Saturday, July 28, 2012


One of the vital ingredients to adequate decision making is good information.

Without this we are reduced to groping around blindly.

This makes the stupidity of AusAID's cancellation of a contract obtaining relevant intelligence in Afghanistan bizarre, as this column in todays Canberra Times attempts to make clear . . .


Last year I travelled to Afghanistan twice: both with the Australian forces and also as an independent journalist. There’s absolutely no doubt that, despite the danger and considerable risk involved, I learned far more by travelling individually. Independence allows perspective and brings the knowledge that journalism’s about. Working out what’s happening and relating it to the reader. Put like that, it sounds simple. But in the turmoil of a country at war with itself, facts are contested weapons. Determining what’s ‘true’ becomes vital.

Take a simple issue. Australia’s been, for example, developing the education capacity and building schools in the province of Orüzgan since 2006. You’d expect it’d be easy to visit schools and witness progress. After all, earlier this month Bob Carr correctly insisted that this is a vital building block of a sustainable Afghan state. He then quoted figures.
“We've done well on Afghan education” the Foreign Minister insisted, “with more than eight million students in primary schools compared to just one million under the Taliban. Our aim now is to help lift attendance to 10 million primary students, out of a school-age population of around 13 million.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? Real progress.
Perhaps, across the board, these UN based figures for the entire country may have some validity, although every expert that I’ve questioned doubts it. One academic simply laughed derisively. But look, specifically, at Orüzgan itself. After all, that’s ‘our’ province. The most recent independent study on the issue was prepared by The Liaison Office, an Afghan non-government organisation based in Kabul. It employs just a couple of foreigners (although more than a hundred locals) and has been working in this province since 2006.
Unfortunately, TLO’s latest analysis (using Afghan Education Ministry figures) shows the number of girls attending school in the province actually decreased over the past year, from 8,585 to 7,788. There’s also a “precipitous drop” in the number of girls attending after grade two. But even these figures are questionable. The Ministry claims, for example, enrolment in the Chenartu area doubled from 1,646 to 2,908 even though two schools were closed during the period. A former teacher in the Chora district who had fifteen girls enrolled insists they never attended. Even so, the province-wide enrollment is less than 40 percent of eligible children. It’s not a great deal to show for our engagement over the past six years.
It’s important to note, however, that the report (available on the web) is far more detailed than anything I can write. That’s because the picture’s complex. TLO also insists the Australian funded Malai girls high school in the provincial capital, for example, is a model school and a significant achievement. The point is that determining what’s really happening is a very complex, but vital, task.
TLO provided this sort of information for AusAID. But the government agency had decided to scrap the contract. It’s completely and utterly inexplicable. Ludicrous. This year we’ll spend $250 million on aid to Afghanistan. Allocating $7 million of that over three years to determine if the money’s being wasted doesn’t seem like a bad idea, particularly as it’s also being used to build the analytical ability of local staff.
It almost makes one wonder if AusAID didn’t appreciate any sort of independent audit into our contribution to redeveloping Afghanistan. TLO won’t comment on the issue. The relevant AusAID official appears to be overseas. This is not in any way intended as a criticism of individual workers (such as Canberran David Savage, who was recently severely wounded in a bomb-blast in the Chora), however it does raise significant questions about the effectiveness of our aid program and the context in which it’s occurring.
Despite the increasing demands for financial stringency at home the aid budget has not been cut since Labor came to power,. Maintaining this bi-partisan commitment depends on assuring Australians that the money is being spent effectively. As of today, we just don’t know if it will be. We’re depending on AusAID’s internal assessment.
The reality of operating in Afghanistan means the media has virtually no means of ascertaining what’s happening in the country. The dangers, and costs, are just too great. Despite the fact that we’ve had thousands of soldiers flying in and out of Orüzgan for so long now, the reality is that independent travel to even the former provincial capital of Khas Uruzgan is rated as foolhardy. A fifty-fifty proposition. Yet information is vital in order to work out what we’re achieving and the effectiveness of our mission to the besieged country.
Knowledge is the real key to effectiveness and particularly so in a counter-insurgency. The military likes to pretend it’s identified the ten fundamental principles of war. Obey these and victory will supposedly follow. Nevertheless, just as with any other attempt to codify life into a specific number of rules (such as the seven ‘habits’ of highly effective people) the ‘principles’ represent little more than useful guides to conduct. Nothing more; nothing less. Military officers learn to insist on the importance of ideas like ‘Surprise’, ‘Maintenance of Morale’, and ‘Concentration of Force’. Because everyone wants to get promoted, people who are otherwise quite intelligent will nod seriously whenever one of these principles is mentioned and attempt to apply them to whatever problem they’re confronted with.

Lists are important. That’s why the ‘principles’ are iconic at Staff Colleges the world over. Learning to regurgitate such ideas keeps senior officers off the streets. But let’s hope they don’t actually believe the officially approved set of principles is in any way exclusive, because it passes over perhaps the most vital of all. Information.

Intelligence resides at the very basis of all military operations. Knowledge about the enemy, the human terrain, and the geography of the conflict is vital; they are central to any battle. Without recognising this you won’t accomplish the mission. It’s the same in any endeavour. Understanding what’s happening is self-evidently critical to achieving anything. There should be no need to mention it.

Before being deployed on a mission in Orüzgan, the SAS would seek to gain information from anywhere. That’s why they read the TLO reports describing the human terrain of the province. These reports would often take longer to produce than originally scheduled, but that’s precisely because they provided a detailed picture of a map where the contours were constantly changing. Without such a guide we are, as a country, further reducing our understanding of the world.

1 comment:

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