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New media in the forthcoming battle for Kandahar

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25 May 2010 12:32

Prakash Mirchandani is the founder of Media Gurus and a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

While researching a paper on new media and soft power, I was struck by the amount of reliable information available through the internet which traditional media does not tap into. 

Take Afghanistan, for example. Australia has a dog in this fight, yet there is very little analysis of how effective our forces are there. A whole raft of serious bloggers have joined the traditional media in trying to lift the veil of military obfuscation, and my hope is that in a series of occasional posts, I can collate information from disparate sources to bring a clearer view to what is going on there.

Take the present push by Canadian and US forces to launch the largest military operation in Afghanistan. The target is the fertile and booming city of Kandahar. Once the home of Afghan Kings and the stronghold of the Taliban, it is plagued by suicide bombs, drug lords, assassinations, and a corrupt political system that opened the door for their return. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has said: 'I believe Kandahar represents the real centre of gravity in reversing (the Taliban's) momentum'.

The idea is that this will be not so much a military operation but one aimed at capturing the hearts and minds of the citizens of Kandahar. NATO intends doing this by setting up an incorrupt and elite police force which will consolidate good governance. And while this is happening, US, Canadian and Australian special forces will 'mop up' insurgents in the surrounding areas.

As ever, there's a gulf between thought and deed, which the internet's catchment is revealing. The 'elite' police force – the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP) — has in practice used checkpoints in nearby Helmand province to shake down residents. And over three quarters of the officers in one battalion were kicked out for using drugs. With their training far from complete, the whole Kandahar operation has had to be postponed from June to later in the year. 

NATO is also faced with endemic corruption in Kandahar itself. As a former NATO official with years of experience in Kandahar puts it, '(y)ou have essentially a criminal enterprise in the guise of government, using us (NATO forces) as its enforcing arm.'

The corruption centres on the local provincial leader – Ahmed Wali Karzai, or AWK as he's known. He is President Hamid Karzai's half brother. Without his support, the coalition forces cannot consolidate in Kandahar. With his support, coalition forces lose the confidence of the local population. It's a classic Catch 22.

It will be interesting to see if Australia's Special forces have any knowledge of the local warlord militia groups which are alleged to be in the pay of US Special forces and the CIA as private armies. These groups are increasingly being blamed for theft, corruption, and targeted assassinations.

It seems odd that many of those assassinated seem to have been the ones critical of the Afghan central government and of the government in Kandahar. An Afghan prosecutor has issued an arrest warrant for an American special forces commander over allegations that a police chief was murdered by a US-trained militia. Given that all Special forces in the Kandahar area come under the command of Australian Brigadier Gus Gilmore, it will be interesting to hear what he is feeding back about this issue.

My intention is to trawl the expanding blogosphere and web pages to bring you a monthly picture on what is happening in this key campaign; to 'reach the parts which traditional media does not reach'.

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

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