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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.


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

This needs to be printed and posted in every government department and agency in Canberra—and in Parliament House.

There are two main problems with this:

  • unless New Zealand puts a lot more in—both defence spending and worthwhile capability—Australia will end up spending a good deal propping up the lesser partner; and
  • lest we forget, there was a good reason why New Zealand was booted out of the ANZUS Alliance.  It will be interesting seeing how Australia manages to put walls around the proposed combined Anzac force, given the degree to which the rest of the ADF is integrated with US systems.

I can see the attraction in terms of a combined force that ‘looks after’ the South Pacific.  But even there, having two separate forces has its advantages—namely that Australia makes New Zealand look a good deal more acceptable to South Pacific nations.   And Australia has a naturally more outward perspective than New Zealand.  Australia has to avoid New Zealand dragging Australia’s strategic focus down to the South Pacific.  Instead, it needs to assist New Zealand do more of the heavy lifting both in the South Pacific and beyond.

A common interpretation of the confusion within the White Paper is that the strategic environment is uncertain, and the White Paper has sought to respond to such uncertainty.

But the strategic environment has been ever uncertain: we don’t expect our strategic policy guidance to reflect confusion in both words and form.

It’s more worrying too, as the White Paper now is the centrepiece of the Government’s new strategic risk-based approach to defence planning:

Defence policy must be based on clear objectives. Not all strategic risks necessarily require our full attention, while those that are the most remote might require our fullest attention because of their potential consequences.  We have to be very clear about what matters most, so that we can provision against the right risks and do not waste resources. (Defence 2009, p11-12)

But it is hard to see how, if so, the understanding of risk differs from the understanding of risk employed since 1987, despite the geopolitical changes since that time.  It is still based on geography, and not based on strategic national interests.  And as such, it represents misunderstanding of risk and misrepresentation of national interests.

For example, take its absolutism:

Our most basic strategic interest remains the defence of Australia against armed attack…Before we attend to anything else, we must secure this strategic interest (5.3).

We should be wary of such statements.  They risk providing the military with a distorted view of priorities.  They accord primacy to the unlikely over the likely.  They ignore causation and consequences: not taking preventative action, including at a distance and well out of the range and possibility of conventional attack, may well increase the likelihood and repercussions of conventional attack.

And in a democratic society absolutism requires moderation.  In such defence—against what?—the over-riding priority for government and society as stated by the White Paper?  If so, why do we bother with putting government money elsewhere, such as education, health and roads?  If not, then what costs is the voter prepared to bear supporting a military and defence capability given the likely threat?  (Of course, Defence of Australia advocates have a silver bullet response to this question—two per cent of GDP—which has not been tested satisfactorily.)

Alan Dupont  put his finger on the problem in 2003:

[DoA advocates] concede that a direct military attack is unlikely, or even ‘highly unlikely’, but that since a military attack would be a serious event, with potentially grave ramifications for Australia’s security, prudent decision-makers must consider outcomes as well as probability.

This curious inversion of strategic logic contradicts the first principle of risk management which is that the consequences of an action must be carefully weighed against the probability of its occurrence. To argue that a highly unlikely event should command the lion’s share of an organisation’s resources or be the principal focus of its attention would not get past first base in the political or corporate world. It is certainly not the basis for a sensible defence strategy given the diversity and immediacy of the security challenges now confronting the ADF. (Dupont 2003, p59)

Aside from the ‘inversion of strategic logic’, the White Paper is breezily unaware that the use of risk management as a tool for strategy comes with its own traps for the unwary.

The reliance on risk as strategic policy-making blinkers decision-makers.  They are constantly tempted to deal with future risk—the possible problems of the future—rather than focussing on the real, hard problems of the now.  One can understand the political temptation: they cannot be held responsible now for the future, and creating a future myth is addictive and, properly managed, can sell well in the electorate.

Reliance on a risk management approach is based on the false premise that future risks can be assessed correctly.  But that’s impossible in the real world.  We cannot even identify and catalogue all risks, let alone assess their importance to our national interests.

The White Paper chooses a deliberate hobble—geography.  Geographically close risks, it assumes, are inherently worse than geographically distant risks:

all other things being equal, our capacity for influence and our imperative for action are going to be a function of proximity. (5.27)

But what is proximity in a highly interconnected world?  Threats, agents and the application of force, through technology, can traverse physical distances with ease, from unexpected places and in unanticipated ways.  Yet Defence persists in assessing threats and opportunities through a linear ‘steaming day’ lens.

The conceptual difficulty for Defence in identifying and assessing threats and so risks arises from

  • Defence’s boundedness by its platforms—what is the reach of a C-17 and how long before a tanker reaches its destination, for example;
  • its persistant top-down nation-state view of the world, and so often casual dismissal on non-state actors and phenomena; and
  • its inherent bias towards risks and behaviours it knows and understands.

We reach an uncomfortable dichotomy.  On one side, bureaucracies—including the military bureaucracy—feel more comfortable handling the known, everyday risks, substituting the immediate for strategy.  On the other, absent a clear conceptual understanding of the strategic environment, needs and drivers over the longer-term, strategy collapses to the absolutism expressed above.  Little wonder defence policy follow the prevailing winds, held down only by its own inertia.

Last, reliance on a risk management approach is disingenuous.  It suggests that the government in its wisdom will chose the ever-safe course, avoiding risk.  But as we know, such a path leads into stagnation.  And in geopolitics there is no fail-safe course.

Risk management is a useful tool—but only one of many.  There are smarter approaches to dealing sensibly with uncertainty than an over-reliance on a misapplication of risk and risk management.  These require a deeper understanding of strategy, the environment and of the available tools than is evident in WP2009.


Defence (2009), ‘Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030’, (Canberra).

Dupont, Alan (2003), ‘Transformation or stagnation? Rethinking Australia’s defence’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 57 (1), 55-76.

Frank Hoffman applies a useful framework—that of Cohen and Gooch in Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War (1990)—to assess success and failure in the Long War

Cohen and Gooch identified three organisationally based failures that contributed to military failure: the failure to anticipate; the failure to learn; and the failure to adapt.

In the case of the Long War, Hoffman argues that

[t]he combination of civilian policymakers and a narrow military conception of its professional jurisdiction set the stage for serial failures in anticipation in the run-ups to both Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in the fall of 2002 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003.

Misunderstanding the nature of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan was aggravated by a failure to learn:

For several decades, thanks in large part to lingering attitudes from the Vietnam War, irregular warfare has been an intellectual and strategic orphan in U.S. professional military institutions. The heavy cost of both wars is the price paid for ignoring known historical lessons and for a narrow military cultural prism that constrained U.S. strategic and operational planning and the intellectual readiness of our Officer Corps.

Adaptation is one element that is tested constantly. 

Adaptation is the ability “to handle the changing present” and the interactive nature of war. Strategic and operational adaptation is a key element in warfare, one often retarded by ideological policies or by military cultures that fail to recognize how critical assumptions in prewar planning have been proven to be false on the battlefield.

Hoffman seems a little more optimistic regarding adaptation, noting adaptation, after a slow start, at both operational and strategic levels.  He remains worried, however, that cultural and organisational inertia will dampen continuing adaptation, where–in the overused phrase of the day–the ‘rubber hits the road’.   

Lessons for strategic policy-makers and military planners

I’m going to borrow shamelessly from Hoffman (and of course Cohen and Gooch), and suggest the same framework be used as a means of intellectual self-discipline within national strategic policy circles within the Australian Government.  It could comprise a strategic-level ‘ALA’ loop, replacing the tactically oriented OODA loop, which is semi-voguish even in policy circles.

Anticipate.  The key is to avoid the use—or imposition—of false or misleading assumptions.  So we would question, for example:

  • what have we not anticipated;
  • are we anticipating the right things;
  • how well do we understand prospective adversaries, friends and allies and their reaction to events;
  • are the lenses–cognitive biases and conceptual frameworks–through which we view the world the right ones, and if not, what are;
  • are we looking too far ahead and neglecting key trends that will change the security environment in the meantime;
  • does our current force and capability unnecessarily bound our assumptions about the security environment and prospective contingencies
  • have we fully appreciated how our own presence, outlook and posture affect our security environment; and
  • do we fully understand the pace of threat development and the nature of signals from prospective threats.

Learn. The ability to learn depends heavily on the intellectual readiness—and to my mind, openness and curiosity as well as rigour—on the part of both military and civilians.  Questions may include:

  • what practices do we have that will enable us to learn quickly;
  • are there best practices that we can apply to gain leverage over our environment;
  • are there new skills, sources of knowledge and understanding, and insights that we need to develop;
  • are there practices that need to be revised, that hamper learning, that should be eliminated;
  • what organisational cultural practices need to be adjusted to assist learning;
  • what are the constants in the nature of war and strategy, and how are they altered by technology, culture, society and economics;
  • what lessons can we learn from our experience, and those of others, both in the present and past; 
  • how do our lessons learnt, and our understanding of concepts and security environment, affect our ability to anticipate threats and changes in the security environment; and
  • more domain-specific issues, such as how can we think sensibly about strategy in space and cyberspace, and how does the use of force translate into and out of those domains.

Adapt.  Warfare—and strategy—co-evolves with the environment, adversary and interests, so that militaries and policy-makers must constantly review their own circumstances and adapt to changes.  We need to ask constantly questions such as:

  • is the process of adaptation occurring sufficiently quickly, or is it attempting to jump too far ahead;
  • is the diversity of approaches sufficient to counter a range of possible futures, or are there too many divergent activities and approaches;
  • is there sufficient depth to the adaptive processes, extending back through training, recruitment and education;
  • what processes and structures need to be altered to enable better adaptability;
  • if our judgments (based on our ability to anticipate and learn) prove to be wrong, how quickly can we adjust and adjust successfully;
  • how can we ensure consistency of approach is not reduced to rigid dogma; and 
  • how can we best incorporate learning, in decision-making, policy formulation, strategy design, operational needs, capability requirements, and the shape and size of budgets and resources.

An organisational culture in which such questions are posed regularly–even as part of business as usual, as more formal processes are often captured by service interests and political imperatives–would help offset prospective failure in individual elements, and the catastrophe that would result from the aggregated failure or two or more elements.

Some states—particularly Japan and South Korea—are looking decidedly edgy.  Nor are the markets impressed.

It’s easy to be mired in the thickets of contention and the hedges of counter-contention in the recently released Defence White Paper.  But this judgment in WP2009 is looking a tad more shaky after today’s nuclear test by North Koreaand firing of short-range missiles:

While currently unlikely, a transformation of major power relations in the Asia-Pacific region would have a profound effect on our strategic circumstances. (3.17, p28)

We currently have a belligerent weak state challenging the carefully managed status quo between major powers in North Asia.  North Korea’s actions may not quite be transformational, yet.  But it does look determined to be.

Given such ratcheting up of strategic pressure, does the government propose to revise its posture and force development plans, perhaps bringing projects forward…? 

It is unlikely that contingencies involving major power adversaries could arise in the foreseeable future without a degree of strategic warning. As discussed in Chapter 3 and in more detail in Chapter 10, in the light of such strategic warning, we might have to adjust our strategic posture and force development plans. (8.48, p65)

And strategic warning constitutes…what, if not a nuclear test in North Korea and a couple of missiles tossed across the bows of one of our allies?  


Defence (2009). Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030. Canberra.

Further to my last—I’m no advocate, by the way, of a technology silver bullet—I note that Nature has published an extract of C P Snow’s Science and Government.  Snow wanted ‘to disentangle how political decisions were made during the war and, importantly, how scientific advice was used to make them.’  In the extract, he retails the British Government’s decision to develop radar—an unproven technology in the mid-1930s, but essential to the British war effort.

In public, rebellious politicians like Churchill were attacking the whole of the government’s defence policy. In secret, the government scientists, the military staffs, the high officials, were beating round for some sort of defence. There was nothing accidental about this. It was predictable that England, more vulnerable to air attack than any major country, would spend more effort trying to keep bombers off. But there was something accidental and unpredictable in Tizard being given his head.


[Tizard] succeeded, with the help of Blackett’s exceptional drive and insight, in beginning to teach one lesson each to the scientists and the military, lessons that Tizard and Blackett went on teaching for twenty years.

Read the rest of this entry »

Urban Cartography is one of those uber sites: simple idea; very cool; and prompts you to think about the world differently.  Oh, to be able to draw and present complex ideas simply.  

 Speaking of which, this is a very cool map:

 Getting to this map took me three jumps, and each had its take on the map along the way:

  • The original posting wonders why Milan and Warsaw were relatively immune from the plague.
  • One step, Leonardo Monasterio suggested the city authorities walled in houses with the plague: brutal, but apparently effective.
  • Two steps back, Paul Kedrosky notes the spreading bands of the plague’s progress—given technology and globalisation, the nature of spread would look very different today.  And of course it’s harder to wall people into their houses.
  • Three steps back, Global Dashboard adds a point from one of the commenters: the role of plague in terms of redistributing wealth.  

Also from Urban Cartography is this:

Useful as a remedy to anyone weary of that concentric circles map.

One of the problems about reading the papers online is that it’s easy to overlook the Letters to the Editor.  And so I missed this, from Bill Pritchett and Bob Furlonger on WP2009, which essentially asks:

  • where is the hostile intent?;
  • what about the messages WP2009 sends to the region?; and
  • are the civilians in Defence doing the jobs they’re supposed to do under strong civilian control?

Good questions.

I’ve long been struck by the lack of appreciation of science and technology, their application and strategic implication within strategic policy circles in Canberra.  I rather suspect Peter W Singer may well agree.

January 2020
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