Saturday 10 March 2007

An unhealthy lack of information

Our struggle to keep abreast of the progress in the Iraqi and the Afghani campaigns is not done for entertainment or out of idle interest. We take our responsibilities as citizen/subjects in a democracy seriously, and could hardly do otherwise, having so often declared that democracy is not a spectator sport.

Thus it is that we need to know what is going on because, if the campaigns are being badly mismanaged, and the government does not respond adequately or at all, we will be part of that band of people who raise a clamour and demand action. That is what living in a democracy is about.

The trouble is, so many miles removed from the action, we rely on others for information, on the media, on official sources and on the occasional discussions with people who have been there – all assessed through the filter of our own experience, background knowledge and powers of understanding.

That said, the essential problem with Afghanistan is that the flow of information is sparse and very often second-hand. Media reports, for instance, are often datelined Kabul, written by journalists hundreds of miles away from the action in the context where it matters not whether it is hundreds or – like us – thousands. The information is still second hand.

That much which is based on official information can be totally unreliable, representing spin from organisations which are determined to present the best, and thus leave out bad news.

A classic example is a recent media report of Nato activities at Garmsir. Offering details of a military "success", a month later the troops are still having "successes", but seem no further forward than when they had their earlier successes.

We saw this especially with the accounts of the Kajaki dam clearance, where we are now being told of a third operation in as many months, having been led to believe that the first two had been successful.

On the other hand, looking at the totality of information available to us, we believe there is a possibility that Nato (and especially British) forces are not doing too well. We could even be at risk of losing.

However, unlike many, we do not take the view that the Afghani war is inherently unwinnable – the white man's graveyard of yore – and took some comfort from a piece earlier last month in the American Spectator by Hal Colebatch.

He argued that the myth of inevitable defeat for British forces is precisely that – a myth. The previous campaigns in Afghanistan, he writes, don't tell us much about the present one, except that it is a very tough country inhabited by very tough people. Any army there had better be well-equipped and supplied, well-motivated and with clear-minded military and political leadership.

Then, today, in The Times, we get soldier turned photographer and war correspondent, Anthony Loyd, who argues that, "for once" an Afghan war is winnable, declaring that "the tide is turning against the Taliban".

However, if as Loyd believes, the Taliban is spent force, his information comes not from direct communication with them, but from Nato sources – the same sources that arranged a truce in Musa Qala, only to have the Taliban move in and take over.

The Australian Herald, however – with a reporter Kandahar – reports that 40 miles to the south of Musa Qala, "Sangin is boiling", the town that straddles the British communication line to the Kajaki dam region.

The fierce and unexpected activity of the Taliban here tends to confirm the fears of some analysts who, according to the Herald, argue that the insurgency has spent the winter regrouping and is showing signs of more sophisticated communications, tactics and command-and-control structures. And it has Pakistan as a sanctuary from which to operate. And, as we saw recently, they can still reach out in unexpected places, to ambush unsuspecting convoys.

It is as well to remember that only a fraction of the manpower and aid deployed to Iraq is being allocated for Afghanistan yet, while the country and its population are bigger than Iraq, the foreign force is only a fifth of that in Iraq. Even with everything going for it, the Nato force is going to find it much harder to prevail.

But there are worrying sign the Karzai government – never firmly in control – is losing its grip in the southern provinces, while the population is becoming more alienated by foreign troops, and their perceived indiscriminate killing of Afghani civilians.

This harps back to a perspicacious report published in February 2004 on the dangers of collateral damage, a report which seem to have been largely ignored as Nato forces rely more and more on airpower rather than more precise and controllable land equipment.

All we have to go on, though, is slender scraps of information – and a sense that very little effort is going into reporting what is going on. Instead, we get acres of coverage on the career of Patrick Mercer, a minor Tory politician, unknown to most people before a few days ago, all from a media that is obsessed with trivia.

If the war is winnable, though, we need to make sure we put the necessary resources into winning it but, so far, it is more than a little difficult to find out what is going on. That is not healthy.