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Afghan assignment: life with Australian troops
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Interviews this week with more than 20 Oruzgani notables, including MPs, tribal elders, businessmen and police chiefs, elicited a litany of complaints on behalf of a population of more than , on collapsing services and the rorting of meagre funds and supplies in the wake of the departure of Australian and US forces from their mountain redoubt. Kate Geraghty Fairfax Media was told that despite their failure to provide classes for children, local education officials inflated student numbers by as much as per cent, and then hoarded the ghost students' allocations of World Food Program oil and nutritional biscuits — which they later sold on the black market.
And funds earmarked for teacher salaries were pocketed by corrupt public officials. Most of the Australian-sponsored schools and health facilities, often hailed by Canberra as the proof of a new life for a people wearied by decades of savage war, are run by unqualified staff. And at the main hospital in the provincial centre, Tarin Kowt, staff constantly bootlegged equipment and medical stocks — and even the bed blankets. Nabi Khan Toki, a tribal chief at Sorgh Morghab, near Tarin Kowt, complained that he had recruited security guards for two schools in his district — but no teachers could be found.
Haji Abdul Rahman, a tribal elder at Miandaw, in Deh Rawood district, said two local schools had been shuttered; another in neighbouring Tangi also had closed. Services at several local clinics had collapsed since the departure from the area six months ago of a foreign aid group — "in healthcare we have nothing — service is zero," he said. One of the most celebrated aspects of life in post Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was that girls could go to school — but not in Deh Rawood. And elsewhere in the province, Fairfax Media was told, girls accounted for as many as 25 per cent of pupils.
Province-wide, according to Haji Mohammad Qasim, an elder of the influential Popalzai tribe, only 20 per cent of schools were functional; the remaining 80 per cent were paralysed, he said. The frequency of attacks can range from 10 blasts in one night to several weeks apart. I was told the blasts seem to be coming further apart which could indicate that the coalition is getting better at intercepting the fire. The hospital is impressive. Run and staffed by members of the coalition, including Australians, it has an exceptional treatment capacity. If a wounded soldier arrives at the hospital with a heartbeat they have a 99 per cent chance of survival.
We arrived on coloured-shirt day. The medical staff in this hospital deal with some very traumatic injuries and it can be tough. They look for opportunities to give people a lift. Coloured-shirt day is one of them.
They're in the early mindset sauna to make to Afghanistan. We sloppy through a day of old and thanks are clearly high around the stories. Q Do you wanted the women you bonus beside?.
The hospital deals with all sorts of medical requirements from diagnostics to surgery, optical and dental health, and friehship a comprehensive mental health department as well. It also treats the important military dogs that work with the troops in Afghanistan. It provides medical and psychological treatment for them too. After that we went to the Wounded Warrior Project nad recovering soldiers can access all the medical services they need during rehabilitation. It's important for two reasons: John had miraculously survived a rocket attack on a lookout post he was standing in.
He received shrapnel wounds to the face but was otherwise unhurt. Three other people around him were injured, including a young man whose back was broken when he was hurled against a wall. John was reasonably unhurt physically but seemed to be still coming to terms with the shock of the experience. It's the second time he's been wounded in action on this deployment. Several weeks ago he was on patrol when one of his friends stood on an improvised explosive device, which resulted in devastating injuries including the loss of his legs. John and his team tried to save their mate, but his injuries were too severe and they couldn't keep him alive.
When John phoned his mum to tell her he'd been injured a second time it was too much for her and she refused to answer the phone. I asked John if he would deploy again. He said, "I definitely want to.
What do friensip Australian or allied forces do to help build the local communities' trust? It's a significant element of the peacekeeping and stabilisation effort in Uruzgan province. Afghanistan started from a very low base when the coalition first arrived. Looknig have been improvements but even after 10 Looikng it still has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, one kn 10 children will die before the age of five, and 30 per cent of the economy is derived from the drug trade, which helps to fund insurgents. Plssibly province, where the Australian Mentoring Taskforce is based, along moe the United States and some Singaporean and Slovakian troops, is one of the poorest and most disadvantaged provinces in Afghanistan.
In the past, it's received very little poseibly from the tarib in Kabul. The Provincial Reconstruction Team is working to foster local and provincial government and build links between them and Kabul. It's possibly governance taarin transparency and accountability, and helping develop schools, health services, agriculture and to open up frkenship roadways so farmers can take their produce to market which will assist in building the economy. The military is applying its considerable expertise and resources to those infrastructure tasks, employing local builders but requiring building safety standards.
There are now schools; there were Across the country the gains are slow. I haven't met with locally based aid organisations so I haven't been able to gauge their assessment of the work. I'll be interested to follow that up after the embed. There are many challenges and it is very long-term work. The biggest challenge will be making the improvements sustainable after the coalition mentors withdraw at the end of Defence authorities say it has envisaged support will continue in various forms after that. Q What is the relationship like between the Afghan troops and the Australian troops?
One Australian officer I spoke to mentors leadership to an Afghani officer. This land-locked country has been invaded for thousands of years. They do need mentoring in organisation, logistics, tactics and so on. But those skills will never be sustainable if the coalition tries to impose western methods like a one-size-fits-all solution. The western approach must be tailored to fit the Afghan people and the resources available to them and it must take into account local solutions that currently work, or adjust local solutions that could work better with western input. In Uruzgan province, for instance, there is very little electricity available, so a computerised inventory system is not sustainable.
Q Do you trust the afghans you work beside? There are a few reports of Taliban insiders. However, Defence authorities say the reasons for 'green on blue' attacks are complicated and often relate to complex cultural sensitivities that may have been inadvertently triggered. Processes have been put in place by both armies to try to minimise the risks and both armies are on alert for them. Q What are some moments they've experienced friendship or gratitude from Afghan civilians? Conversely, what are some moments they've experienced resentment and hostility from Afghans, apart from actual violence? Were there any conscientious objectors to the Afghanistan operation? Was anyone considering conscientiously objecting?
What are the best and utter worst parts of their job? Do they trust the US government? However, on the third question I can tell you there are no Australian conscientious objectors because the Australian Defence Force doesn't have conscription.
Everyone volunteers to deploy. Without fail, everyone has said the worst part is being away from their families. On the move Photo: Australian troops and civilians boarding a C Hercules in Afghanistan. Kathy McLeish I've been offline for a few days but it's not because there's been nothing to report. Completely the opposite - it's been non-stop. There is so much work going on here, so many projects and missions and so much infrastructure, we haven't stopped moving. On top of that there's the time it takes to move around. A one-hour flight can stop you in your tracks for more than half a day - and that's if your flight is on time and hasn't been delayed, cancelled or rescheduled.
You can't carry hand luggage on the plane and frankly, it would be difficult to do so. Every flight 'in country' requires that you wear your combat body armour and have no loose items, so pockets are stuffed and anything that can't clip on to your body Looking for a frienship and possibly more in tarin kowt can't travel with you. Other security and safety measures include a scan at the airport, pretty much the same as what happens at home except for the fact that everyone is required to place guns and knives in a carry basket before going through the scanner. They can then collect their guns and knives on the other side of security and take them on the plane. Airport security in a war zone.
Internet can be a challenge. While the welfare internet that's provided free by Defence is fine for Skype and Facebook, for logging in from another computer like I am, it can vary from difficult to impossible. So, my apologies for not posting to the blog for a few days. View a gallery of photos I've taken along the way. Several kilometres wide, it's Australia's aeronautical super-highway to and from Afghanistan. Because there is no land access to Afghanistan from Australia's support base, people and resources are all transported by C Hercs. It's a mighty effort. Because Hercules aircraft are so vital here, the crews who fly them and keep them in the air are automatically rotated into theatre, because they have to be here.
Kandahar Airfield or KAF is a melting pot of coalition forces. More than 35, defence personnel, contractors and associated government personnel are based here from a myriad of nations. About of them are Australian. And it's dangerous for a number of reasons. Because it's such a huge base, a lot of people come and go; many of them are civilians. Security here is heavy and Australians always carry weapons when out on the main base. KAF was described to me this way: It's the busiest single-lane airstrip in the world but instead of a range of light aircraft and domestic jets, there are Chinooks, fighter jets, C and C Hercs, Black Hawks and other military aircraft coming and going, in the air and on the ground, constantly.
The dust here is a fine grey powder, almost finer than talc. The air is filled with it and every surface is coated in it, painting it all the same grey colour. The result is an almost desolate landscape effect. The vehicles only add to the effect. ATVs, armoured four-wheel drives, military vehicles and ordinary cars all share the roads. Winding through the landscape, above and sometimes among the buildings is a makeshift-looking system of power lines. Most of the roads aren't paved, adding to the dust. Within the main compounds are smaller compounds, each one with a wall around it, and each country has its own. We are at Australia's Camp Baker. The main threat at KAF comes from 'indirect fire' - rockets which are launched into the airbase by insurgents.
On arrival at any base of post in Afghanistan, everyone receives a briefing laying out the standard operating procedure for minimising harm from threats for that particular area. Here at Camp Baker we were given a run-through on the procedure in the case of a rocket attack. When the alarm sounds, lay on the ground for two minutes and then move to a bunker. The reason for lying on the ground is that when rockets hit, fragmentation sprays out and if you're low to the ground there's more chance it will spray above you. The bunkers obviously make sense — and they are everywhere on bases in Kandahar. With more than 30, occupants, KAF is like a small city.
In amongst it all is the Boardwalk and it's a must-see, and quite surreal. You literally step up from the war zone landscape into a very basic but relaxed entertainment and shopping area. The boardwalk is built in the shape of a square. In the centre is a running track, a soccer field and a hockey rink. A verandah surrounds the area and a range of food and gift shops open on to that. Camp Baker is quite small, comprising a small row of accommodation blocks with names like Coogee and Surfers, plus a few other associated buildings and sheds. As soon as we get in the gate, the Aussie touches are obvious — a volleyball court, the swagman's bar although here it serves near-beer, not the real stuff because alcohol is not permitted on deployment and other essentially Aussie images.
After the long journey, there's a real sense of being back in the fold. These are highly trained, professional soldiers, sailors and airmen and women talking thoughtfully about what they do and taking pride in identifiable achievements. There are some civilians, too. The words are mostly carefully chosen and the language is modern: They are skilled military technicians rather than instinctive Diggers. Thirdly, there is empathy and compassion for the people of Afghanistan. One interviewee, Captain Daniel Fussell, describes how people in the fields paused only momentarily as the bullets flew over them: We see Australians providing medical and training assistance and talking to tribal leaders and their womenfolk.
There are close-up depictions of medical help for children and women, as well as service people.
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mofe The extent to which the people deployed to Afghanistan attempted community assistance and civil reconstruction is another clear difference from earlier generations of uniformed Australians. There was also, we are told at one psosibly, closer involvement with the people of Afghanistan than American forces often managed. BC There is not much s about mateship, Lolking than by implication, although Corporal Mark Donaldson VC has a telling sentence or two right at the end significantly — it works well as a coda about the bond of brotherhood — staying alive and keeping your buddies alive.
Nor is there much about violent death. There are two notable long descriptions about injury, both told from two sides. Lance Corporal Gary Wilson talks about the effects of his injuries, including brain damage, and his wife, Renee, describes his long recovery. There is not much in the DVDs about why we were in Afghanistan. But a mission statement cannot reveal the challenges, the successes, and the comradeship of the Australian men and women who pursue it. Nor does it express the joys and heartbreaks, the loneliness and the dedication, of those who wait at home.