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Karzai and McChrystal visit Uruzgan

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23 March 2010 13:19

James Brown has worked as an Australian Defence Force officer and completed his Masters in Strategic Studies in 2009. These are his personal views.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and ISAF Commander General Stanley McChrystal visited Uruzgan province in Afghanistan and met with Australian troops over the weekend.

In the three days since, there's been no coverage in the Australian media. Nor will you find any media releases from the Australian Defence Force or Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In short, as far as the Australian public is concerned, the visits to Australia's main foreign and defence policy effort in Afghanistan may as well have never happened.

One interesting thing happened, though, that might have some bearing on the future of Australia's contribution in Afghanistan – Karzai reportedly sacked the Governor of Uruzgan.

McChrystal has visited Uruzgan before – as recently as Remembrance Day last year when he had breakfast with Prime Minister Rudd at Australia's military base in Tarin Kowt. Karzai doesn't visit Uruzgan often, although he has special ties to the province (he linked up with US forces there after the fall of the Taliban in 2001).

This visit means that security has improved in Uruzgan to the extent that Karzai is able to walk freely through the streets of Tarin Kowt. The bigger question, though, is why Karzai would take the time and risk visiting an Afghan province that is under-populated, relatively out of the way, and wasn't important enough for him to visit during his 2009 election campaign.

The first possible reason is damage control. An air strike against suspected Taliban exactly a month ago led to the alleged deaths of 27 Afghan civilians in Uruzgan. General McChrystal took the unusual step then of recording a video apology for the incident which was widely broadcast throughout Afghanistan.

Dutch media is reporting another possible reason for Karzai's visit – to sack Uruzgan governor Asadullah Hamdam. Hamdam has been a central partner to both Australian and Dutch military and aid efforts in Uruzgan since his appointment in 2007. He has also been the subject of two corruption complaints alleging bribery associated with the Dutch-funded construction of a road in Tarin Kowt.

Last Thursday the Australian Minister of Defence reiterated Uruzgan as Australia's main focus in Afghanistan and pledged more openness in reporting of Defence operations there. Both the visit by Karzai to Australia's main Afghan base and the potential sacking of the Uruzgan governor are significant developments in Australia's Afghan operations. The Karzai visit particularly is a potential good news story for Australia.

But although Karzai's visit has been widely reported in Dutch media, it hasn't rated a mention by the ADF's Public Affairs division. Dutch video of the Karzai visit clearly shows an Australian Lieutenant Colonel at the meeting, and in the background an ADF public relations photographer can be observed snapping away. You can see a slouch hat in the foreground of the ISAF publicity shot reproduced above.

Perhaps this visit lends an insight into the ADF Public Affairs Division's process for release of public information. More likely it shows the complexities of managing information in a war where allies have more liberal media coverage policies and every civilian in theatre is a potential blogger.

Photo by Flickr user isafmedia, used under a Creative Commons license.

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