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Thursday 22 Feb 2018 | 13:57 | SYDNEY
Thursday 22 Feb 2018 | 13:57 | SYDNEY

Afghan voices discuss Australia's effort



22 November 2011 12:17

Today, a day after the Prime Minister kicked off another parliamentary discussion of Australia's commitment in Afghanistan, we are launching the third in our Afghan Voices series of occasional papers.

'Two Afghan Views of Australia From Uruzgan' differs from its predecessors for a tragic reason. Omaid Khpalwak (pictured), who was drafting a paper for us about local attitudes towards Australia's military and development efforts, was killed in July of this year before he could complete the project, following a Taliban attack in Uruzgan's provincial capital, Tarin Kot. Omaid was shot dead by a US soldier who mistook him for a suicide bomber.

We were able to recover and translate a first draft of Omaid's paper. Susanne Schmeidl, the editor of the Afghan Voices series, knew from talking to Omaid that he was close to submitting it to us. While the paper would have gone through the normal editing and redrafting process, we decided in this instance to publish excerpts from the paper, mainly as a tribute to Omaid, who was one of only a few Afghan journalists working in the south of the country.

Omaid's views on Australia's military operations in Uruzgan, and those of the people from different parts of the province whom he interviewed, are sobering for someone, like myself, that thinks Australia should see out its commitment in Afghanistan. He is especially critical of what he sees as Australia's unbalanced support for particular tribes and Popalzai strongmen, in particular Matiullah Khan, who was appointed provincial chief of police shortly after Omaid was killed.

Nevertheless, it is precisely because I believe in the importance of what Australia is doing in Uruzgan that Omaid's views should to be heard.

While young, he was a well-informed and respected journalist who worked for a range of media including a couple of Australian papers, the BBC and the local Pajhwok Afghan News, Afghanistan's largest independent news agency. I hope his observations will contribute to what in my view should be the real debate about Afghanistan in Australia: not so much about whether we should stay or leave, but about what we should be doing while we are still there (and after reading the PM's statement from yesterday, it does seem we are on the way out, albeit gradually in the lead up to 2014).

I hope someone from the ADF will be willing to respond, perhaps on this blog, to some of the claims Omaid has made.

This Afghan Voices paper also includes an interview conducted last week by Hekmatullah Azamy and Susanne Schmeidl with the governor of Uruzgan province, Mohammed Shirzad. The governor is more positive, even effusive, about Australia's contribution in Uruzgan. He was also particularly keen to refute a front-page story run by the Sydney Morning Herald on 10 November that claimed he wanted to leave the province because he feared for his safety.

We know that presenting two such differing views will not help those still trying to make up their minds about Australia's commitment in Afghanistan. No doubt opponents and proponents of Australia's presence will cherry-pick evidence from either Omaid or the governor that best supports their case.

The reality is, however, that local attitudes on these issues are complex and sometimes even contradictory. Different communities in Uruzgan have different experiences of Australia's presence there, often depending on whether their main interaction is with Australia's development effort or with the Australian Special Forces' aggressive effort to remove the Taliban from the province. For those communities that encounter both, it is often hard to reconcile Australia's kinetic efforts (including night raids and house searches) with its reconstruction and development work.

In fact, I found both perspectives useful. The governor — who is respected by many in Uruzgan — provides some reassurance that progress is being made. But Omaid reminds us that what Australia is doing in Afghanistan needs to be repeatedly checked against local perceptions and local realities. There should always be room for accepting justified criticism.

Ultimately, however, the views provided by Omaid and the governor are valuable if for no other reason than they provide the Afghan voices that are often missing from debate on the war in Australia. And that, literally, is what the Afghan Voices series is all about. My attitude to the war and Australia's role in it is neatly summed up by the words of our Afghan Voices editor Susanne Schmeidl, who has been in Afghanistan for a decade. As she said in an interview with The Australian on the weekend:

We are there and we cannot turn back history. Having intervened to begin with comes with a certain responsibility and obligation; and, frankly, I think that is what international actors should keep in mind. Leaving when things are falling apart is not necessarily the best and most honourable way to go, and not fair to all the Diggers (who) have put their lives on the line so far.

Afghans have a good way of putting it, Schmeidl says: 'It's like cutting open a patient and deciding halfway through the operation to not finish the job and hastily sew things back up. Would we think good of such a surgeon? Unlikely. We probably would sue for malpractice.' You can download the paper here.

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