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The truth is being pushed aside in Afghanistan

Date

Nicholas Stuart

A villager is searched by soldiers from the Afghan National Army during a patrol together with Australian troops in the Mirabad Valley near Patrol Base Wali, in Afghanistan.

A villager is searched by soldiers from the Afghan National Army during a patrol together with Australian troops in the Mirabad Valley near Patrol Base Wali, in Afghanistan. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Increasingly, the war in Afghanistan is no longer about anything that's happening on the ground. Instead it is about managing political perceptions and appeasing the many different interest groups with a stake in the war, while the allies rush for the exits.

Tomorrow a young Australian is being laid to rest here in Canberra. His death is a tragedy. Nothing should detract from his sacrifice. He was attempting to do the right thing in an honourable cause - training Afghan soldiers to support the rule of law. His actions displayed the wonderful, honest openness we've come to expect from the ordinary digger.

His cause was noble. What a pity his sacrifice was immediately betrayed by others with their own axes to grind, who used his murder as an excuse to embark on vengeful activities of their own.

Last week began badly for Defence and massive letters splashed why. President Hamid Karzai was demanding a ''full inquiry'' into why a 70-year-old imam and his son were killed during a search for Sergeant Hekmatullah, the killer of the three Australian soldiers. Our soldiers then seized others, including a woman. No evidence has ever been adduced linking the raided compound to the murders. It's not surprising Karzai wanted more information.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith was quick to front the cameras. He announced the operation had been authorised in accordance with normal procedure. ''Two people,'' he continued, ''who have been confirmed as insurgents, were killed.''

Pardon? How can an ageing religious leader be ''confirmed as an insurgent''? Where's the proof? Despite continued requests Defence has refused to provide any further information about the raid.

In a country where only 2.4 per cent of the population makes it to the age of 65, someone who's 70 acquires a degree of respect, particularly if he's an imam. Was it really necessary to kill the old man? How did doing so help the fight for democracy? What, specifically, were the circumstances leading to his death and why did Smith describe him as an ''insurgent''? Was he armed and firing at the Australians? Had he just witnessed his son's death? Was he reaching for a gun, as we were earlier told Osama bin Laden was? Or was he, like the al-Qaeda leader, surprised unarmed?

The informed guess in Kabul is that Matiullah Khan, the Australian-backed and notoriously corrupt provincial police chief, apparently provided the tip-off. You may not have heard of Matiullah, but your taxes have made him an Aussie dollar multi-millionaire. How? Well, his ''Road Police Brigade'' collects regular bribes for keeping the route to Kandahar open. That's the main supply route for our forces.

The illiterate former taxi driver's managed to do pretty well out of the war. He also enjoys a special relationship with the US and Australian military. He identifies the bad guys and we eliminate them. Unfortunately it sometimes turns out that the dead ''insurgents'' weren't actually Talib after all. Sometimes they seem to have just been his personal rivals.

So what actually happened? The Afghan president has accused our forces of acting without authorisation. They deny it but nothing Smith has said rebuts Karzai's central allegation of recklessness - unless you are prepared to take at face value the Minister's blithe assertions.

Unfortunately other observers, people who posses a detailed understanding of the human terrain of the province, furiously question the ADF's interpretation. We don't know what's happening but the odds are Karzai does. The President spent time in the province as a young man. He comes from the same Popalzai tribe as the dead Imam and may well have known him personally. He may suspect that Matiullah's duping the Australians into fighting an internecine war that's seeing most of his rivals eliminated while the ''road police'' receive training from the ADF, paid for by the Aussie taxpayer.

We'll never know the truth about what's happening in Afghanistan because too many people want to push facts to the side. Let's start with Karzai. Perhaps his anguish is very genuine. He sits in the palace in Kabul courtesy of a rigged election, but he understands the enormous anger surging around the country at what appear to be 'targeted killings'. The Afghan people heard his fury.

Smith, on the other hand, is worried about Australia. He wanted to shut down the bad headlines. That's exactly what he did. It's possible he believes what he says, although I personally doubt he's that naive. We want to trust our forces are doing the right thing and I'm sure most are attempting to bring peace and stability to the country. But in order to achieve this we need to follow the correct strategy. At the moment we're not. These killings are making Australia detested. But it's not working. No matter how many are eliminated, the insurgency isn't being beaten.

That's other point. Few Afghan media outlets would have carried Smith's denials. At one time we were waging a war for the hearts and minds of the locals. Today only Karzai's engaged in that particular war. Smith's words didn't carry very far across the broken, rocky ground of Uruzgan.

It's difficult to know what to make of the opaque noises coming from Kabul, but Karzai does, apparently, feel personally affronted by the death of the imam. Until now it has always been assumed that when our trainers pull out in 2014 that the special forces would remain for as long as was necessary to prop up the regime.

The SAS and commandos are happy to stay. They want to. The money's good and, although the work's hard and dangerous, it's exciting. Now, however, it seems as if some question marks are finally being raised about this continued deployment. Karzai's finally beginning to weigh up all the assistance he's receiving and deciding he might be better off without some of it. It's increasingly difficult to see what, if anything, our forces are achieving in the province.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.

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