With a relatively small presence in Afghanistan, it’s perhaps understandable that Australia’s role in the 10 year war hasn’t captured the public’s attention as much as it has in the U.S. and Europe.
The American NATO force is 130 times larger than our own and major outlets like Time magazine regularly print long investigative articles and post videos online. Time’s chief-correspondent in Afghanistan, Joe Klein has frequently asked whether Afghanistan is a quagmire and how U.S. soldiers are coping with new counterinsurgency tactics under President Obama.
The result of a wider media coverage has been that General David Petraeus and General Stanley McChrystal are both household names in the U.S, and they’re both instantly recognisable as they appear before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing- giving testimonies as to whether the new tactics to fight terrorism and rebuild Afghanistan are working.
Their accounts are also being beamed into homes every night making it almost impossible to ignore the issue.
Not so in Australia, Afghanistan remains a peripheral issue with home insulation schemes, school building projects and the mining tax getting far more time in the media spotlight.
This wilful ignorance by the commercial media crystallises when we try and think of any concrete facts about the war:
Where are the majority of Australians located?
Did you know the mission in Afghanistan is called Operation Slipper?
And for bonus points, what’s going to happen once the Dutch leave in a couple of months?
So as you meekly fumble around for the answers to these questions, see that it’s no small irony that as the commercial media constantly refers to these soldiers as heroes that questions of what they’re doing there and what the reasons for them fighting haven’t been asked more fiercely and more often.
Isn’t it us then who are doing a disservice to them by not asking why?
Miranda Devine, a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald, sums up this barely scratching the surface reporting when she wrote on the weekend about the two Australian soldiers who had been killed earlier in the week; comparing their sacrifice to that of an entire generation. She wrote of Gen Y:
“But they shoulder our greatest burden, willingly risking their lives on foreign battlefields because they believe they are doing good. They know that some of the terrorists who murdered 88 Australians in Bali in October 2002 (when much of Gen Y was still at school) were trained in Afghanistan, under the protection of the Taliban. And they believe the sort of nation-building they engage in may eventually lead to countries like Afghanistan being independent and free of extremism”
The lack of empirical data and any source material at all is telling- like the soldiers themselves we’re left having to ‘believe’ that the soldiers ‘are doing good’ because the fact is we just don’t know.
The conclusion we can reach from articles like Devine’s is that like our reaction to the deaths of Australian soldiers, our reaction to why Australia should participate in the war relies on emotion. Devine’s headline “Spirit of Anzac lives on in Gen Y” is a perfect example of this; she uses the deaths of two young soldiers and the highly emotive subject of the Anzacs and compares it against the lefts’ perception of the legend. She writes:
“Those people - the lefties, chattering classes, hippies, pacifists, whatever you call them - were aghast when interest in Anzac was revived among young people during the Howard era in pilgrimages to Gallipoli. They could not comprehend a new generation's patriotism and embrace of Anzac, the dawn service, the flag and the Southern Cross”.
The suggestion is that these soldiers in Afghanistan embody the Anzac spirit, left wing people can’t understand nor don’t want to understand what that spirit means and that we should get behind our troops if we want to be good Australians.
This idiotic argument scorns critical thinking and makes the love of the legend a shield for the need to analyse it further. It also doesn’t answer the essential questions: what are the soldiers doing and why are they doing it?
According to the Defence Department and ABC News, at the moment there are 1550 soldiers in Afghanistan. Most of Australia’s forces are located in Southern Afghanistan in the province of Oruzgan. Their central role is based in Tarin Kowt with them officially participating in projects such as building:
· The Tarin Kowt Waste Management facility which will provide a long term, low maintenance waste management capability for the community.
· The Tarin Kowt Boy’s Primary School Redevelopment which involves a new 35 or-classroom building, administration building and eastern-style flushing ablutions. Questions of how this fits into the broader context of the war, how the locals are responding to it, and how long these projects will last once the Australians are gone haven’t been answered, or it seems asked.
Generally though the above and the security and training that goes along with it might by and large answer what Australians are doing, it doesn’t answer why they are doing it.
As quoted on the Nautilus Institute’s web-site, Rudd in 2009 made a revealing speech where he said that:
"We also have an enduring commitment to the United States under the ANZUS Treaty which was formally invoked at the time of the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington."
This “enduring commitment” reaffirms the bleeding obvious that at its heart, the reason for Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan is down to power politics and a wish to stay on the good side of an alliance with the U.S.
The other reasons that are reported to us always centre on the need to defeat the monstrous Taliban and Al Qaeda, the need to secure the state against extremism and the need to reduce a dependency on the sale of narcotics by local farmers.
While these “whys” might be satisfying to some they must always be balanced against a clear critical analysis of whether the aims are achievable- something the Australian media has failed to do dismally.
Again in the U.S, articles are regularly printed which ask how effective the goals of the mission are, The New York Times for instance has an in-depth information section which details the mission, and clearly lays out that how problems in governance might be affecting their core goals:
“In still other places, government officials rarely show up at work and do little to help local people, and in most places the Afghan police are incapable of providing security. Corruption, big and small, remains an overwhelming complaint”
At The Sydney Morning Herald there is an Afghanistan section but pointedly their “Road to reconstruction” interactive map, as of yesterday, leads to nowhere.
Finally, it seems to me that this war makes particularly relevant the old maxim that says that as soldiers have given us their greatest gift in their lives what we have to do to repay them is to make sure their gift isn’t wasted.
For the Australian media and Australian public it seems it’s been best to forget the men and women we’ve sent abroad, dutifully shedding tears when they return in body bags but for the most part remaining unaware and uninterested of what they’ve done, why they did it or whether there was any point to it at all.