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Oct 19, 2010

Afghanistan: respecting expertise, seeking knowledge

The problem with war coverage is just this: we are given a simplistic view of a complex situation, writes journalism student Andrew Riddle, a former soldier in the Australian Regular Army

The problem with war coverage is just this: we are given a simplistic view of a complex situation.

Consider, for example, counterinsurgency. Most people have probably heard the term. They might even have an idea that it’s about “winning the hearts and minds of the people”. If they’ve chosen to actively pursue the subject, they might know about “Shape, Clear, Hold and Build” — but few will reach even this level of knowledge. This is perfectly excusable; not everyone needs to be an expert on tactics or strategy — but those who are writing about Afghanistan, particularly those strongly advocating positions, surely do.

Far too many people, including interested generalists, have no idea exactly what the plan is in Afghanistan. It’s out there, for everyone to read. Blogs such as the Long War Journal ably describe it. The principles of counterinsurgency, applied in Iraq in 2006 and Afghanistan today, have long been in the public domain. David Kilcullen’s The Accidental Guerrilla is probably in your local library, and his more down-and-dirty summation, Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency, is just an internet search away. Even the US military’s official counterinsurgency manual is on WikiLeaks. Yet many commentators remain startlingly ignorant.

All too frequently, commentary seems to lean on a kind of dinner-party consensus — “everyone knows” we “can’t win in Afghanistan”, whatever happens “the country will still be a brutal, bloody mess”. An accretion of headlines has become a narrative of pseudo-knowledge, which in turn has become received fact — and now, far too often, we are told by people who have never been to Afghanistan, who would never consider going, and who don’t trust anyone who’s been, that the war is a doomed, bloody waste.

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.

There’s a reason for this — the toxic legacy of the neoconservative adventure in Iraq lays heavily on Afghanistan. We remember how Colin Powell allowed himself to be browbeaten into lying to the UN, and how retired generals were paid by the Pentagon to lie to CNN. Yet a big part of the Iraq equation was the ignorantly supportive position adopted by the media, which should not be corrected with the adoption of an ignorantly critical one. If we’re going to look for real knowledge of an objective reality, surely we should look to those who have studied it and lived it — if a little more sceptically than we might have in 2003.

Waving away all military knowledge as an irrelevancy has real consequences. Consider the kerfuffle Shadow Minister for Defence David Johnston created when he demanded tanks, additional mortars and more air support be deployed to Afghanistan, based on an angry email from a 6 RAR soldier.

Johnston’s ridiculous sallies ignored two important lessons of Afghanistan. The first is that the overwhelming fire support available to the NATO forces should not be used where it would result in civilian casualties, because doing so only fuels insurgency. The second lesson I will quote from David Kilcullen — “Driving around in an armored convoy, day-tripping like a tourist in hell, degrades situational awareness, makes you a target, and is ultimately more dangerous”.

A mainstream media with access to real military expertise would have laughed off Johnston’s demagoguery as contemptuously as Prime Minister Gillard did. Instead it was treated seriously, and real lessons, bought with real lives, were ignored in the media frenzy.

Counterinsurgency doctrine is not revealed wisdom. There are real criticisms to make and concerns to address. For example, its degree of responsibility for the bloody Sunni-on-Shi’a ethnic cleansing in Iraq needs more examination, as do its roots in the ethnic divide-and-conquer strategies of the former colonial powers; the cost-benefit equation of the war should also be considered, although I would argue the human rights case overrides that. But without real, deep knowledge, these questions cannot be addressed. War coverage is worth getting right.

Andrew Riddle is a journalism student at the University of Wollongong, a former soldier in the Australian Regular Army, and is now in the Army Reserve.

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32 thoughts on “Afghanistan: respecting expertise, seeking knowledge

  1. jorge

    Thanks Andrew, I have to admit I too have been espousing opinions based on my incomplete understanding of what is going on in Afghanistan.

    With the accessibility of emails and news now 24-7, it would certainly help to keep in mind that experts do base their opinions on expertise. And unfortunately sometimes those with the loudest voices are non-experts…

    If correct, it is interesting to note that Bob Brown has never sought a Defence briefing on Afghanistan…makes you wonder on what information (one-sided, perhaps?) he will base his comments in Parliament’s debate on the matter…

  2. Mark Heydon

    I think it is interesting that this article talks about winning the hearts and minds of Afghanis. I wonder how this will be achieved when they cannot even win the hearts and minds of their own side.

  3. ronin8317

    It may also help if you study history. The phrase “Winning Hearts and Minds” is used to describe the disastrous counter insurgency campaign during the Vietnam War. In journalism, it’s a euphemism for ‘quagmire’.

    History has not been kind to the Afghan people. The ‘Crossroad of civilisation’ has been invaded by pretty much everyone. The country is a conglomeration of many ethnic tribes with no common language and a weak sense of national identity. The US should have break the country up via an orchestrated ethnic cleansing campaign. The Pashtun tribes should be encouraged to form ‘Pashtunistan’ by merging Southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, then watch the firework as Pakistan plunge into a civil war involving nuclear weapons. With counter insurgency, you want the Afghans to kill each another.

  4. Phil Kyson

    Thanks Andrew, a good article.
    The problem we have is with “War coverage is worth getting right” as you say, is that the right’s Australian media coverage is seldom near the truth. I think what your saying is that if we got the truth instead of partisan spin we wouldn’t have gone in the first place. Is it the case of the one eyed leading the blindfolded into war?

  5. Henry_1000

    A lot of the pro war cheerleaders don’t want anything other than a simplistic view of a complex situation. They’re view of
    Afghanistan is “Kill the terrorists!” They’re not interested in understanding complex tribal cultures that go back centuries, the role of Saudi Arabia in financing terrorism, the role of Pakistan or the current corrupt mess that is masquerading as a legitimate government out of Kabul. They like to keep their understanding nice and simple.

    The other factor is the patience of the general public in the toleration of political wars. We want our wars the way we like our takeaway food. Quick and simple with a minimum of fuss. Once things start to get messy, bogged down and protracted we then start to complain that we’ve been there too long and we ought to withdraw. Never mind the reasons for entering into it in the first instance or the number of innocent people who die. During the Vietnam and Iraq invasions the majority of public opinion turned only when it dragged on and casualties started to climb.

    The other reason for the lack of knowledge is the nature of political war itself. The only reason it is tolerated at all is because the only people who making any sacrifice and are affected by it are those serving and their immediate families. For everyone else life goes on as per normal. Unlike WWII there is no conscription, no rationing of food, petrol, clothing and virtually everything else. Everyone had to do their part because at the time we had little choice. The threat was very real unlike the bogus threats our current crop of politicians drag out regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. How can you blame the majority for a lack of knowledge when there is no reason to seek that knowledge?

  6. Fran Barlow

    It’s time for Australian troops to leave. Let them pack their kits and stop making things worse.

    No rational person starts something they aren;t confident they have the resources to finish satisfactorily. When they do, they expect to lose unless they get lucky. In 9 long years, we’ve been given no basis for believing in luck.

    The war is over. ISAF lost. All that is left to be decided is what kind of mess will be left behind as a result of the invasion and what will the body count on all sides be.

    Downer now admits that the war aims were achieved in 2002. Seven years later we are talking about four more years.

    If it weren’t so serious, one could laugh. And to think, the opposition wants a CBA on the NBN. Now that is funny.

  7. mr hump

    I think that biased and unreliable are two excellent descriptions of the military.
    What else would one expect?
    Its like the old quote of war being too important to be left to generals.
    The military opinion always seems to ignore our great allie pakistan which will always stab us in the back.
    Lets just leave the afghans to it.
    If we were so concerned about womens rights then lets invade saidu arabia instead and steal their oil.
    Two birds with one stone,eh.

  8. nicolino

    Time and again the same old tired excuse of keeping terrorism at bay by staying the distance is trotted out. I would think that terrorism has already left Afghanistan and is fomenting evil deeds as we talk. Bit late to be talking about confining the terrorists isn’t it? Stop insulting our intelligence.
    May be if the Palestine question could be sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction -and cows may very well fly-we may take away their cause celebre.

  9. Sir Lunchalot

    Gillard should be sacked in disgrace over allowing Defence to charge the members of 1 Commando.

    She has backflipped and lied to us all about the carbox tax.

    Announced detention centres WITHOUT community consultation.

    he is a dangerous person, and we need a new election.

  10. Sean

    This would make a good article in The Oz — critical of various opponents, mildly critical of strategy within a narrow band of debate but not questioning why the alliance is even there in the first place. This is how the debate has been shaped in the US by the MSM also — you can discuss whether there are too many or too few troops, is the right technology being deployed, play Washington personalities off against each other as a spectacle, but never question the overarching discourse of why the whole thing was even started.

    Afghanistan seems to be a centrepiece in a continuation of The Great Game with a geo-strategic goal of keeping an eye on the nuclear power Pakistan on one side, and projecting power over other middle eastern states in a pincer with Israel via Iraq. Make a corridor for Anglo-friendly pipelines for Caspian Sea resources as hydrocarbon resources dwindle around the world, which would otherwise be snapped up by China, Russia and India. Bolster the erosion of the USD as the default petrocurrency which automatically and artificially strengthened it in the past beyond its merit. Create work for US energy infrastructure firms in extracting hydrocarbon resources.

    The terrorists were never really in Afghanistan to begin with, and the 9/11 case seems highly confected — possibly a false flag operation, not even considering the obvious fact that the wrong countries were scapegoated. There were clearly a number of agendas in looking at Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, it’s not entirely clear yet what they all are in the neocon mind.

    The US and Oz and the UK etc have never been worried about fomenting Islam and shariah law and misogyny and huuman rights and industrialisation and enlightenment of the masses etc when dealing with these countries in the past as long as they were getting the resources they wanted. If there were no resources in the area, they would care not one whit at all.

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