Afghans do not want the tanks to leave, and nor should we
The increasingly predictable commentary on Western involvement in Afghanistan centres on the need to abandon that troubled country.
Having recently completed a 12-month contract working for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan as head of radio broadcasting, I can offer a very different picture of this broken yet incredibly proud country. My picture comes from the perspective of a journalist mentoring Afghan journalists, talking, laughing and hoping with them - and sometimes their families - every day.
I left Australia in February last year convinced that international forces should leave Afghanistan, and that all Afghans must feel the same.
How ill informed I was.
These were assumptions made without having visited the country or having spoken to an Afghan, but I was nonetheless sure of my opinions. Yet every Afghan I spoke with, and there were many over the past 12 months, pleaded that the West remain or civil war would resume. ''We like the army tanks; they brought peace to our country,'' I was told repeatedly.
Most commentary on the situation in Afghanistan comes from within the prism of either the American military or agenda-driven politicians. These are people with the authority to fly into Afghanistan, speak to a few chosen people, then leave as quickly as possible.
They conclude quite rightly that Afghanistan isn't ready for the transition to Afghan-controlled police and military, and consequently the International Security Assistance Force should withdraw from the country, as it's hopeless.
Surely we should be doing the exact opposite, precisely because the need is clear. The current situation continues to be a nightmare for Afghans; they fear the international community leaving and the return of the Taliban, and their fate once again being ignored by the world.
I have seen the sadness and despair on Afghans' faces amid the suicide bombings, and I have also seen the productive work the UN and other international agencies are doing on the ground. Ethically, how can we justify leaving?
What would be more productive is to ask questions of Afghans struggling to make a living or hospitalised from war wounds or landmine injuries; or those huddled in displaced persons camps, enduring the lack of food and freezing in makeshift tents; or working-women and young girls attending school; students coping with under-resourced universities; or young women protesting against harassment and discrimination who are fomenting change on the streets of Kabul.
The key players being neglected in Afghanistan are young people, who are keen to forget their recent war-ravaged past and start rebuilding the country they love. Young political leaders (and there are many potential ones despite what well-intentioned but agenda-driven Westerners tell you) need training in contemporary political framing, infrastructure and discourse. The way forward is to help this generation throw out the old, tainted and mostly hated past and herald the new at every level of government and society.
Young people don't want to carry on the historical hatreds and resentments of those in the Afghan parliament. As one student told me, they want to find a different path that does not include the current crop of political leaders.
By continuing to support former warlords we are fostering yet another generation of disaffected, bitter and angry youth. And if you ask them, they do not want the Taliban to be part of any negotiation process. This is anathema to them, and yet this "solution" is touted as a possibility by both the US and the UN.
If Australia is serious about helping to shape Afghanistan's future, it's far more constructive to focus on positive initiatives since the fall of the Taliban; however, it seems these stories don't attract an audience or sell papers. One journalist based in Kabul, writing for a UK daily, told me he had submitted many positive stories about progress in Afghanistan but they were rarely accepted by editors.
According to an Afghan journalist, ''when we Afghans see nothing but negative stories in the Western media, it makes us depressed and continues a sense of hopelessness in our country.
''Why don't Western media write about the good things happening here?''
I hang my head in shame and reluctantly tell him it's all about political agendas, audience, readers, consumers and, ultimately, money.
The US should never have interfered in Afghanistan in the first place, but it did, so we now have a moral obligation to finish the job we said we came to do.
Jillian Hocking is a media development and communications specialist.