Documenting our forgotten war: Australia in Afghanistan

Documenting our forgotten war: Australia in Afghanistan

When to web publish, when to print? I often find myself talking to friends at Arena about print vs. the web. As I write this I am literally surrounded by books, comforting me as I look at them now, shelf by shelf, covers of different sizes, colours, typefaces, and languages all looking out to be recognized, their place in my life recalled. I love the physicality of books, their smell and texture and look, their adaptability and attractiveness as a mature technology, and the lookability of them. I like the convenience of magazines and newspapers, their ready-to-go-ness, and the fact that twenty five years later, I can still pick up and smell the print on something a friend or I once wrote, and remember a sliver of exactly what was going on in my life, half a lifetime ago.

The web of course does none of these things, but to the chagrin of my print editor friends, and my own regret, most of what I write these days either goes straight onto the web, or even when it’s in print, I push for a web version almost immediately. If I look at my own publications website, (the embarrassingly narcissistic sort that is de rigueur in Australian universities today), there are a couple of books’ worth of more or less reasonable and pleasing pieces it would be useful and pleasing to re-work into solid book form, but other priorities intrude. But on the other hand, I get letters from people in all sorts of places who have come across something I have written, find it of use or interest for their own unexpected purposes, and want to get in touch.

Last year when we decided at Nautilus Institute at RMIT that the next Austral Peace and Security Net project was documenting the activities of Australian military and police forces abroad, and the policies and legal structures that governed those activities, the web was the only answer. We launched the first part of the Australian Forces Abroad series, Australia in Afghanistan, quietly, as a kind of extended beta test – that’s one of the beauties of the web – you can fix it continually on the run. Especially so on the new PLONE content management system that the Nautilus technical maestro in Berkeley, John Withers, has built for the Global Collaborative web site, our new web home. If you can manage to type a piece like this on your PC, you can use PLONE. So immediately our labour costs were drastically reduced – not just over print, but over standard HTML web publishing.

Australian Forces Abroad: Afghanistan is the first in a series of web resources on Australian Forces Abroad being produced by the Nautilus Institute at RMIT on the policies, activities and consequences of Australian military and police and intelligence forces abroad. As of May 2007 more than 3,850 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel were deployed overseas in eight operations. In March 2007 there were 375 Australian Federal Police (AFP) members serving overseas in International Deployment Group operations, including more than 200 in East Timor, and another 86 officers in liaison roles in 26 countries.

There are remarkably few organised and accessible public collections of information about Australian military activities in Afghanistan – for that matter any other current theatre of military or police operations. There are no collections of contending policy analyses or even of basic documents. This lack of information inhibits informed community discussion, and encourages the incorrect belief that there is no reliable information available to the public. The scale of horror in Iraq has generated at least some media focus, however uneven and biased. But Afghanistan – the media’s “good war” to Iraq’s “bad war” – is a blank zone.

Constructing Australia in Afghanistan was relatively easy: the hard part was conceiving it and designing the structure of the site map. It’s an information site, not an advocacy site. And it’s not really a site about Afghanistan as such – there are a number of those already. It’s about Australian military and police in Afghanistan, the policies that sent them there, their activities there, the bureaucratic and military organisations they work within, their relationships with other coalition forces, with the Afghan government and its military and police, and with Afghani society. Necessarily, there is some background material on Afghanistan and the origins of the war there, but kept to a minimum. To build Australia in Afghanistan we first had to build a number of sections on the military and political organisational elements that all parts of the Australian Forces Abroad project will share including accounts of command, intelligence, legal, logistics, budget, equipment and weapons systems, and security policy.

The elements of Australia in Afghanistan will be updated as more information becomes available about existing ADF and AFP activities, and as government policy develops.  Moreover Nautilus expects that over time errors and omissions in existing material will come to light and be rectified, and new versions of existing pages will be mounted. In that respect materials offered in both the Australia in Afghanistan and the wider Australian Forces Abroad projects are provisional, and always subject to revision.

What has been striking to me since we launched Australia in Afghanistan is that the response has been positive from both peace activists and policy people in Canberra. That is just what we had hoped. Peace organisations, currently in a senescent phase in Australia, need sources of reliable and comprehensive information to mount intellectually coherent and intellectually honest critiques of policy. But they often think that the promulgators and executors of policy in Canberra base their activities on a comprehensive knowledge, in this case, of Afghanistan and the overall picture of what they are doing. After all, we think, there are these things called intelligence agencies … In my experience, and Australia in Afghanistan confirms this, the same problems of disorganised and hence inaccessible knowledge characterises policy circles. This is not at all to set aside political differences or to discount the massive imbalance of resources between government and civil society. But the construction of a framework of accessible common knowledge is a first democratic step. And the web in this case facilitates this, and lays the groundwork for the next stage: informed criticism of the largely hidden war in Afghanistan.

The web, especially in its PLONE platform customised for the Global Collaborative, allows exactly that flexibility and accessibility. Now that Australia in Afghanistan is up, the Australian Forces Abroad project will continue later this year with Australia in the Solomon Islands, then Fiji, and East Timor, and, if we can secure the funding, Iraq. Australia in Afghanistan was built out of time stolen from other work obligations, and by virtue of RMIT’s generosity in base funding. The task is now to secure the funding for both Australia in Iraq, and more importantly in the long run, the budget to ensure regular and comprehensive updating. There’s nothing worse than a good website that goes dead, when the issue it claims to address goes on.

All this has lead to an important debate inside Nautilus that has a wider relevance. Why, we asked, do we not simply mount our product on Wikipedia, and allow the global community of Wikipedia contributors to continue the project? Our decision to not do so was not a result of doubt about Wikipedia: it is undoubtedly, apart from Linux, the one great practical testimony to the capacity for communal self-organisation that underlies anarchist hope in corporate times. And the work of a dedicated and diverse group of Wikipedia contributors on the coalition wars and on socio-technical aspects of the Australian military is something we note on almost every page of Australia in Afghanistan. Wikipedia is a profound lesson and inspiration.

Quite simply, we hope and expect that anything that is of enduring or wider value that we do will in short order be incorporated into the relevant Wikipedia sites. We hope the work will be acknowledged, but what matters is getting the work out there, and stimulating the serious debate about the militarisation of Australian foreign policy.