Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 12:27 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 12:27 | SYDNEY

Token: Australian debate about Afghanistan

1 July 2010 13:09

Soldier Z is a serving member of the ADF with operational experience in Afghanistan.

This June, Australians were confronted with the return of five of its young treasures, killed in action fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Again, and in increasing numbers, Australians are asking why their sons are dying in a foreign land for a cause which is little understood and with apparently scant prospect for victory.

Why are we fighting in Afghanistan? What is our policy?

Committing the nation to war is a grave decision for any government. Accompanying any decision to fight, you would expect, is a detailed and publicly-accessible policy underpinning the campaign and stating national objectives.

Curious Australians, however, will not find any substantive written policy statement on Afghanistan in the public domain. Recent governments have actively sought to minimise public attention about our involvement. Australian policy for Afghanistan has been made by press conference and press release, first by Howard and then mimicked by Rudd in 2009. The recent press conference by Defence Minister John Faulkner is the latest contribution-by-sound-bite.

Holistically, this indicates a lack of focus and rigour by government, our military leadership and policymakers. It affirms a perception that all Australia is seeking in Afghanistan is to 'look good, not do good'.

Aside from the political failures, the ADF leadership has also sought to avoid substantive discussion. This is in stark contrast to the militaries of the US and UK, whose senior officers are actively engaged in sophisticated public dialogue and where the media has (comparatively) extensive access to deployed troops.

ADF leaders, probably still cowed by the consequences of the 'Children Overboard' ordeal in 2001, are negative and defensive toward the media. It becomes impossible to penetrate their well-rehearsed key messages and bland press releases to get a true sense of the war from an Australian military perspective. The only decent commentary comes from figures like retired Major General Jim Molan.

Above all, the Australian media is most culpable in its lack of interest and understanding. This was painfully evident at last week's press conference by Faulkner and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, during which they announced the new provincial arrangements in Oruzgan. No journalist asked how many troops and what enablers the US would provide to replace the Dutch. No journalist asked about the possibility of security vulnerabilities in Oruzgan during the September parliamentary elections, which will take place as the Dutch withdraw. And no journalist asked why we were asking the US to shift much needed resources from high-risk provinces to a quiet area like Oruzgan, instead of leading these operations ourselves.

That Australians neither understand the war nor why its soldiers' sacrifice is needed in Afghanistan is shameful. The Government, ADF and media are all to blame for this ignorance. If we are to risk life and go to war, the policy must be properly articulated. As it stands, the state of the Afghan discourse in Australia is emblematic of our commitment to the war effort and Afghan people: token.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.