crop looking?” Difficult to tell at the moment, because the seeds are still being planted. It’s looking like another bumper harvest, because it’s the main cash crop in the province. Police in Orüzgan did, however, recently burn two massive cashes of opium. This seems to be an indication the Afghan government is beginning to take the drug war seriously. The haul was large enough to allow police to retain a large number of samples to assist them in indentifying the drug in future.

How many people died this week? I am aware of at least two women and three children dying in one incident, but other reports suggest up to twelve people died in that contact. Government forces probably, accidently, killed them. That’s in just one valley; Chora district. There are six districts in the province. The correct answer is; no one knows.

“We’re simply developing and extending the strategy we’ve always been following.” Hah Ha, good one! We’ve chopped and changed, but finally appear to have worked out what we should’ve been doing all along. The new method is to use our overwhelming technical intelligence to identify insurgent commanders. The Special Operations Task Group then removes these people from the battlefield. The role of the infantry companies at the Forward Operating Bases is to mentor and stiffen Afghan National Army units. This encourages them to patrol the “green” (the cultivated area) and stop the insurgents controlling the villages.

“Does the ANA dominate the ground?” No. This is not because the Afghan soldiers aren’t capable; they are. The problem is rather that the country has been torn apart by total war for the past thirty years. Why bother dying for one régime today, when there might be another tomorrow? The aim is to convince the soldiers that they are fighting in a worthwhile cause.

“How high can marijuana grow?” Closely planted crops on an 800 sq m block in the Chora district will grow to over two meters tall. The eventual harvest is, we’re told, intended for “personal use”. Of course. All 6,400 ‘heads’.

“Are the diggers doing the ‘heavy lifting?” Yes. And no. The patrol template the battalion is operating is grueling and so is the mentoring mission. The SOTG creates vitally needed ‘space’ by sowing fear and confusion within the insurgency. However it’s the Americans who are both in front (Operational Detachment Alpha teams) and behind (Police Mentoring) our forces. That’s why a US colonel, rather than an Australian, controls the province.

“Which is the best company in 2 RAR?”  ‘D’ company appears to be the one to beat.

“What soundtrack works best for this war?” Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” seems the most appropriate music. It’s about a track through the desert; a road that goes on, and on, and on. The endless, elemental theme hints at the local issues fuelling this conflict. It’s wrong and simplistic to attempt to blame anyone person, or country, for the violence. But unless a political solution can be found the war, like the haunting music, will drag on indefinitely.

“Why do you write so much stuff that's negative about the military?" We’re back to the beginning again here, aren’t we? Facts are complex. They rarely produce a simple story that's black, or white. The real story is not that we are “winning" or “losing". If anyone tells you that, they’re lying. The situation is far more nuanced. Focusing on the detail reveals a trickle of positive aspects. But there's much more to the overall situation than that. And it's this broader story that needs to be told.

Unfortunately, everyone has another agenda. The politicians want to wish the war away, but it’s here to stay. Crossing your fingers and hoping for the best isn’t a strategy, yet no one is prepared to genuinely hold the war up for examination to work out what we should do if we stay, or if we should leave. Nobody wants to face the consequences. In the meantime, people will die.

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