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General Sir David Richards’ Chatham House speech touches on a number of themes that should have been inculcated in the Australian Defence White Paper.  These are not new themes, even in the Australian context; they include some of the thinking behind the Defence Update of two years ago.

Richards says

…our generation is in the midst of a paradigm shift, is facing its own ‘horse and tank’ moment if you like, born in our era chiefly but not exclusively of the global revolution in communications and associated technology. The result is that the way even state on state warfare will manifest itself has changed fundamentally.

He argues that ‘conflicts with dissatisfied and violent non-state actors are here for the long term’ and while the British Army, at least, is okay at fighting such wars, it needs to get better at doing so.  State-on-state warfare is likely to remain a possibility, but it’s shape and nature will change, becoming more like the current wars against insurgents, proxies and non-state actors: there is a ‘virtuous congruence, between non-state and inter-state war’.  Like US Defence Secretary Gates, he argues for a better balance: conventional capability should not be abandoned, but nor should it remain the predominant shaper of capability:

…an intelligent opponent will not be impressed by capabilities which can readily be made irrelevant through the adoption of asymmetric tactics or technology….Those who seek to continue investment in traditional forms of conflict at the expense of the new fail to understand the degree to which inter-state dynamics have changed since the Cold War.

Afghanistan he sees as a ‘non-discretionary war’.  In this I tend to depart a tad from his thesis: the larger trends and dynamics, which Richards himself has touched on, should not be obscured by a focus on Afghanistan. Patrick Porter (who provided the lead on the speech) also notes the doomed-if-we-do-and-doomed-if-we-don’t nature of the argument over Afghanistan.  Not only should we rethink warfare, but rethink what constitutes success and failure—at the strategic level these are not always, and rarely over the long-term, defined in purely military terms.

RAAF C-17 leaves Tarin Kowt

RAAF C-17 leaves Tarin Kowt

My attention was snagged by Jim Molan’s piece, in which he argues:

Our minimalist approach will probably guarantee our soldiers will perform brilliantly until the day that the war is lost—one of the few Vietnam analogies that stand up.

There’s always a danger in conflating two very different conflicts, even as marginally as Jim has.  Arguably, our soldiers are still doing much the same type of tactical-level COIN at which they did well at in Vietnam; I’m not sure that the ADF or the government has grasped the full spectrum of COIN.

We have three levels of problems with Afghanistan.

At the tactical level, ADF soldiers, according to reports, are doing well at the initial ‘clear’ phase, restricted to a limited area in Oruzgan.  It’s possible, taking Jim’s additional troops, the ADF could extend such tactical success further, though it’s worth bearing in mind that Australia has limited experience in substantially larger deployments.

At the operational level, to be a successful COIN campaign, ‘clear’ needs to be followed by ‘hold’ and ‘build’.  The ADF has only limited experience in holding and building.  True, there is a trade school at Tarin Kowt.  But holding and building means more than just a trade school, more than fixing bridges or schools; it’s a long-term commitment to building institutions, to providing space for the people, to generating good behaviours of governance.  Persistence is the key.

Whenever Australia has been involved, post World War II, in the Middle East and Central Asia, the government has done as much as it can to limit its exposure. If the government continually thinks it’s going to be ‘outta there’ in comparatively short order, it’s less likely to put the effort into thinking through the two later phases of holding and building.

It’s also hard to point to any great blazing success stories in our own neighbourhood—operational-level success is clearly not inversely related to distance.  Policy towards and engagement with the Solomons and East Timor—and of course, PNG—totter onwards without any great sense of achievement, improvement or direction.

Australia lacks a strong sense of where Oruzgan fits in the overall campaign, or how the ADF can best assist longer term.  Perhaps this may be coming as a result of McChrystal’s report, but it would be nice to hear of some pro-active thinking from within Russell for a change.  Jim’s other concerns—including how his additional troops may contribute to the broader effort—tend to focus on this level.

Last, at the strategic level, aside from the occasional set piece by the Prime Minister, no minister has made the strategic case for a continuing contribution in Afghanistan for a considerable time, arguably in this government.  No minister has set out a vision for Afghanistan, or explained to the Australian public the significance of Afghanistan for Australia’s security.

Just take the last three months, months in which pressure is building on the US Administration to articulate its policy and strategy.  On 22 July, the PM said,

Well, on the first question, what I indicated most recently when we increased our training effort in Afghanistan was this – our mission is clear. How do you, in our province, Oruzgan, which we’re responsible for, together with our Dutch allies, train and equip the Afghan national army and local police to take responsibility for the security of that province, so we can then go?

That’s the mission, and the reason I have, with the support of the National Security Committee of the Cabinet, increased our training effort, is so that we have a greater capacity to raise an Afghan national army battalion and additional military capabilities and police capabilities so that security of that province can be handed over.

That is the mission statement, and that’s what we’re working to on the basis of the advice from the Chief of the Defence Force.

The second point you ask is what would happen if we were to exit? Can I say Australia is in Afghanistan because of our alliance with the United States in the first instance. When September 11 happened, it was an attack on our American ally. The ANZUS Treaty was invoked, because of an attack on the metropolitan territory of the United States. We take our alliance obligations seriously, that’s why we’re there.

But the underpinning reason in addition to that is what we need to do as a society of civilised countries in acting against the global threat of terrorism.

Later in August,

As I reflect most recently on terrorist attacks in Indonesia, and terrorist attacks elsewhere in world, as you know, in the history of events since 2001, many of those who have been responsible for terrorist attacks around the world have in fact been trained in Afghanistan. The Government of Australia’s view and the Government of the United States, and our friends and allies is that Afghanistan cannot be surrendered as a training base of unlimited potential for terrorists as it was prior to 2001.

This is a difficult and ongoing fight in Afghanistan, I accept that. I accept also that it is unpopular. But if we are to deal with the threat of terrorism at its various levels, we must dealing with where terrorists are trained, we must be dealing with those who support them, as we must be dealing with the current, practical challenges which confront our law enforcement agencies here in Australia.

Then there are the  most recent remarks (1 September) by the Prime Minister, which focus at the operational level:

Well, our approach to Afghanistan has always been that we want to ensure that our mission in Oruzgan province is concluded. What’s our mission in Oruzgan province? To train up an Afghan national army brigade made up of six battalions so that we can in turn hand security responsibilities over to the Afghan Government. That’s the task and the mission we’ve set for ourselves in Oruzgan.

So…how exactly does focusing solely on a small section within Afghanistan—and clearing, much less holding and building—contribute to the expressed goal of ensuring Afghanistan does not become the base for a future September 11-type attack?

More and more the trajectory being described is one of closure: the rationale is that Australia is in Afghanistan because of the Alliance (our relations with a significant other), and because we’re a civilised country (being seen with the right crowd), and once we’ve paid our dues (carefully circumscribed), we intend to get the hell out.  Because the Australian government sees no real reason to put in for the long haul: ultimately, terrorism is seen as an intelligence and law enforcement problem.  It misunderstands the problem, and so an operational—or even tactical—approach is substitutes for a strategic approach.

We need a clear strategic-level statements addressing three, inter-related elements:

  • how Afghanistan fits into our broader concerns on global terror;

The September 11 attacks heralded a new phenomenon—globalised terrorism and insurgency.  Al Qaeda was the first to take advantage of globalised access to technology, an increased freedom of movement and shortened supply chains, a pool of recruits, and poor governance—it will not be the last.  For traditional-minded, established militaries and bureaucracies, this point is the hardest to understand.

Focusing on Afghanistan alone and to the exclusion of others—and especially a small area in Oruzgun—is short-sighted, not simply because because there are many places that such groups could exploit, but because of the interconnectedness of groups, technologies, societies, and finance, amongst others.  Certainly, simply one-off training of a bunch of soldiers and police doesn’t address this problem: the problem concerns structural differences.

Still, for the moment, Afghanistan remains reasonably central to the global insurgency.  The difficulty for the West will be that once it looks—recalling perceptions are important in this struggle, and there will not be a clear unambiguous ‘truth’—as though the West is gaining the upper hand, the adversary is likely to shift both ground and approach.  And, unless we understand the nature of the changes, and are prepared to adapt, we will be caught flatfooted—and stuck where the fight is no longer.

  • how our efforts contribute to the Alliance relationship;

The Alliance remains key to Australia’s security, and its is important we contribute to those issues of deepest concern to the United States in upholding, enhancing and protecting global security, global norms and the freedom of the global commons.  Because, oddly enough, we share those interests.  We cannot uphold them ourselves alone, so it makes sense we help the United States do so.  To simply say we’re in Afghanistan to ‘wave the flag’ or because the Americans wants Australia there is niggardly, if not downright disingenuous; it certainly detracts from a mature relationship.

  • why it is important for Western liberal, capitalist democracies to ensure stability and the development of something other than a demonstrably, and potentially dangerous, failed state.

This point is the most nebulous, but it matters on an number of levels: credibility for the notion of state building, or at least remediation; the denial of state control, if not containment, by a group—and in the future, groups—determined to repudiate accepted global norms; and the ability of the West to act together, cohesively, towards mutual strategic interests.

This is also the bit that matters because it helps us understand how we—the international community—could manage and exit from Afghanistan.  It is unlikely that the West can exit from Afghanistan for some time, certainly not without the risk of the re-emergence of its status as host.  But we cannot afford to be tied down in Afghanistan: we need to manage Afghanistan yet retain freedom of action.

The West needs a strategic approach, not an operational approach in which we figure the best way to handle Afghanistan alone, nor a tactical one that focuses on getting out of Oruzgan.  For Australia, it may mean more troops then are there now, more civilians and a smarter shape to the Afghanistan deployment and a readiness to direct armed capability elsewhere as needed.

References

Jones, S. G. (2008). Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, RAND.

June 2017
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