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Australian media access to Afghan mission vital for understanding

It’s been a bad year for the Australian military fighting in Afghanistan. Three soldiers were killed in May, another in early June, bringing the total to 27 since Australia committed troops to the coalition that invaded Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in 2001.

The deaths highlighted for Australians the reality of being at war and led to calls from some commentators for an immediate withdrawal, to end the waste of Australian blood and treasure for no discernible return.

It was wrong, they said, for Australia to have such a huge commitment -- more than AUD$7 billion by this time next year -- to a far-away place posing no threat to the homeland. Afghanistan would never become a democracy in our own image, women would never enjoy equality, the authorities would always be corrupt and, as soon as the alliance pulled out, warlords would roam at will and the Taleban would take their place in government.

The Australian government’s justification for engagement in Afghanistan was boiled down to simple politics -- the obligation to stand by Washington. Afghanistan would never be the safe haven for terrorists that Prime Minister Julia Gillard claimed. Australia’s strategic interests were not at stake, they said; success as defined by the defeat of the Taleban was an impossible dream.

How many of these writers, I wondered, had been to Afghanistan? Stepping off a plane behind a politician chasing a photo op, before stepping right back on again, doesn’t count. How many of them had lived, worked, talked with, questioned and listened to the Australian men and women serving in Afghanistan?

The answer is very few, because the Australian political and defense establishments restrict media access to the Uruzgan mission. Unlike the US military, the Australian defense forces do not welcome the presence of embedded journalists.

This lack of interaction perpetuates a general misunderstanding about realities on the ground, creating the impression that Australian soldiers are fighting a hot war 24/7. They are not.

The most important task of the Australian military in Afghanistan is the training and mentoring of Afghanistan’s security forces. Those calling for immediate withdrawal fail to understand how important this arduous  task is, that without competent armed forces and police, Afghanistan cannot look after itself, and until it can step up, the Western alliance is obliged to remain.

Those saying terrorists are unlikely to regroup in Afghanistan, and use it as a base for attacks elsewhere, do not understand its geography, its relationship with Pakistan, or the opportunism of extremist groups. US media have reported that Al Qaeda has moved back into Afghan border regions, establishing training camps, as US forces now concentrate on populated areas.

Those who say Australia’s vital interests are not at stake fail to understand radical Islamist ideology and its goals -- and appear to forget that Australians have already been targeted, most notably in Indonesia.

Australians would benefit from informed analysis of the mission in Afghanistan. Political and military leaders would benefit from an intelligent relationship with the media. Serving men and women would be better honoured by a greater understanding of their work.

Politicians, diplomats and military leaders are quick to blame journalists for poor reporting and thin grasp of issues. Those who are tightest of lip are usually harshest in their criticism.

Solid analysis of the strategy and the lack of cohesion between the military and political objectives is lacking in Australia’s coverage of the war in Afghanistan. But the blame lies with the government and its defense establishment. The Australian people -- including military and media -- deserve better.