When Were We Winning In Afghanistan?

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Australian media’s coverage of Afghanistan waned very quickly in the first half of 2005. No Australian reporters were permanently based there for any length of time, with the exception of Michael Ware who worked for Time magazine in Kandahar.

The narrative of a quick, clean and righteous victory over the Taliban welcomed by a grateful population was not challenged in the Australian media, especially after the start of the Iraq war. Media attention did not return to Afghanistan for several years.

By the time I began reporting from there in 2005, there had been very little in the Australian press to challenge the Afghan victory narrative. There was a severe disconnect between the realities on the ground and the perception of the conflict as a success by most media commentators involved in covering the defence and policy issues that arose from Australia’s redeployment to Afghanistan in 2005.

This is demonstrated by my experience of breaking what turned out to be a very significant story from Afghanistan when I first went there for SBS’s Dateline in 2005.

I went to Afghanistan to report on the parliamentary elections that year but it was an incident filmed by my colleague, photojournalist Stephen Dupont, shortly after I departed that became the main focus of my report. I had asked him to provide me with some shots of US troops in Kandahar, as that was where the Australians were then based. He called me in Australia from Bangkok about a week later. He had been too concerned about the US military seizing his footage to reveal, over the phone from Afghanistan, what he had filmed. He told me that he had gone on an operation in Kandahar province with troops from the US 173rd Airborne and a team of US Army Psychological Operations (Psy Ops) specialists.

He had filmed them burning the bodies of dead Taliban fighters and broadcasting defamatory messages over loudspeakers to incite the Taliban to violence: "Attention, Taliban, you are all cowardly dogs. You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west and burned. You are too scared to come down and retrieve their bodies. This just proves you are the lady boys we always believed you to be."

Dupont was travelling with a Psy Ops unit that drove a Humvee with huge loudspeakers attached to the roof. They had broadcast these messages in Pashtu over the loudspeakers to try and get some reaction from the Taliban they believed to be in the area. Dupont had merely asked the soldiers to repeat the messages in English to the camera, which they did, evidently thinking it was quite funny.

Under Islamic tradition, it is strictly forbidden to burn bodies. Muslims believe that the dead should be washed, prayed over and buried within 24 hours. Yet not only was the soldiers’ behaviour offensive, it was also illegal. Article 120, Section III of Geneva Convention III of 12 August 1949, states that the dead are to be "honorably buried, if possible, according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged".

What is so remarkable about the whole episode, is that it was so unremarkable to the troops involved that they made no attempt to prevent Dupont from filming it and even went out of their way to repeat the broadcast messages in English and on camera for him.

The practice of using the enemy’s religious and cultural taboos to demoralise, degrade or enrage him had been utilised by US forces time and again in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was central to the sexual humiliations in Abu Ghraib, the use of dogs in Iraq in interrogations and searches, the stripping of detainees, the placing of feet on the heads of detainees, the desecration of the Koran in Guantanamo and other accusations of misconduct.

Covering Iraq the previous year, before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, I had heard many similar accusations and had trouble publishing them. I had interviewed former detainees in Baghdad and interviewed the families of those detained outside the prison itself, before being chased away by US guards.

The previous year in Afghanistan, an Australian colleague of mine, Carmela Baranowska, had recorded similar accusations made by Afghans against US troops in Oruzgan province. The common theme in all of these complaints, accusations and proven abuses by US troops against civilians and combatants alike in Iraq and Afghanistan, was that the abuses themselves were specifically designed to violate a specific cultural or religious taboo, usually related to Islam.

This was a tactic, along with the interrogation techniques, specifically designed somewhere along the military chain of command for use against Muslims. Somewhere in the US military people were identifying Islamic, Afghan and Iraqi customs, and recommending ways to violate them with a frequency that was only slowly becoming apparent as, occasionally, an incident was caught on film, witnessed or photographed.

Countless more accusations were dismissed on the ground by sceptical and partisan reporters as being complaints of those with an agenda, or were blocked at an editorial level by a press in the US, the UK and Australia that, by and large, supported both wars.

Dupont got his pictures having spent the previous day and night with the Psy Op troops, who fruitlessly searched Afghan compounds near where a firefight had taken place that had killed the two Taliban fighters who would later be burned.

The following morning, when Dupont accompanied the soldiers into the small village of Gonbaz, as they searched the mud brick houses and tried to extract information from the reluctant inhabitants about who or where the Taliban might be, he recorded this exchange:

SOLDIER: That’s OK. If you can give us that information, we can actually reward you. If you can give us that information, you will be doing a lot to help the people around here who are innocent and shouldn’t be arrested. Because I am trying to do what I can right now, to find the bad guys because we don’t want to end up having to punish everyone.

VILLAGER (Translation): I have no knowledge of the Taliban themselves. I do not know the person who reports to the Taliban in this village or who from the Taliban side is asking about the Americans.

SOLDIER: I just have one more question for him. You just tell him, that it’s really important that you help me, ’cause I’ll say it again. What my commander wants to do with all the forces in this whole area is round up everyone in this town since no-one is helping us and nobody is turning over the people in this village who actually are part of the attack. So I’m gonna be leaving in about five minutes this is going to be your last chance to try to help yourself.

The soldier’s threats to round up everybody in the village if no information was forthcoming were almost as damaging to the US cause as the practice of burning bodies and defaming the religion of the local inhabitants.

Such behaviour was turning the population against coalition forces at a time when there were so few foreigners on the ground, that brief raids into villages and exchanges like the one above were often the only time the population had any contact with them. When the foreigners disappeared back to their bases, particularly in Kandahar province in the south of Afghanistan where this village was located, the only regular source of authority seen in the area was the Taliban.

The body-burning footage was broadcast as part of my report on Dateline. It was immediately picked up and rebroadcast by hundreds of television stations around the world. By the next day, it was one of the major headline stories of the day, as well as being carried by all wire services and reproduced worldwide. (In Australia, by contrast, the story was in the news for about 24 hours and then quietly died.)

Almost immediately, Dupont was conducting interview after interview regarding the footage, and it did not take long before there was widespread reaction in the Muslim world. US embassies in all Islamic countries were put on high alert for anticipated violent demonstrations.

The top US commander in Afghanistan was quick to respond to the report: "This command does not condone the mistreatment of enemy combatants or the desecration of their religious and cultural beliefs," Major General Jason Kamiya said.

He announced an immediate investigation by the army’s Criminal Investigation Division into whether the actions of the soldiers violated conventions on wartime treatment of corpses or other regulations. Kamiya did not doubt the authenticity of the report, but said it had to be verified that the troops were Americans.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the allegations "very serious" and, if true, "very troubling". Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that burning bodies "is not anywhere close to our standard operating procedure". But it was the US Secretary of Defense himself, Donald Rumsfeld, who acknowledged the accuracy of the report when he said that "it’s always disappointing when there are charges like that. It’s particularly disappointing when they’re true".

Fearful of a backlash against them, the international community in Afghanistan went to great lengths to distance itself from the US military over the report. UN spokesman Adrian Edwards told a press conference that "such abuses are totally unacceptable. They are an affront to the work of the international community in Afghanistan".

But it was the response of the US military that was the best indicator that these practices were more widespread, and that the incident Dupont had filmed was not an aberration from military procedures then in use.

In an interview with the Marine Corps Times on 28 October 2005, US Afghanistan Commander, Major General Kamiya, acknowledged that on the night following the Dateline broadcast, he "directed in an order that all tactical psyops operations be discontinued pending command review".

In the same interview he acknowledged that a broad review of psychological warfare training was being undertaken, as well as the inquiry into the specific incident Dupont had filmed.

Meanwhile, on the internet, a campaign led by right-wing bloggers and pundits was doing all it could to call into question the facts of the report and to smear, defame and discredit Dupont and I. No matter that the veracity of the filmed incidents had been accepted by the Pentagon, the Afghan government and the UN; consistent efforts were made to denigrate SBS, Stephen Dupont and me as pro-Taliban, anti-American propagandists, efforts that did partially succeed in burying the fallout from the story.

Andrew Bolt of the Herald-Sun, also condemned the story. Drawing on the allegations raised by US bloggers, Bolt deduced that SBS had "misrepresented" what the film had shown. He introduced me as "SBS journalist John Martinkus, who was freed by Iraqi terrorists last year after they looked up his reports and found, as he put it, he ‘did not support the occupation’". As though the fact I had not been killed was evidence enough of my sympathies.

The Bolt piece led to questions being asked of SBS management in Senate Estimates committee hearings. The questions related to the so-called inconsistencies in the story that were first dreamt up in the US blogosphere and then regurgitated by Andrew Bolt.

SBS strongly rejected the claims. Then SBS Managing Director, Shaun Brown, accompanied his response to the questions with the results of the US Army Criminal Investigation Division’s inquiry into the incident that resulted in disciplinary action against four American soldiers.

The following year, as a result of the burning Taliban story, I was refused accreditation by the US forces in Afghanistan. It did not matter, as NATO accredited me and I was able to travel independently to Tarin Kowt to report on the situation the Australians would be facing.

This is an edited extract from The Information Battlefield: Representing Australians at War, edited by Kevin Foster.

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