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.

Somalia: Quixotic defiance by those the world betrayed

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Very lucky Somali pirates are taken alive by French Commandos. Photo: ECPAD / French Ministry of Defence / AP by way of Time

I have to admit, a big part of me is vulnerable to super-awesome SF gun-slinging. This inner ten-year-old is thrilled when French Commandos storm a yacht and release the prisoners, or Navy SEALS use simultaneous sniper shots to take out three pirates at once.

There’s a lot of people around who let this sort of thinking colour their adult perspectives. They buy into cruise missile diplomacy, where all problems can be solved with an air strike or some gunmen in the right place. It doesn’t work, of course, but it can give politicians a poll bump, or dominate a news cycle just long enough – and it made for some of the best episodes of The West Wing.

Forces deployed to assist in hunting pirates. Not pictured: the Team America theme playing endlessly in everyone's heads. Photo: Reuters / Time.

Forces deployed to assist in hunting pirates. Not pictured: the Team America theme playing endlessly in everyone's heads. Photo: Reuters / Time.

This sort of thinking can easily get out of hand when it comes something like the piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Take them out! Let’s roll! And so far, the “solutions” have been along those lines, send more ships to patrol, use hostage rescue tactics. The problem is, however dangerous you make piracy, it will never get as dangerous as… being from Somalia.

The whole thing almost bears a Marxist interpretation. The impoverished people of Africa, living next to a shipping route through which flows much of the world’s wealth, rise up to seize the means of production. And then ransom it back, but no application of Marx to the real world has actually worked since Marx himself.

Somalia is a disaster of Clinton’s cowardice. After the events chronicled in the film Black Hawk Down (every inner ten-year-old’s favourite), Clinton took the most politically expedient route and quit immediately. For over a decade, no further serious attempts were made to fix the place, until Ethiopian troops advised by US Special Forces invaded to “aid” the Somali “government”.

The wrong lesson was learnt from September 11. The real lesson is that the world is a single interdependent organism in which the nation-state is an entirely unsuitable model for governing. If you allow Afghanistan to become hell on earth because you’re not Afghani, eventually hell boils out and affects rich white people. Sadly, the lesson world governments learned is that they should use violence against potential threats to rich white people, wherever they can be found.

Still, in the remarkable lack of triumphalism in the Obama administration, I see real hope. From Time:

The celebrating over Sunday’s daring rescue of Richard Phillips, the ship captain held hostage by Somali pirates, didn’t last too long at the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged on Monday that rescuing hostages — in this case, Navy snipers took out Phillips’ three captors — is only a stopgap way of dealing with the pirates now sailing the Gulf of Aden. “There is no purely military solution to it,” Gates told an audience of the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Va. “It is a serious international problem, and it’s probably going to get worse.”
Gates made it clear that the real solution isn’t on the high seas. Instead, it’s back along the Somali coast in the impoverished villages and towns that the pirates call home. “As long as you’ve got this incredible number of poor people and the risks are relatively small,” he said, “there’s really no way in my view to control it unless you get something on land that begins to change the equation for these kids.”

Is he suggesting that there is some sort of context outside of right-and-wrong to the pirates’ actions??? Sometimes it seems like an Obama presidency is barely better than a Bush presidency. But that is really, really untrue.

Seymour Hersh and the Death Squad of Doom

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Seymour Hersh. Picture: Getty Images.

Seymour Hersh. Picture: Getty Images.

Seymour Hersh made a bit of a splash a while ago with “revelations” of an “executive assassination squad”. From AlterNet:

“Right now, today, there was a story in the New York Times that if you read it carefully mentioned something known as the Joint Special Operations Command — JSOC it’s called. It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently. They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office. They did not report to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff or to Mr. [Robert] Gates, the secretary of defense. They reported directly to him. …

“Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on. Just today in the Times there was a story that its leaders, a three star admiral named [William H.] McRaven, ordered a stop to it because there were so many collateral deaths.

“Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us. (emphasis in original)

Seymour Hersh made his name with his reporting of the My Lai massacre, and bolstered it with Abu Ghraib, but it’s important to note that the charging of military officers with murder over the massacre had already been reported, if drily and without context. Abu Ghraib likewise had been reported before Hersh got to it. What Hersh brought to the equation was the sense of outrage that these events truly deserved, something that most reporters tend to lose after a few years contemplating only the real moral filth of the world. He took numbers and facts rubbed clean for public consumption, and gave them back the brutality and bleeding flesh of reality.

That’s what he’s done here – added immediacy to a known quantity. Everyone with an interest knows Special Forces gather intelligence, identify targets, and destroy them. The fight has been over invasions, torture and domestic spying – the right of the US to act unilaterally against terrorists has been pretty much taken for granted. By rewording this situation and dropping it like an accidental revelation, Hersh forces us to take a fresh look at a settled debate. Of course, it got a lot more play in the left-wing press, where the use of force is a less settled issue.

The US has a long policy of denying the existence of its most elite SF units, and I think that’s as anti-democratic as all get-out. The unprecedented freedom of action and absolute executive control that has been in place during the global war on terror is even more so. What Seymour Hersh has done is a good thing – we need to think about these things, we need to talk about them, and voters need to be allowed to know about them. However, we don’t get to be babes in the woods – we know people kill in our name. We vote for politicians we know will send those people. If you disapprove of it entirely, join Resistance. Throwing hysterics because of which country they do it in is pretty damn hypocritical.

Special Forces - scary and authoritarian or super-awesome? Picture: Department of Defence.

Special Forces - scary and authoritarian or super-awesome? Picture: Department of Defence.

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.