“The disturbing thing that really came out of Afghanistan was the clear demonstration of the public’s readiness to be uninformed.”
Monash University academic Kevin Foster says there’s been a worrying amount of apathy towards the war in Afghanistan. He says there’s been no groundswell from the public or their political representatives to turn to the military and say ‘What are you people doing? Pull your finger out and let’s see what’s happening’. A combination of military paranoia, the Australian public’s unwavering support for its troops, and damaged ties between the Australian Defence Force and the media are some of the reasons why Australia’s longest war has also been described by critics like Foster as Australia’s worst reported war. Why and how has this been allowed to happen?
“I’ve done four or five embeds with the Americans since I’ve been here but they’re always the same, they’re very controlling and well versed on getting the message out that they want to get across.”
Australian photojournalist Andrew Quilty has been in Afghanistan for five years documenting the conflict.
“The ADF barely interacts with the media here, they have such a small presence and everything they’re doing is behind the scenes,” he says.
Bill (not his real name) is an active member of the Australian special forces and has served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He argues the lack of interaction between the ADF and the media is due to a fear of misinformed reporting.
“Personally I’ve seen media personnel write stories which are 100 per cent factually incorrect and it’s hard enough over there to do what you need to do without needing to worry about being exposed because of an individual’s decision on how they want to portray something,” he says.
Understanding the Afghan conflict and Australia’s role
Kabul is dusty and dry in October with temperatures beginning to drop as the war-torn capital heads towards a harsh winter. In a small room with a shaky internet connection, Australian photographer Andrew Quilty describes life in a country that has seemingly known little but war for four decades. He says he used to walk pretty freely around Kabul in 2013 and 2014 but now he rarely walks anywhere. The unarmed Quilty describes how the war continues to worsen for Afghans in 2018. Data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program predicts the total number of civilian and military deaths in Afghanistan this year will exceed 20,000. This will be the highest number of casualties per year in the Afghanistan War to date.
“I don’t think it [the war] is any less important because the majority of Americans and Australians are no longer here, it just means there’s less of a connection for the international audience,” says Quilty.
The photojournalist is referencing December 2014 when Australian and other NATO combat forces withdrew from Afghanistan and transferred the responsibility for the country’s security back to the Afghan national defence. He says the young armed forces weren’t adequately trained, experienced, or disciplined to secure the country the way it needed to be. A Department of Defence spokesperson says Afghanistan took the lead for its own security in January 2015 and since then Australian and international forces have worked alongside Afghans to build their defence, security and counter-terrorism forces. The ADF’s role to train, advise and assist Afghan forces continues to be carried out by just a few hundred elite soldiers, says Bill, a veteran of multiple tours in the country.
“If we go back to 2006 and 2007 we had about 2500 people there but we’ve withdrawn down quite significantly off that now,” he says.
Is the lack of direct involvement by Australia part of the reason the story has dropped off the news cycle? Kevin Foster says the Australian public’s connection to the Afghanistan War was missing even before 2014 due to a lack of reporting. This has resulted in the war falling off people’s radars he says.
“And when it did make the papers, it made the papers in fatalities and the problem here is that as soon as someone in uniform dies there’s a whole narrative that clicks into gear.”
The narrative Foster is describing is the idea that Australian troops are heroes fighting for their country and their country’s freedoms. How does this narrative apply to Australian involvement in other country’s wars like Afghanistan? A Defence spokesperson says it’s a national security priority for Australia to remain engaged in Afghanistan to support the Afghan Government in containing the threat of international terrorism and providing the foundations of a better future for its people.
Chief executive of the Returned and Services League John McCourt previously served in Afghanistan as a senior military public affairs officer and says despite many Australians being opposed to Australia’s involvement they’re always supportive of the troops.
“It’s not their [the troops’] choice in terms of where they go, but they’ve made the decision that if it came to it they would defend their country.”
Kevin Foster says it’s only when news is released that a soldier has been killed due to a command failure or poor leadership that there are questions from the public about Australia’s war conduct.
“Then there are brief nodes of interest [from the public] but they are completely extinguished and then the war just disappears again,” he says.
Around $8 billion of Australian taxpayers’ money have been spent on the Afghanistan War and yet in an article for the ABC Michael Brissenden writes:
“Thanks to obstacles from Defence, and a too compliant media, Australia’s longest ever conflict will be our least understood.”
Kevin Foster experienced obstacles from the ADF first-hand while researching for his book “Don’t Mention the War: The Australian Defence Force, The Media and the Afghan Conflict” which compares the transparency of the ADF with the public to the transparency of the defence forces in America, Canada and the Netherlands. He says he was amazed by not only how little information was coming back from Afghanistan but also how hostile the military turned out to be when he asked them straightforward questions about why they weren’t saying anything.
“Militaries are only too ready to reach out and claim ‘We can’t tell you about that because of operational security’ which 99 times out of 100 is just simply a way of saying ‘We’re not going to tell you that because we don’t want to tell you that’ because it’ll make life easier if they don’t tell us that,” Foster says.
Strained ties between the media and the ADF
Bill is a high-ranking elite soldier. His eyes betray no emotion and his voice is deep and demands respect. There is a slight pause before he speaks, calmly analysing each sentence before he says it. Bill says Australian special forces in Afghanistan are very transparent to their hierarchy of commanders but don’t have a role to be transparent with the public. All members of the ADF and defence civilians are signatories of Australia’s official secrecy laws which prohibit unauthorised disclosure of information that the government regards as harmful to the security or defence of Australia.
“If I break that Act the government can jail me for a long time if they wanted to,” he says.
“So it’s the hierarchy, the administrative defence and the Australian government which have the right or the role to be transparent with the Australian public.”
Kevin Foster says part of living in a democracy is being informed about what the government is doing on behalf of the Australian people. He says if we send our troops off to participate in a military campaign somewhere they are sent off under the auspices of the government who have been elected by the people, and the people have the right to know what their military are doing in their name.
Bill says something the public might not know about the Australian military is they have different rules of engagement to other countries. For example, he says in the Australian rules of engagement Australian special forces don’t have to give warning shots.
“A lot of countries if they’re under threat they’ve got to give a warning shot to say ‘Hey you’ve got to stop that’… whereas Australians don’t,” Bill says.
One way of informing the public of what the military is doing is through embedding programs. Kevin Foster says embeds involve the media going outside the wire beyond the operating bases and going out on patrol with military teams which is important in showing the public what’s really happening. America was the first NATO force to introduce embedding programs to their military involvement in Afghanistan in 2002.
Andrew Quilty’s photojournalism in Afghanistan has been predominantly focused on Afghan civilian-based stories but he has also done two embeds with US special forces just this year. He says special forces are difficult to access and that’s why it took a year of lobbying to get the US military to agree to it.
“I went to a special forces combat outpost in the east of the country and spent three or four days on each trip shadowing them [special forces] doing whatever they were doing… they were dropping a lot of bombs on mountains rather than on people,” he says.
“They’re supporting the Afghans who are at the front of the fight and the Americans oversee all the operations and give them air support if and when they need it.”
Other countries followed the United States’ lead and began their own media embedding programs during the war. Canada implemented the Canadian Forces Media Embedding Program in 2006 and in the same year the Netherlands also formalised a Dutch embed program. In 2006 when Australia had its largest military commitment in Afghanistan there was no embedding program. Kevin Foster says Australia never had any written doctrine or policy until 2009 when the country trialled an embedding program and got it up and running by 2010, just a year before Australia announced they were winding down their deployment of troops.
“It took forever to get there and when we finally got there we weren’t there for long,” he says.
Other critics argue media embedding produces a biased account of the facts in favour of the army’s agenda and lacks another perspective of the war but agree it’s the only way for journalists to see firsthand what the military is doing.
Improving relations between the ADF and the media
“We’ve tried to do stuff in the past and then they [journalists] have basically taken huge liberties with what they’ve been given and that just restricts access in the future,” Bill says about his experience with involving the media in military matters.
He uses the phrase ‘once bitten, twice shy’ to explain the ADF’s lack of incentive to include the media in their involvement in the war. Kevin Foster says at the moment the military see no value in giving the media access, they already enjoy a high esteem with the public so opening themselves to intrusive media coverage only exposes them to downside risks. However, he says with a purposeful Prime Minister and well-equipped Defence Minister the ADF would have to open up to the Australian public about their military involvement in Afghanistan.
“The military has shown that it’s their job to do what they’re told and they’ve done some pretty unpalatable things over the last decade,” Foster says.
“If the next unpalatable thing is having to open their doors to the media and interact with them more closely then they’ll do it but they have to be vigorously encouraged.”
Australia’s future involvement
“When will it end? Who knows,” says John McCourt.
“We could leave Afghanistan and be isolationist but then we’re saying that if people in other parts of the world are suffering we don’t want to go help them.”
The chief executive of the Returned and Services League says he thinks the war will end by the Taliban and civilian government talking peace but until then Australia will remain in the country at least in an advisory capacity. A Defence spokesperson says the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is leading initiatives to secure peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan, however, Andrew Quilty isn’t hopeful about the war ending in the near future.
“It [the war] will get worse before it gets better, if it gets better,” he says.
If the war does continue to worsen and the Australian government deploys more troops to Afghanistan, the question remains whether the media will be given greater access to report the war and what effect this may have on the public’s opinion of the ‘forgotten war’.
Homepage image: Andrew Quilty.