An SOTG squirrel so secret …

By Natalie Sambhi and N.R. Jenzen-Jones

By chance, we stumbled across an interesting addition to the Department of Defence’s Afghanistan frontpage: video footage of Australian troops in Afghanistan, including the SOTG.

The latest SOTG footage (video here) relates to an incident on 6 May 2011 in which members of the SOTG administered first aid to Afghan civilians injured by an IED. While the faces of SOTG soldiers and Afghan civilians have been obscured, the footage (which appears to have been recorded with a helmet-mounted camera) provides only momentary insight into operations there.

Moreover, there appears to be no announcement of what seems to be a step towards greater visibility of Australian operations in Afghanistan.

Defence still appears to be lurching towards greater (though currently modest) openness but lags behind coalition partners. ISAF partners including US, UK, Germany and the Netherlands to name a few, have defence ministries and departments that have extensive and regular video footage as a part of their Afghanistan media operations. We acknowledge that some of these partners may have greater capacity to conduct media operations. It seems as though the Dutch have no shortage of video footage of their troops in Afghanistan. In comparison, one decade into the conflict, Defence’s output is sparse.

We have been critical of Defence’s PR machinery here at Security Scholar and can only hope this development marks a milestone on a road towards modernising the public image and accessibility of the ADF. With any luck, an announcement will be forthcoming from Defence so that this latest step towards greater accessibility is not lost on the general public.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ISAFMedia.

Defence ambiguity on Female Engagement Teams

There appears to be some confusion as to whether Australia has deployed Female Engagement Teams (FETs) in Afghanistan. Last month, around the time of the ADFA sex scandal and the ensuing (but somewhat unrelated) debate on the role of women in combat, the ABC’s Sally Sara reported that the ADF does indeed employ FET to engage with Afghan women.

Other than one March 2011 media release alluding to female ADF participating in a FET, the lead nation of which is unclear, there have been no explicit statements supporting Sara’s claim. This does not necessarily mean her claims are false; rather Defence has remained coy on the matter (I deconstructed the ambiguity of the media release in this March post).

One would think that, at the height of the women in combat debate, it would have been an ideal time either to back up Sara’s statement on ADF FET by way of clarification, or even take the opportunity to talk up the work of female ADF members in Uruzgan and beyond. Sadly, no such statements have been forthcoming.

Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Reader reply: Defence PR still stuck in first gear

Tom Hyland is currently International Editor of the Sunday Age:

I wish it was true, but I’m not sure I agree with you when you say defence is getting its PR into gear. The pics and press release relating to the SOTG coming to the aid of survivors of the IED blast were issued a week after the event. Even allowing for the torturous ADF decision-making process, and the possible op-sec issues, reporting something one week after an event means it’s not news, it’s old.

Secondly, the pics and press release were issued on a Friday afternoon, timing that is almost certain to guarantee an item won’t be published in any of the major dailies on Saturday, because of early print deadlines.

Thirdly, the faces of the people in the pics – the doctors, medics and victims – are all pixillated. There may be reasons for this, but it doesn’t enhance chances of these images being reproduced in the media.

And finally, the press-release is written in a wooden style, with no emotion or human content. Where are the quotes from the troops involved? And where did this incident happen? Who were the people involved? Where were they from? Where were they going? Now maybe the target audience for this press release and associated pics wasn’t the Australian media. Who knows.

As for the surge in official reporting of SOTG activities, at least some of the ADF releases were issued well after ISAF had reported these incidents.

Again, I hope you’re right, but I’m not sure this indicates the ADF has got its PR act together, or that it’s decided to be more candid.

There’s an interesting piece on page 13 of the latest edition of Army newspaper. It quotes soldiers in Deh Rawoud, recounting combat in December, including one contact that lasted more than seven hours. Yet this stuff wasn’t the focus of any ADF press releases at the time.

Of course this wouldn’t be an issue if the Australia media thought it worth their while to base reporters full-time in Oruzgan. But don’t start me on that one.

Image courtesy of The Age.

Defence public relations: see no evil, hear no evil?

Yesterday, the Australian Department of Defence released information and images depicting the desperate attempts of Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) personnel and their Afghan counterparts to save Afghan civilians critically injured from an IED attack (pictured). Set aside was the bravado and triumphalism of past releases on weapons caches or insurgent leaders; here was a more human, more fragile side of the war, seen through the eyes of our special forces.

This is worth noticing because, as mentioned previously on this blog, Defence has been reluctant to engage with the public and indulge information about its operations, particularly in relation to the conflict in Afghanistan. Media releases are few and far between, and are lacking in detail. Defence’s lack of candour has created a fog of war for the Australian public and an information vacuum in which journalists are able to indulge in their favourite special forces fantasy and call it defence reporting. But, it seems that this is changing.

In the past few months, there has been a surge in reporting on the activities of SOTG operations in Afghanistan. Such reporting has not only increased in frequency but has been produced much more promptly after incidents have occurred. In April alone, there were four SOTG-related releases: two on the disruption of insurgent operations (here and here), one on an insurgent commander killed, and one on the death an Afghan child caught in crossfire. Compared to last year, there is a remarkable increase. This may be the result of a higher operational tempo or the new Defence Information Publication Scheme Plan (under which it should become easier to obtain Defence information). In any case, it seems as though Defence has gotten into gear with its PR.

It will take time to paint a fuller picture of our Afghanistan operations however, if it continues, this trend is a start for the better. The picture above of SOTG doctor Major D hunched over the fragile body of a child is a clear depiction of the pressures in a war zone. Such depictions help us understand better (but not excuse) the difficult decision made in the heat of battle, for example, by Australian commandos that resulted in the deaths of Afghan children.

As General Sherman once said, war is hell. But we need to understand how and know why. So even if Defence is late coming to the game, and even if a substantial withdrawal of our troops occurs by 2014, it is still better to see some evil and hear some evil than nothing at all.

Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Australia and a Post-bin Laden Pakistan

By N.R. Jenzen-Jones and Natalie Sambhi.

Nic Jenzen-Jones has had several years’ experience working with and producing analyses for private defence and security contractors. He currently consults on a freelance basis.

The death of Osama bin Laden undeniably brings a sense of closure to many and marks an important moment in the 9/11 chapter of history. Yet it brings to a head the many uncomfortable questions raised about Pakistan over the past years. The bin Laden episode highlights, as commentators like Joshua Foust explain in more detail, the steady degradation of US-Pakistan relations. What the killing of bin Laden demonstrates is that the US is capable of conducting complex operations within Pakistan, such as acquiring a high-value target, with what seems to be minimal (if any) assistance from the Pakistani security forces. Does this state of relations cause a necessary shift-of-mission for the US? And if so, is this a shift towards an approach more focussed on counter-terrorism operations?

With Pakistan’s ability to enjoy, hitherto, financial and material backing from the US (some US$18 billion between 2001 and 2010) and other Coalition partners like Australia, questions will need to be asked about how the Coalition will move forward in light of these developments. There is no denying that Pakistani assistance has been valuable in the ongoing war in Afghanistan, in particular in the support of targeting insurgent-rich areas bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US has based drones within Pakistan, and the Pakistani military has even captured high-ranking terrorists, and conducted airstrikes against Taliban targets sheltering in the tribal regions. However its many transgressions—particularly those of the ISI—have often come to light as well. They include ISI connections to the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, the tipping off of insurgents, and allegations of close relations with the Haqqani network.

In light of this balance sheet, Coalition partners will have to reflect upon the most effective way to continue to operate with such an ally. Citizens around the world, most certainly from those countries which have committed troops to Afghanistan, will demand an answer as to how the world’s most wanted man was allowed to operate under the watch of Pakistan’s intelligence service (the ISI) for so long and, astoundingly, so close to a Pakistani military training academy and a nearby police station.

If the current state of relations between the US and Pakistan—the determinant of the broader relationship between the Coalition and Pakistan—continues, what does this mean for Australian operations overseas? As our Prime Minister and others have observed, this episode will likely leave our Mentoring Task Force mission of training the Afghan National Army relatively undisturbed until the withdrawal of 2014. On the other hand, if continued Pakistani intransigence leads to the US adopting a more counterterrorism-centric approach (along the line of Joe Biden’s light footprint plan), there is a good chance Australia’s Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) mission will be affected. At present, the main focus of the SOTG is disrupting insurgent networks in and around the province of Uruzgan. To date, they have also conducted operations in Kandahar involving the targeting and capture/killing of insurgent leaders. Being under US command, should the US mission increase targeting of al-Qaeda elements in the AfPak region, it is not too difficult to envisage that the SOTG would follow suit. With increased operational tempo (in April alone, the latest rotation of SOTG has produced results here, here and here), there has been speculation that we have physically and mentally exhausted our SAS personnel.

This morning, Prime Minister Gillard affirmed a desire of maintaining close security ties with Pakistan, but this statement will ring hollow if Pakistan continues to produce a mixed balance sheet. Without Pakistan on board, many of Australia’s efforts in stabilising Afghanistan with the aim of denying terrorist safehavens would be in vain. Ultimately, however, the Coalition partners must be prepared to look at alternatives to working with Pakistan’s security forces.

Of course, that begs the question: how tough is Australia prepared to get on Pakistan if we risk burning out some of our most valuable military assets?

 Photo courtesy of Department of Defence