Truth in war: what the ADF won’t tell us about Afghanistan

How is the war in Afghanistan going? With media this tightly controlled, the picture may never be clear. Special Operations Command

Barack Obama marked the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death with a surprise visit to Kabul this week. Obama promised to “finish the job” in Afghanistan, but seven were killed in Kabul just hours after the US President departed.

How well are things going for the coalition forces in Afghanistan? It’s increasingly hard to tell.

In 2008, Britain’s most senior military commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, offered a gloomy assessment of the coalition’s prospects there: “We’re not going to win this war. It’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency.”

He was not alone in this view. His own ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles had reputedly claimed that coalition strategy was “doomed to fail”. This position was echoed in a contemporaneous US National Intelligence Estimate draft report – the consensus of 16 intelligence agencies – which concluded that Afghanistan was in a “downward spiral”.

Carleton-Smith and Cowper-Cowles are long gone. In the new landscape of information dominance and regimented optimism, their frankness – like their names – seems to belong to a lost age of gentleman adventurers and pith helmets.

The investment of dwindling political capital, countless billions in funds and thousands of allied lives have made the coalition commitment in Afghanistan a high-stakes game in which there is no room for dissonance from the away team.

The PR war

The more that coalition failure looks likely, the more doggedly are the caste marks of defeat resisted and denied. Once a war of military conquest, then a counter-insurgency battle for hearts and minds. The war in Afghanistan is now, more than ever before, a struggle for narrative plausibility – for a credible account of how, and where, the coalition effort in Afghanistan is going.

The ADF’s narrative may not fit the truth. Special Operations Command

In Australia, both the government and the military have consistently regarded the war as a straightforward public affairs challenge to which each has responded with a dedicated narrative of positive progress.

The government has stuck to the argument that the ADF is fighting to ensure Afghanistan can never again become a haven for terrorists, that the armed forces are providing a “forward defence” against threats to domestic security.

This was dismissed by independent MP Andrew Wilkie as a “great lie” and has been openly scoffed at by security experts, defence commentators and casual observers alike.

All quiet on the Afghan front?

For the military, the narrative of positive progress is most persistently propounded through the Department of Defence’s “Media ops” press releases, which offer an undiluted stream of encouraging news from Afghanistan.

Steady advances in Afghan National Army (ANA) capacity and operational effectiveness, daring raids on the enemy by the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG), the capture of bomb makers and their deadly equipment, the completion of new schools and health centres and the spread of stable governance this implies.

The celebration of military progress and the civilian development they have enabled has ensured that the official portrait of events in Afghanistan glows with what Hugh White has termed a “perennial airbrushed optimism”.

The Taliban may be raining fire on the embassies and government offices in Kabul as it pleases, civilian casualties and attacks on ISAF personnel may be at record levels, but the barrage of press releases reassures us that all is well in Uruzgan (where most Australians forces are based). In this province, they say, the enemy are on the run and the ADF are winning the tactical battle, bringing order and stability where prejudice and chaos once reigned.

The ADF tells us they’re doing a great job fighting the Taliban, but without independent journalists in Afghanistan, how can we know? Special Operations Command

Embedded media

The problem is that we have little means of independently verifying the ADF’s account of the situation in Uruzgan. Media access to the troops is tightly managed by the ADF.

In the 12 months to April 2009, 28 different journalists from seven different agencies – and 12 more accompanying visiting politicians and other VIPs – were hosted by the ADF in Afghanistan of whom only three were able to accompany troops on patrol “beyond the wire”.

Though more recent figures from the ADF are a little confusing, it appears that since February 2009 between 25 and 30 journalists have accompanied Australian forces in Uruzgan to report on operations beyond the wire. Once among the troops, all interviews are on the record and many are conducted in the presence of the ADF’s own Public Affairs (PA) personnel.

The process by which Australian reporters are selected to go to Afghanistan has not been open or transparent. Reporters now submit an expression of interest to the Department of Defence, but there is no indication that an orderly queue for places exists, nor is there any detail about the grounds on which the selection of reporters is made.

Defence claims it is “committed to working with the media to expand access opportunities to our Operations”. As evidence it points to the formal embedding program finally introduced in early 2010 after an embedding trial in August 2009. This program affords “access to the Mentoring Task Force (MTF) for two representatives from a single media agency for up to 21 days. Each MTF rotation will host a minimum of two embed cycles.” Compare this with the Dutch and Canadian programs that, respectively, embedded 20 and 40 times as many representatives from the media with their troops per rotation.

Hostile forces

When independent analysis of the progress and effects of Australia’s intervention has been attempted it has met with hostility.

It’s unclear whether our 11-year presence will have any effect in Afghanistan. AAP/Department of Defence

In a draft report on developments in Uruzgan since August 2010, The Liaison Office, an Afghan NGO dedicated to the improvement of local governance, noted that, despite Australian claims to the contrary, the Taliban still controlled more than half of Uruzgan and remained “an ever-present threat”. Based on more than 180 interviews with Uruzganis, the report was rejected by AusAid officials who “objected to the tone of the report, questioning its accuracy and disputing its analysis”.

By far the greater part of the news that Australians get from Afghanistan originates with PA personnel;, as does the majority of the moving and still images of the war. This material flows into newsrooms in a state of crisis.

In Australia, the collapse of the traditional media-funding model has seen a sharp downturn in editorial staff, fewer dedicated defence and foreign correspondents and less funding to support their coverage. Scarce resources and less time to critique the steady flow of Defence press releases results in more of what is effectively ADF PR material finding its way into the papers and onto our screens as “news”.

The mythical war

Yet the success or failure of the ADF mission in Afghanistan has never been measured in purely military outcomes.

Consigned to a geographical and strategic backwater, unable to influence the broader outcome of the war, the principal responsibility of Australia’s fighting forces in Afghanistan has been to honour and emulate the defining myth of military service and nationhood.

As such, the ADF’s true mission in Afghanistan has not been to defeat the Taliban but to live up to and embody the traditions of Anzac and its key ideological and informational resources have been deployed to this end.

The resulting coverage of the conflict confirms that if truth is the first casualty of war, then myth is its perennial survivor.