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Afghanistan: Inside Australia’s War

ABC's doco presents a war through considerable access -but can it get an audience to relive it?

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The challenge, if there is one, in getting an audience to sit down for an inside look at Australia’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan is the subject itself.

As anybody who worked on a Gallipoli special knows too well, making a grim subject palatable is no easy feat. In the case of Afghanistan it also risks being perceived as either too soon, or too late.

None of this should deter our filmmakers from broaching a tough subject, especially when they have such excellent footage and access as Afghanistan: Inside Australia’s War.

This three part series takes you on the ground, with military footage matched with soldier and SAS interviews. It includes interviews with decision makers, including former PMs John Howard and Julia Gillard, and hears from Afghan commentators Senator Hila Achekzai and former Warlord Pacha Khan Zadran.

It begins with September 11 2001, when Brigadier Garry Banister was in the Pentagon as it was attacked, and John Howard was also in Washington. Haunting newsreel of the World Trade Center relives the news Sandra Sully broke Live to Australia.

As the Taliban and Bin Laden are pinpointed as the enemy Howard recalls this would be the pursuit of a “phantom enemy, a borderless war.” Standing side by side with George Bush, Howard also wanted Australia to play a meaningful role as an ally, not just becoming another country on a list.

Over time that would see 33,00 Australians fighting in Afghanistan.

Yet some Australian soldiers were keen to go, likening things to a football team training for a match that never comes.

“It was like putting on the green and gold for Australia,” says Signaler Martin Wallace.

“You bewdy, I will go in a heartbeat,” one recalls saying. Another was convinced eradicating the Taliban would be like kicking out a “ratbag” from a country where it was not wanted.

On the ground in Operation Anaconda, soldiers faced vast, inhospitable terrain.

“Everyone that you went past had a gun,” says one SAS soldier (each is filmed surreptitiously to conceal their identity).

Fighting was brutal, and the special includes footage of Australian forces under attack, surrounded in a dry river bed and seriously underestimating the enemy.

The Aussies also hold position in the mountains for 12 days, proving so formidable to the Americans that they are told, “I hope we can fight with you next year in Iraq.”

Joining in the attack on Iraq is a decision that does not come easily to Howard, recalling he “wandered around the balcony in Kirribilli” trying to arrive at an outcome.

Worse is to come when chasing the Taliban out of Afghanistan leads to a power vacuum, insufficient aid money, corruption, protests and riots aimed at the new govt, a resurgent Taliban and civil war.

Soldiers who had fought in Afghanistan in 2001 would be forced to return in 2005.

Writer and director Victoria Midwinter Pitt has crafted a dusty, embedded look at this war from the perspective of an individual soldier, to the bigger picture in the hallways of Canberra. I would have liked more to reflect the public opposition than the odd shot of a rally.

Narrator Dan Wylie avoids emotion in his sparing commentary of this insightful work. If documentaries are about access, then Afghanistan: Inside Australia’s War meets its charter and lives up to its title. For some that may be too real to revisit, but we must also learn from history to avoid repeating mistakes.

Afghanistan: Inside Australia’s War airs 8:30pm Tuesday on ABC.

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