Fiddling While It Burns

Afghanistan: respecting expertise, seeking knowledge

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Photo: Department of Defence

I’ve got a piece published on Crikey. An extract:

Part of the problem is that military expertise is simply not accepted as real expertise. Current and former military personnel are treated as biased and unreliable. Consider Senator Bob Brown’s admission on The 7:30 Report last night to having never sought a Defence briefing on Afghanistan to confirm his strongly held position; similarly, an academic recently told me that Lateline was irresponsible for interviewing David Kilcullen on Afghanistan, because his position makes him biased. To some, the only time soldiers can be telling the truth is when they’re criticising the war or their superiors.


A different kind of war


Here’s a project I did for radio journalism. I think the biggest failure of the news media around Afghanistan is not giving interested generalists an understanding of the strategies and realities, instead preferring to sensationalise and trivialise, so I’ve tried to cover some of the basics of counterinsurgency, a doctrine central to understanding what’s happening in Afghanistan right now.

A different kind of war

Are kill or capture missions lowering the Taliban’s effectiveness?

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From the Telegraph in the UK:

Quarter of senior Taliban killed by SAS in ‘kill or capture’ targeting

The Taliban in Helmand are being killed by the SAS on an “industrial scale” with a quarter of senior commanders killed since spring, leading to a dramatic drop in British casualties.

My personal bugbear is that war coverage is binary and partisan. There’s the left-leaning media, to whom war is always bad and almost everything is a new reason to drop the whole thing and level war crimes charges, and the right-wing, who revel in their jingoism, adulate ‘our men and women in uniform’, and wouldn’t oppose anything up to and including concentration camps and public executions of anti-war protestors.

War is a complex business, and military leaders and academics study for years or their entire lives to best understand and execute it, yet war policy is a slave to these two strains of empty-headed populism. (Of course, there’s also a vast empty-headed consensus populism which is neither strongly for or against, but I’ll leave that to one side.) So, both criticism and support are inadequately informed, which allows debacles both ways – the invasion of Iraq and criminally incompetent strategies of the first couple of years of the occupation when the war-drummers get their way, and the undermined bleeding-away of the war effort that’s happening right now in Iraq. It’s a situation where objective facts exist, indicating evidence-based courses of action, but two false realities obscure our views and make it impossible for the professionals to do their jobs.

That said, this article, although ridiculously canted and egregiously overstating its case, is still informative about the role of the British SAS in Afghanistan when read with a critical eye. Read in conjunction with this press release, it’s a little peek behind the veil.

New essay

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I got my History essay back today, entitled ‘Did George W. Bush Strengthen or Weaken the American Empire?’ Hit the Essays page in the navigation bar on the right to see it.

It’s not a spectacular essay, but it should interest anyone enjoying the site, and I’ve done it now, so I may as well use it for something. Thanks for reading.

David Kilcullen and Hugh White

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By spending a few hours in the car over the Easter holiday, I managed to catch a couple of Radio National programs, and was once more blown away by the quality and depth of journalism this national treasure provides. Two programs, the Late Night Live story on retired Australian Army Lieutenant Colonel David Kilcullen, Ph.D.,  and the “White on White” program on Life Matters, reinvigorated my faith in Australian foreign policy journalism.

It’s my own fault, of course. I’m a newsprint guy. I love newswriting, and I either get my news from a hardcopy paper or online, but in Australia the very best news source is the ABC.

Both of these programs, available for download are very much worth a read. David Kilcullen, who I came away with an enormous intellectual crush on, was one of the architects of the “surge”, which was actually a reformation of the Iraq War using modern counterinsurgency tactics, which due to the political appointment of incompetents previously had not yet occurred. Kilcullen speaks from a depth of both thought and experience, with a genuine understanding of the cultural complexities which have been so important to both the Afghanistan and Iraq theatres of engagement. He believes in war only when necessary, but also believes that war, once engaged, should be conducted as something which can be done well by experts – exactly the opposite of a neoconservative.

Anyway, I don’t want to get stuck on what was wrong with the Iraq War – that’s a thesis in itself, or a thousand theses.

White on White is a significant piece of journalism. There is far too little consideration of strategic foreign policy in Australian media. Australia will spend $24 billion this year on defence, yet very few Australians have even a shallow level of understanding of our spending priorities. Hugh White has drawn to common attention something that I discussed at the end of a post a few weeks ago – Australia is at a critical strategic juncture. As Asian economies grow and increase their defence spending, and particularly as China reaches comparable levels of influence with the US, there are only two logical moves for Australia in terms of defence spending: either radically expand spending, to, as White advocates, double submarine numbers and increase our order of the (probable white elephant) Joint Strike Fighter, or accept a slide into strategic irrelevance.

Hugh White, as a strategic studies specialist, of course leans towards the former option; think-tank types are a little like Warhammer 40 000 nerds – they want bigger armies to move around on their tabletops. The difference is, for the sake of intellectual rigour, they need to get real governments to buy real versions of their miniatures before they can get the miniatures for themselves.

I, of course, would push for the latter, for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t think there’s any way Australia could keep up – in population terms, we are less than 1/12th the size of Indonesia, and 1/60th the size of China. That means to maintain parity with Indonesia while its GDP grew at 1% per year, Australia would need to raise its defence spend by 12% per year; while to keep pace with China growing at 1% per year, Australia’s defence spend would have to double every eighteen months. It’s simply impossible. As difficult as it is for post-colonial majority white nations to accept, if it ever comes to all-out war our fate is beyond our control.

Still, I was incredibly impressed at the existence of either of these programs. Funnily enough, I spent over an hour listening to the fate of quality journalism being lamented on Radio National some weeks ago, simply because for-profit newspapers may be on their way out. I’m now conclusively convinced, however, that the capitalist media model only ever provided quality journalism by accident, whereas non-profit models such as the ABC, BBC, or the Guardian have worked incredibly well.

So, things look good for the way our area of interest will be reported in future.

Australians Not Racist; just don’t like people of different ethnicities

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Cartoon: The Age.

Cartoon: The Age.

From The Australian:

Rising tide of boatpeople: another vessel lands as Indonesia says it is powerless to help

Paul Maley and Stephen Fitzpatrick | April 16, 2009
YET another group of asylum seekers has reached Australian waters – the fourth in a fortnight – as Indonesian police yesterday admitted they were powerless to stop a rising tide of boatpeople heading for our shores.
Navy patrol boat HMAS Albany intercepted 49 suspected asylum seekers – thought to be mostly Afghan men – two nautical miles off Ashmore Reef, 610km north of Broome at about midday yesterday.
It was the sixth boat to arrive this year, and the 13th since September, when the Rudd Government announced measures aimed at softening Australia’s treatment of refugees from the hardline approach adopted by the Howard government.

This story was followed in a matter of hours by news that the boat had exploded, killing at least 5 refugees, and West Australian Premier Colin Barnett accused the refugees of deliberately pouring petrol over the deck of the boat. It is unknown at this stage whether he did this specifically to give me a sickening sense of déjà vu.

Note the tone of the article. A “rising tide”; “boatpeople”; arriving because of the “softening” of policies. See here for photos from the website with some very loaded captioning. The Australian has decided it’s time to bring White Australia back, despite its only having been gone eighteen months. The Coalition agrees; they’ve already launched an attack on the government which is prefigured on their own policies in government not being evil.

The smuggling of refugees to first-world nations is habitually framed as a national security issue. That, however, is complete and utter rubbish. There have been no terrorist attacks by refugees. If a terrorist organisation wants to get someone into a Western nation, putting them in the hands of people smugglers is about the least efficient and least reliable way to do it. It’s not worthy of discussion. It is to racists what the Jack Bauer argument is to authoritarians – a pathetic smokescreen.

Racism in Australian society is a reality, and a powerful social force. For years racism has been a driving force in Sydney whites fleeing to Brisbane and Perth. We had race riots in Cronulla, and every Australia Day vibrates with ugly undertones.

The king tide of Australian racial fear, however, was in November 2001. A string of rapes by Lebanese attackers had been spun into a siege mentality by extreme right-wing talkback radio host Alan Jones the previous year, never mind the vast numbers of rapes committed by white offenders. Refugees arriving by boat, always a fact of life for a wealthy nation at the end of a long, impoverished island chain, suddenly seemed like a vast, terrifying threat. The Tampa election went to John Howard in appreciation of his barbaric and outlandlishly expensive anti-refugee policies, while Australia’s international prestige sank to new lows.

Things have calmed down since then, and refugee stories are now usually covered within a humanitarian frame rather than an ugly xenophobic one. Before the 2007 election, the vile policies of Phillip Ruddock’s Department of Immigration, Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs (John Howard thought all brown people should come under the same minister) had been quietly neutered, and the ridiculous Pacific Solution abandoned.

Hopefully, we won’t have to fight the whole stupid thing out again.


Photo: Helena Janson

Tenth casualty awakens the media narrative

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Sergeant Brett Till, killed in Afghanistan. Photo: Department of Defence.

As I noted when I posted about the death of the ninth Australian soldier in Afghanistan, since named as Corporal Mathew Hopkins of 7 RAR, to this point the news media have had difficulty forming a narrative around the Australian involvement in Afghanistan. The massive failures of vigilance and intestinal fortitude in the leadup to and early days of the Iraq War still haunts the way Afghanistan is reported, and the urge is to portray Afghanistan as Iraq, a slow grind of mounting casualties and civilian deaths in a faraway nation where we should never have been in the first place.

It’s in that context that we must see the death of Sergeant Brett Till of the Incident Response Regiment. Suddenly the anaemic narrative seems a lot more substantial. The Australian reported the tragedy as the “second Australian fatality in four days”, and gave almost as much depth on the death of Corporal Hopkins as on Sergeant Till, while including a link to a slightly tacky graphic giving dates and locations for all Australian deaths in Afghanistan. It seems News Ltd are letting the difficulty in finding the narrative in Afghanistan get the better of them, since the Daily Telegraph also included a slightly poor-taste touch, a poll to vote on whether Australia should immediately withdraw from Afghanistan.

The ABC reported the story as Australia’s horrific week, and in the follow-up story revealing Sergeant Till’s identity, almost seemed to deliberately rebuke the Telegraph‘s little poll with the dignified words of Sergeant Till’s wife:

“He was not a hateful, spiteful or revengeful man. He was good, humble and honourable with unequivocal, uncomplicated intentions,” she said.

She asked that his death not be used for political agendas or arguments about Australia’s Defence Force.

“Use it as a chance to meet a man, to praise a man who is perfect in so many ways. Who has left me a gift which I will treasure, forever and ever,” she said.

“If people wish to respect the memory of this great man… this brilliant father, this compassionate son, this reliable mate, this wonderful loving husband… then do good things. “

The Telegraph seem to have taken this to heart, since as I write the poll link no longer works.

Worth noting is the strong emphasis placed on both men’s young families. The additional drama of a bereaved family helps in attracting the interest of a public who sometimes have difficulty sympathising with the trained killers who defend them. A strong emphasis on the fact that Sergeant Till died while protecting his mates also runs throughout the coverage, with Chief of Defence Force Angus Houston quoted as saying Till “lost his life trying to make the environment safe for his mates and local Afghans by neutralising the threat the device posed.” It is unclear whether this is to be taken as more or less heroic than those soldiers like Jason Marks or Luke Worsley who died in direct combat action against the Taliban.

The most salient point from all this coverage is the feeling of just how tenuous the support for the Afghanistan deployment is in Australian society. Certainly members of Defence are  nervous about the Government’s ability to stay behind this operation they view as very important, and it is far from clear what the fate of the mission would be in the politically damaging event of a mass casualty such as that suffered by the French in August last year. The irony is that France, whose name has become a byword for irresolute cowardice in right-wing discourse, has remained unwavering after such a tragic blow, while questions are raised in Australia over as many deaths over seven years.

On a final note, this story shows how a tenuous connection to an ongoing narrative can get an event national coverage when it would normally barely make the national papers.

Two Australian soldiers have died since Monday, serving in Afghanistan.

A third died on Thursday evening in a head-on crash on Darwin’s Amy Johnson Drive at Hidden Valley.

High-speed crashes, sadly, are a relatively common cause of death for Australian soldiers. Without making any specific comment on this case, youth, testosterone, alcohol (ab)use and thrillseeking bahaviour are common in the militaries of all nations. Coming in this particular week, however, this soldier’s death becomes national news.

Ninth Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan

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What a day to start a blog about Australian national security.

Special Operations personnel train in Afghanistan. Photo: Department of Defence.

Special Operations personnel train in Afghanistan. Photo: Department of Defence.

Today the Defence Department announced that another Australian soldier had been killed in Afghanistan, this time a member of the forces training the Afghan Army. From the Sydney Morning Herald article:

The insurgents attacked a foot patrol of Australian and Afghan soldiers near Karakak, about 12 kilometres north of Tarin Kowt in Oruzgan province, yesterday afternoon AEST time, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston said.

The insurgents used small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, and drew the patrol into a long battle. Coalition forces were then called in as back-up, he said.

The Australian soldier, a member of the Mentoring and Reconstruction Taskforce, was shot and killed, Air Chief Marshal Houston said.

These stories are central to the way the Australian news media cover Australia’s foreign deployments. As tends to be the case with democracies in the absence of immediate threats to the homeland, the question of war becomes one of value, value for treasure and value for blood. In the minds of many Australians, including a large number who should know better, the ongoing battle against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the invasion of Iraq and ongoing bloody occupation of that nation. That link shapes the way Afghanistan is reported and debated, as Australians watch grimly in expectation of an ever-escalating death toll, grieving mothers, and human rights violations.

The Australian has played to this tendency, publishing a timeline of ADF personnel killed in Afghanistan since the invasion in 2002. However, the fact that Australian soldiers have been involved in significant combat operations since 2005 with only eight deaths prevents any significant narrative developing along these lines.

There is more potential in the annual “spring in Oruzgan province” narrative, as The Australian has used here. It’s tried and tested, and has the advantage of being true to an extent, although the death of Gregory Sher in the depths of the Afghani winter is proof that it ain’t necessarily so. An extract:

Warmer weather brings hard fighting season in Afghanistan

AUSTRALIAN commanders are bracing for a hard fighting season in Oruzgan province as Taliban insurgents fan out across southern Afghanistan.

The latest Australian combat death in Afghanistan comes as intelligence assessments point to heightened risks for coalition forces as insurgents regroup for the spring and summer fighting season.

The article meandres from that point, however, indicating the recurring point that the Australian news media doesn’t really know how to report Afghanistan. As is too often the case, the narrative is what gets reported, and in the absence of one the coverage seems confused and directionless.