Media's focus misses target
While our troops are making tactical gains against the Taliban in Afghanistan, our politicians are failing them at the strategic level.
The young officer allowed his frustration to show at the end of the pre-deployment course, just before travelling into Afghanistan. ''What can you do'', he asked, ''if the media reports something that's just plain wrong?''
It's an understandable frustration for the diggers. They're about to put their lives on the line as part of our effort to reconstruct the fragile country, doing the job our governments ask them to do. They're frustrated, for example, with a recent media report suggesting that even their boss reckons the task of rebuilding the country might be doomed to failure. It's not that any of the particular quotes appearing in that story were incorrect; but over here, in the Middle East, people argue the overall impression created was incorrect.
At a local level soldiers can see the difference they're making. In Oruzgan, the province where the bulk of the Australian forces are deployed, there's been real progress. The Chora road is open and the last fortnight has seen a dramatic drop-off of insurgent activity. This lull always comes as the cold of winter begins to envelop the bare, rocky, countryside in its grip. This year it's happening about a month earlier than previously. The Taliban don't want to continue the fight.
The policy of targeted killing is succeeding in taking out insurgent leaders, one after another. Intelligence suggests the Taliban are now finding they are having difficulty motivating locals to fight. Their network is under assault; off-balance; more concerned about defence and pressing attacks on the government forces.
And yet, and yet ...
The media focus inevitably on the fact that the main provincial base takes a rocket every day. These are fired from different locations and the insurgents don't stay to fight. But journalists passing through quite accurately trump this up into the obvious story. More than a decade after the World Trade Centre attacks; almost half a decade after our troops deployed in force to this part of the country; the insurgents' reach is still strong enough to pose a direct threat. How can this be regarded as progress?
It's the difference between focusing on the tactical gains that are measurable and distinct and the strategic progress that appears fragile and blurry. One story shows the advances, the other demonstrates how far there is to go. And it's in the telling of this story where the friction between the military and the media is at its worst.
Of course it's nothing like the 1970s, when the country was torn by division over the Vietnam war. Nevertheless, every poll asking whether Australians support the conflict their soldiers are currently in comes back with an emphatic answer. ''No''. Unsurprisingly, those on the ground feel as if someone is undermining them. The difficulty is pinning down exactly who.
The past four months have witnessed a big change in the way our forces are engaging with the media. They are opening up. For the first time one journalist, Chris Masters, has been permitted to film (with a military team) the Special Operations Task Group. Until now the activities of the SAS and commandos have been kept under wraps. This silence has permitted conspiracy theories to flourish. Stories have emerged about hits gone wrong and the killing of innocent people. The lack of transparency inevitably means that the media seizes on any unsubstantiated rumour. The difficulty of finding out the truth, often for good operational security reasons, increases the tendency for journalists to put the worst possible interpretation on events.
The military has still been unable to convert tactical success on the ground into strategic support for the war. But that doesn't mean this is necessarily the soldiers' fault. One officer says more journalists have been deployed with the forces in the past four months than in the preceding four years. No one is certain whether this was a political directive (from Stephen Smith) or a military one (following the departure of Angus Houston). The result has been, however, dramatic.
The Nine Network recently screened an extended, four-minute news report sympathetically portraying the operations of a unit clearing a valley. This sort of publicity is gold for the military, because it shows it's achieving the mission. What's difficult to explain to the soldiers is they are being badly let-down by the politicians. The failure is not at a tactical level: it's the strategic level that failure emerges. The politicians aren't making the case for our deployment.
After the death of (yet another) Australian soldier, Julia Gillard insisted ''it's in Australia's national interest to be there, full stop''. And so it is. But the full stop abruptly truncates a necessary and vital debate. A simple assertion doesn't carry the weight of persuasive power. It can't, because it doesn't explain. And when the Prime Minister is under assault on every front, it's no wonder that her claim is being increasingly challenged.
This is a strategic issue. It's not up to the soldiers to explain why we are in Afghanistan. Nor should they be expected to come up with proof that strategic objectives are being achieved. Many of these are simply out of their control. Our forces have no choice, for example, with the local officials they are forced to work with. The military is finding itself sandwiched between the media's insatiable demand for stories on the one hand, and vague generalisations proffered by politicians at the strategic level. There are two ways of explaining this. One asserts that the objectives of journalists and soldiers are fundamentally divergent. This assumes the military (like any good bureaucracy) doesn't want to be challenged as it goes about its business. This is the Vietnam paradigm, which suggests the tension will never be resolved.
It doesn't have to be like this. In a paper almost a decade ago (then) academic Rod Lyon warned that treating information as part of the ''battle space'' risked confusing operational success with strategic victory. This can't and won't, be decided by media manipulation.