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

The serious scarcity of Defence data

An article, ‘Repeat deployments ‘good for diggers’‘, in this morning’s The Australian detailed a departmental submission to the Defence Personnel Minister addressing concerns over repeated deployments of Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel. According to the article, Australian studies showed a positive yet “not statistically significant” relationship between deployment and mental health indicators. Obtained by The Australian via Freedom of Information laws, it is worth examining the information supporting such a view, contained in the unclassified submission ‘Multiple Operational Deployments – Effects on Australian Defence Force Members’ (PDF), linked to from the article.

The main finding: the information supplied to a Minister informing him of the mental health effects of repeated deployments on the ADF was woefully lacking in comprehensiveness and detail.

First, only one Australian study (Curtis 2008) on the ADF mental health and repeat deployments was supplied. Research supporting the study was conducted between 2002 and 2007. At the time the submission was drafted, another study was being finalised, yet when considering the 11 years Australian forces have been in Afghanistan, from this submission there is seemingly an alarming dearth of information from which a proper appraisal of the effects of repeat deployments can be made.

Second, the information to the Minister did not disaggregate certain groups such as special forces. In the case of Afghanistan, as reported in yesterday’s press, the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) is involved in high-tempo operations such as Operation TEVARA SIN 24 which involve difficult tasks such as the targeting and killing of insurgents. With many having already completed multiple deployments since October 2001 (Defence, PDF), their experiences in the AfPak theatre in particular should form an important basis for the Minister’s consideration of the human effects of such conflicts.

Third, if there were no other studies available, it must be asked, what must be done to collect, analyse and disseminate data to Defence decision makers quickly and efficiently? While another study on the frequency and duration of ADF deployments has since been published, academic publication channels are admittedly slow. Therefore, in circumstances such as warfare in which time lapses have significant ramifications for those in-theatre, what can be done to produce relevant and timely information without compromising its integrity?

That our Ministers are provided such limited information with which to make decisions on matters such as deployments is a matter of concern. That the submission is unclassified is immaterial. If repeated deployments have significant mental health effects, they should be made known to the public. Together with informed debate on the strategic and political gains of engaging in such conflict, information on the effects of deployment must form part of the Australian public’s and Government’s consideration of conflicts such as Afghanistan. Hopefully, it is not too late when we understand what the costs of our departmental and even media-muteness on this side of warfare has been.

Australian FETs in Afghanistan?

Last month, I wrote about Female Engagement Teams operating in Afghanistan, comprising American and British troops. Like their NATO counterparts, female Australian troops have been deployed to Uruzgan province and, as part of the Provincial Reconstruction Team mission, they also engage with Afghan women and children. Yet little has been reported about formal Australian arrangements that mirror FET, perhaps until now.

As part of recognising International Women’s Day, the Defence Department posted a short write-up of female ADF participation in Uruzgan province. The media release began by introducing FET as ISAF’s lead initiative in engaging women and facilitating development programs before turning to Australia’s bit.

While the media release’s build-up left the ostensible expectation that Australia was engaged in FET-like activity, it only linked FET to PRT in stating that work was done in “close conjunction” and that one PRT member had participated in a FET with a female interpreter.

While it is commendable to see more Australian female involvement in the military, especially in Afghanistan, that the bulk of this write-up consists of largely other nations’ initiatives (and our fleeting engagement with them) is rather sad. It exposes a lack of creativity in utilising our female personnel. Some may argue that our contribution of 1,550 is modest and, thus, does not necessitate a prominent female program. However, I would argue that is not the point. We have female personnel in Afghanistan and if we wish to promote in particular their ability to engage with Afghan women, let’s not wait until International Women’s Day and only do so on such an ad hoc basis.

Photo of Captain Sarah Vesey (JTF HQ) in Tarin Kot, courtesy of the Department of Defence

Afghanistan’s War Dogs: the good, the bad and the ugly

Photo courtesy of UK Forces Afghanistan

Lately, there have been a few stories about dogs in Afghanistan. One of the most touching has been that of British IED-detection dog Theo (pictured right) who allegedly died of a broken heart after his master, Lance Corporal Liam Tasker was shot in action this week. Animals are a welcome inclusion in the narrative of the Afghanistan conflict. Even sad stories such as Theo’s illustrate the selflessness, stoicism and loyalty of dogs on duty. Dogs can be a good news story that lift (or distract) public sentiment about a conflict.

Yet sometimes, the good tends to overshadow the reality of a dog’s life in war zones. In this post, I wanted to explore not only the good, but also the bad and ugly of life for man’s best friend in Afghanistan.

Photo courtesy of Department of Defence

The Bad. First, there are obvious physical risks to dogs deployed to combat zones, and many, like Theo, do not come home. Some die not just from wounds sustained in explosions—one of the vicissitudes of their line of work—but also from heat stroke, friendly fire, being run over, or, in the case of one US hero, being accidentally put down. Australia’s most recent canine casualty was Herbie (whose mates are pictured left, attending the memorial service of their fallen comrade in Uruzgan), killed alongside his handler Sapper Darren Smith in Afghanistan last year.

Second, the danger is ever increasing; now it appears the Taliban are offering bounties to snipers for killing dogs and their handlers, leaving their patrols vulnerable to explosives and no doubt, diminishing morale in the process and scoring a PR win.

Once their deployment(s) is over, these dogs are cared for in hospitals (examples include the Defence Animal Centre in the UK and Holland Military Working Dog Hospital in the US) or, if they are lucky, adopted.

Photo by Lorenzo Tugnoli, TIME

And the Ugly. The plight of ordinary Afghan dogs, relative to their military counterparts, is a secondary consideration; a foreign media curiosity at best, a problem too hard to solve at worst. Sure, they’re not actively protecting soldiers and dismantling insurgent threats but they too are caught up in a post-9/11 Afghanistan.

Despite being banned under the Taliban, the practice of dogfighting in recent times seems to have flourished (incidentally, their ability to draw crowds has made them a popular target for recent bomb attacks). Although not supported by all parts of Afghan society, owners defend the practice, arguing that the dogs are well fed and, unlike in other countries, the dogs are pulled apart and not fought to the death.

What does the case of Afghanistan tell us about how we value these animals? Military or “civilian”, the case of dogs in Afghanistan shows that, at the end of the day, dogs are a cog in the machinery of man’s life. Sometimes they pay the ultimate sacrifice whether we wage war or win wagers. Their further make their contribution as a part of the propaganda campaign of conflicts: the timing of announcing Sarbi’s return with then Australian PM Kevin Rudd’s visit to Afghanistan was not lost on the Australian media. Given the dearth of information on Afghanistan, why not a good news story about a long lost canine?

While womens’ rights are currently being compromised to further peace talks in Afghanistan, I am pessimistic about animals’, particularly dogs’, rights there. In any case, we should take a moment to respect the lives and contributions of war dogs everywhere. After all, for many, it truly is a dog’s life.

Post script: More more on war dogs, please see War Dog of the Week on Tom Ricks’ blog. For further information on Military Working Dogs in the ADF, please see the Australian Defence Force Trackers and War Dogs Association. For further information on animal welfare groups in Afghanistan, please see Nowzad Dogs.


Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan

I am interested personally and professionally in greater female involvement in the military and so I have wanted to write about Female Engagement Teams (FET) for a while. FET are all female teams of American and British military personnel trained to engage with local Afghan women and children as part of the population-centric dimension of COIN strategy in Afghanistan, as directed by former COMISAF General McChrystal (see ISAF directive on FET, PDF).

In terms of effectiveness, from most reports, FET members have provided basic medical care, negotiated with shura elders to develop alternative ways for their women to generate income, reported on matters such as schools and wells, and attempted to provide reassurance to communities of ISAF’s presence and commitment. Over the past few months, I have followed FET developments in the media (here’s my pick FET photo essay) and official military blogs.

But in the midst of following this female-led initiative, I have noted that in practice several aspects of this venture are contradictory to its overarching goal of building confidence and support for the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) and ISAF. A story run by Stars and Stripes that documented a FET Marine’s triumphant “stand” against her male Afghan soldier escort seemed contrarian to the overall spirit of military-population engagement that it seeks to foster, so I wanted to know more.

My tentative conclusion is thus: while the immediate benefits of FET such as medical care given to women and children are commendable and important, in the medium to long term, the prospects of achieving some measure of improvement to the lives of certain Afghan women and supporting GIRoA are grim.

The program creates a false expectation that down the track GIRoA can and will provide for the needs of Afghan women in contact with FET and those who, hearing of FET visits, are waiting for them. This is a concern because so far GIRoA has shown a worryingly patchy record of looking after Afghan women and their issues. Moreover, the perception that FET is geared towards improving the lives of Afghan women and their families is openly promulgated by members of the US’ Human Terrain Analysis Teams, lending further weight to the high expectations of this program. How will these practices continue, if at all, once ISAF leaves? While this question perennially looms over foreign aid and development programs in Afghanistan, it remains unaddressed in the context of FET-related activities. If GIRoA fails to deliver on FET promises, its integrity will further suffer. This is hardly confidence-building.

Even if the program supports GIRoA through intelligence gathered, the practice alone of accessing Afghan women through enquiring and attending to their basic needs which leads to the raising of expectations has, sadly, a rather exploitative tinge to it.

If FET members are seeking to build ties between GIRoA and the Afghan population, considerable time and effort are needed. Repeated and frequent visits are not always possible; FET members regularly encounter myriad practical challenges in order to meet Afghan women, from carefully synchronising their visits with patrols in the area to working around the desperate shortage of female translators.

If FETs are to have medium- to long-term effects, then surely more enduring cooperation with and greater confidence in GIRoA would be best facilitated via the Afghan National Security Forces, especially female members. However, hiring and training female soldiers and policewomen is currently a difficult undertaking; for instance, trainers straddle cultural roadblocks and the anguish of having students murdered for being policewomen. Moreover, recruitment numbers are low and conditions are dangerous; in 2008 Afghanistan’s top-ranking policewoman was shot by the Taliban for refusing to quit work.

There are other points regarding FET to note; John Stanton, in his blog post, also highlights the lack of standardised training for FETs and the problematic underpinnings of FET such as the assumption of female influence “behind closed doors”.

All in all, I accept that, due to operational security, information and data on the ground on this initiative are hard to come by. No doubt, FET members work hard and bring some measure of immediate happiness to their Afghan female hosts. I am pleased to see women take a prominent role in the military and support the members of FET. However, there remain unanswered questions about the medium to long term outlook and, as a result, this, in my opinion, undermines the program as a whole. In a post celebrating the apparent successes of FET, Tom Ricks quotes an “internal summary”:

“In one home, the women said they had caught glimpses of the patrolling FET through a crack in the wall and that they had ‘prayed you would come to us’.”

One can only speculate on the fate of these women and the future they hope for when their “guardian angels” leave.

Post script: Here is a similar critique (including some good pictures) of FET by blogger Rachel Robb who is stationed in Kunar province.

Image by SPC Kristina Truluck, courtesy of Flickr user The U.S. Army.

The problem with defence journalism


I nearly choked on my cup of tea whilst reading Ian McPhedran’s report of the latest Victoria Cross recipient Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) soldier, Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith, in last week’s Daily Telegraph. McPhedran carefully set the scene:

The brown dust from the departing choppers that carried the SAS squadron south from their base at Tarin Kowt had barely cleared when all hell broke loose. It was October 2010, at the height of the Afghanistan fighting season, and a large Taliban force had established numerous firing positions around heavy machineguns. More than 24 elite Perth-based Diggers from the Special Air Service Regiment were under withering fire. Realising his mates were in grave danger, and with no regard for his own welfare, the SAS Corporal charged headlong into the Taliban machinegun fire. The sight of the 202cm Australian warrior coming at them must have shocked the bearded Afghans.

It was a little more action-packed than your run-of-the-mill defence article, but I was still sipping at this stage. However, what I was about to read next—an excerpt from an earlier battle during which Corporal Roberts-Smith earned his 2006 Medal for Gallantry—put me off my Earl Grey:

During that fight, according to comrades, “RS” tore a Taliban fighter off his back like an insect, stood on his throat and shot him dead.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Reporting on the conditions facing members of the Special Operations Task Group (of which the SAS is a part) is a necessary part of painting a picture of the war in Afghanistan for the Australian public. On the other hand, against a context of information scarcity on the conflict, the sexed up nature of McPhedran’s description was uncomfortably magnified.

I wish to make clear that my issue with McPhedran is not ad hominem. My issue is with the lack of consistent and informative reports available about the ADF in Afghanistan, brought to light by the nature of McPhedran’s article.

Defence’s tight grip on information flow has been striking and to its detriment. In July of last year, journalist Chris Masters imparted to an audience at the Lowy Institute the frustrations involved in trying to report on ADF activity. In November, Prakash Mirchandani pointed out an inconsistency in Defence’s stance on Wikileaks by highlighting the conflicting opinions of two frontline young officers interviewed by an embedded journalist and the Minister for Defence Stephen Smith. The same month, Monash University held a conference on information warfare during which it was revealed Australia was the most restrictive in providing access to defence correspondents in Afghanistan.

I cannot help but think that this lack of public information in turn stifles real discussion about our commitment, leaving us with only McPhedran-style action-packed postcards and, more alarmingly, lackluster parliamentary debate (see Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s opening speech here and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s here).

We owe it to the Australian public and to members of the ADF to depict an honest and comprehensive picture of Afghanistan. The mental image of an SAS soldier with his foot on the throat of an enemy is a rather confronting one. It would be a shame if it turns out to be the most striking.

Postscript: For those of you interested in reading about the SAS, let me steer you first towards In Action with the SAS by military historian David Horner, before pointing out McPhedran’s books, The Amazing SAS and Soldiers Without Borders: beyond the SAS. Or, Matthew Reilly.

See also, our related article ‘Losing the narrative battle: civilian deaths and Defence PR‘.

Photo courtesy of Department of Defence