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1 August 2011 14:26

Susanne Schmeidl is co-founder of the Afghan NGO, The Liaison Office, and editor of the Lowy Institute's Afghan Voices series.

Last week the Taliban carried out a complex attack on the government in Uruzgan province, leaving at least 22 people dead (including women and children) and 40 injured, most of them civilians. Among the casualties was 25-year-old Afghan journalist Ahmad Omaid Khpalwak, who worked for the Pajhwok Afghan News agency, the BBC and occasionally other newspapers around the world.

He was one of the few — according to himself, one of only five — journalists working in this southern province. He had also been working on a piece for the Lowy Institute's Afghan Voices series.

I got to know Omaid because he visited the Uruzgan office of the NGO I work for, The Liaison Office. He came to use the  internet, often complaining that the lack of internet availability in Uruzgan was impeding freedom of speech by stopping local journalists from communicating effectively with the outside world.

On the day he died, Omaid was looking for an internet connection at Uruzgan's local radio station. Unfortunately for Omaid, the radio station was next door to the office of local strongman Matiullah Khan, one of the main targets of the attack.

Omaid was passionate about his profession, often working as a stringer for others, and became the go-to journalist in Uruzgan. He was careful to maintain his independence, despite the fact that the ability to report freely in Uruzgan had been declining in recent months.

Indeed, the people who were the main targets of the attack in which he died, Matiullah Khan and Provincial Governor Omar Shirzadhad, criticised local journalists for 'making the province look bad' in the eyes of the outside world. Matiullah had blamed Omaid for a critical story about him that had appeared in the New York Times. Since then, Omaid said, Matiullah — a favourite of Australian special forces at the moment; a few of his men were brought to Australia for training last year — had been making his life difficult.

Omaid felt strongly about the need to get information out and not be deterred or intimidated by what officials, strongmen or even insurgents thought. It was in this spirit that he was writing a piece for Afghan Voices about local attitudes toward the Australian military presence in the province.

We had talked about his research a number of times. He said it had been difficult to gauge local people's opinions about the Australian presence. Feelings were mixed and often confused. On the one hand, locals liked the fact that Australians helped to clear roads and expand security. On the other hand, people disliked the night raids and capture-and-kill missions that in some cases had resulted in civilian casualties.

The irony is that there are conflicting reports about the exact circumstances of Omaid's death and there have been calls for an inquiry. While the Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack, it alleges that the Afghan National Police shot Omaid. The Taliban would do that, of course, and in the end, even if The Taliban did not shoot him directly, it did launch the attack.

Some locals, however, have pointed the finger at foreign troops. One report claims he was shot from a helicopter, which the Taliban obviously does not have. It is impossible to assess such claims, although they may just reflect growing ambivalence about foreign troops. When NATO helicopters arrived after the attack, the local guards at our office were heard to mutter darkly, 'now the internationals are coming to kill the rest of the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) that the insurgents did not manage to kill.'

When I interviewed the new chief of police in Uruzgan in early July, I asked him what the biggest difference was between Uruzgan and Kandahar, where he had worked earlier. He said that in Kandahar, three ISAF battalions were working in the city and 17 in the province. There was only one battalion for all of Uruzgan, mostly focusing on the provincial centre.

Omaid is mourned by his young family, his relatives, friends and colleagues. It would be nice if he could be remembered somehow. The Australian Government (or those Australian newspapers and media groups he worked with) might even think about funding better public internet access in Uruzgan or creating a media centre in his name.

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