The Forgotten War
Sometimes it takes an outsider to tell us the most uncomfortable truths.
Last week, Defence Minister Dr Brendan Nelson took a swipe at critics who question the pace at which Australian troops are securing their designated province in Afghanistan, saying:
Any suggestion Australian troops are not pulling their weight in southern Afghanistan is beneath contempt. Australia is steadfastly committed to Uruzgan as shown by the recent decision to deploy a Special Operations Task Group of approximately 300 people to the region.
However, the recent decision to send Special Forces back to Uruzgan could also be read as a tacit admission that not all is well with the mission. (Who was the genius who decided to remove our Special Forces soldiers from Afghanistan late last year?)
When I asked the Defence Minister if a rift had developed between Australian troops and the Dutch Army engineers they are serving alongside, over who was doing the most to secure Uruzgan, Nelson would not comment.
The controversy was sparked by prominent German journalist, Ulrich Ladurner, who claimed, in an interview he gave to me at Kabul airport on 14 May, that both the Australians and Dutch were being slow in establishing security in the province.
Ladurner, who is the foreign editor of the German weekly Die Zeit and co-author with Gero von Randow of The Iranian Bomb, spent weeks as an embedded journalist with Dutch Army engineers in Uruzgan Province at the Tarin Kowt base they share with Australian troops. ‘The Dutch and Australians are making a big effort but it is too slow in bringing stability to the province,’ Ladurner said. ‘The local people are not happy with the progress made. It is still not safe. The region is still wild.’
One of the reasons it takes a non-Australian to provide this insider’s view of the situation around Tarin Kowt is the Defence Department’s obsession with controlling media access to our troops.
From the left, Taylor, Pugliese and Uzunov in helmets and vests in Kandahar.
Captain Brendan Maxwell, Australian Army Public Relations officer in the Afghan capital, Kabul, said it was impossible for a journalist to turn up in Afghanistan and demand to see the Australian soldiers at Tarin Kowt. ‘Journalists have to be embedded and that takes weeks, maybe even months to organise,’ he told me, when I arrived in early May hoping to report on our soldiers’ Afghan mission. ‘Journalists who are embedded are required to stay on base and are taken on some patrols.’
Defence’s secretiveness will prove counter-productive in the long run. Giving journalists access eliminates distrust and suspicion. The excuse that it’s too dangerous just does not wash. War journalists understand the risks and are not interested in putting soldiers’ lives on the line for a cheap story.
On 15 May, Prime Minister John Howard, farewelled a task force made up of elite SAS and Commando soldiers who are returning to Uruzgan Province (after a break of six months) in preparation for major operations against Taliban insurgents.
Their previous battles against the Taliban were some of the most ferocious fought by Australian troops since our involvement in the Vietnam War.
The Afghan people need our help. By keeping Australia’s defence debate a closed shop among a select few, we are not getting a broad view of what is actually happening in Afghanistan. And that’s of no use to anyone.
Tangling with the Taliban
They call Kandahar in southern Afghanistan the most dangerous place on earth. This is the Taliban’s stronghold. Roadside bombs regularly explode here, and a number of western journalists and aid workers have been kidnapped and murdered since the war began in 2001.
From the left, David Pugliese, Scott Taylor and Sasha Uzunov dressed as locals.
On 10 May, I flew from the Afghan capital, Kabul, to Kandahar with two Canadian journalists, Scott Taylor and David Pugliese. We’d been invited by the Afghani authorities to inspect a detention centre there that holds Taliban suspects.
We’d grown the customary beards before arriving in Afghanistan and, as a further precaution, we wore local clothes we did not want to stick out. Crazy thoughts crossed my mind about Douglas Wood, the Australian contractor kidnapped in Iraq. Taylor had also been kidnapped and tortured in Iraq.
When we entered the city I noticed a white ute with two men inside pull up close to our 4-Wheel Drive. One of the men was rubbing a Kalashnikov rifle, resting on his lap, as he watched us closely.
I was in the front passenger seat next to our crazy, hard-drinking Turkish driver. Behind us were the two Canadians. I hid my camera between my legs, not wanting to blow our cover.
The white ute then dropped behind, and followed us for about five minutes. Alarm bells really began to ring every driver in Afghanistan wants to get in front of you, not behind you.
Our driver hit the accelerator and swerved into on-coming traffic, barely missing 10 cars with the white ute pursuing us. It was a car chase straight out of a Hollywood cop movie.
Eventually, we lost the ute, and drove to the detention centre. This was the first time that Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) the equivalent to the United States’s FBI and CIA combined had given access to its Kandahar detention centre. They had done so in an effort to counter allegations that Taliban suspects were being picked up by Coalition forces, handed over to Afghani authorities without proper supervision, and then tortured.
Colonel Noor Mohammed Balak Karzai, Deputy Director of NDS in Kandahar Province, said the allegations about mistreatment of detainees and Taliban suspects were not true. ‘We have good relations with the Canadian, American and Australian forces,’ he said.
The Canadian Armed Forces have the responsibility for security of the Kandahar Province, which is the epicentre of the Taliban insurgency. Australian forces are based in neighbouring Uruzgan Province, but some detainees captured by the Australains have ended up in Kandahar. Colonel Karzai said detainees are held for 72 hours and then released, if there is no evidence against them.
However, if more time is needed, the suspect is held for another 15 days. A court order is required for an extension of detention. The relatives of the detainees are permitted to visit and bring food once a week. If a suspect goes to court and is then convicted, he is sent to the central prison in Kandahar or the main jail in Kabul, depending on the length of sentence handed down.
With the story and photos in the bag, we focussed on getting back to Kabul. When we’d flown in, we šd been told there were no return flights for over a week. Taylor had to get back in ti
me for a plane to Canada, so our first plan was to hire a local driver (the Turk was staying behind) and a make a run for it six hours through Taliban territory.
I would sit in front because I look Afghani, while Taylor and Pugliese would sit in the back wearing burquas, the traditional female clothing which covers the whole body. The impression would be of ordinary Afghanis travelling to Kabul on business. Our driver would carry a 9mm pistol and a Kalashnikov rifle as back up.
But what if we were stopped at a Taliban roadblock? Would we journalists have to use guns to save ourselves from kidnapping and possible murder?
Fortunately we didn’t have to find out at the last minute, a contact managed to get us on a British C-130 Hercules transport plane from Kandahar to Kabul.
These are the split-second events that can put reporters’ lives on the line. The key is adaptability and a willingness to go outside the wire, un-embedded, to get the real story.
The sad truth is war reporters are no longer treated as independent observers but as targets to be killed or taken hostage for financial gain.
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