The Taliban is fighting a full-spectrum war – in the media and on the ground. Yet the ADF, so quick to rush its leaders out for a media briefing when an Australian soldier gets killed, seems to have stepped back from the fight for perceptions.
In the last 24 hours, Australia's main military base in Afghanistan has become involved in a complex Taliban attack on the civilian population of Uruzgan. The Taliban detonated two bombs in the town of Tarin Kowt, walking distance from Multinational Base Tarin Kowt where Australia's Mentoring Task Force and Special Operations Task Group are based.
Three suicide bombers detonated themselves outside the Uruzgan governor's compound, the Radio and Television Afghanistan station (located on local powerbroker Matiullah Khan's private compound) and the Afghan National Police Headquarters. The Tarin Kowt hospital's maternity wing was demolished in the explosions and Taliban attackers reportedly fired indiscriminately into the town's marketplace with small arms and rocket propelled grenades. Of the 22 civilians known to be killed, one was a local BBC reporter and 16 were children, many killed in or around the hospital.
It is a horrific and spectacular attack carried out with media impact in mind. It reflects how the nature of the fight in southern Afghanistan is changing, and illustrates that the Taliban is under pressure to perform and limited in its ability to attack hard military targets.
It was not a successful attack. Few military or police personnel were killed. No military infrastructure was destroyed. Two of the Taliban's suicide bombers (reportedly from Pakistan) failed to detonate and were arrested by Afghan soldiers. The Governor was not killed, nor was Matiullah Khan.
But none of this information came from the Australian Defence Force. In the day or so since the attack, the ADF's enormous media division has been silent. Its official Twitter account hasn't muttered a word since 21 April. Nothing has been posted on the ADF YouTube channel in the past three months.
In the last hour, we have seen the first media release from the Department, yet there's still no word from the Minister regarding the incident, and no briefings at Defence Headquarters in Canberra to explain what the attack means. The ADF's Joint Task Force 633 Facebook page, an excellent initiative, has posted much in the last 24 hours, but none of it about what is happening in Tarin Kowt.
The war in southern Afghanistan is now a war for public perceptions – both in Afghanistan and back here in Australia – about who is stronger and who will ultimately prevail. The actual facts on the ground mean little. For the Taliban to win, it needs to get more headlines like this to convince Australians that the Afghan security transition is a lost cause and to hasten the rush of coalition troops to the exits.
So where are the Defence voices explaining what this attack means to the Australian public? Where are the military experts explaining that this attack doesn't signify that security in Uruzgan is getting worse, in fact it may signify the opposite? The ADF is fighting with one hand behind its back.
Photo by Flickr user david_axe.