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Narratives convey momentum, and since momentum is what everyone needs to see, events in the field begin to be treated as “effects.” Operations can then all too easily start to look as though they have been executed more (or less) according to plan, regardless of whether anything is actually gelling on the ground. And, since the military runs on reporting: the more operations, the more reports, the more progress.

From Anna Simons, 21st Century Cultures of War (pdf)

Are we best suited to fight only others who share our (Western) way of warfare?

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.


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

Oh, please:

Kellie McCoy, who led US combat engineers in Iraq and won a Bronze Star for valour

But Mr Combet’s Coalition counterpart Bob Baldwin disagreed and said yesterday that the psychological aspects of battle made the front line unsuitable for women.

First, there is no ‘front line of battle’ anymore.  What once may have been the front-line in earlier conflicts now reaches deep into society, across multiple geographical bounds.  Front-line soldiers now include logistics and supply, medics, air-traffic controllers, and civil affairs—not to mention diplomats, whose contributions in these environments are rarely recognised—all of which were once behind the traditional front-line.  Until Mr Baldwin grasps this idea, he will not understand the nature of modern conflict.

Second, let’s turn this around: is battle supposedly ‘suitable’ for men?  Is not the trauma experienced much the same, regardless of gender?  As for the argument that men feel the need to protect women, does not the reverse also hold true—or, for that matter, in traditional Anzac argot, a mate looking out for a mate?

Third, Mr Baldwin is wonderfully blind to all those instances where women have been in and contributed to battle in modern times, from the Tamil Tigers to both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Experience from the latter suggests that having women in units is beneficial, especially for counter-insurgency operations—the sort of wars we’re fighting now.

Fourth, demography matters.  The ADF, like other Western militaries, has little choice but to increase recruiting women.  More women recruited will mean capturing a greater breadth of abilities and capabilities.  Once in, selections for all units should be made on the grounds of other than gender.  The ‘right’ to join a unit should arise from the ability to meet standards, make a contribution and be part of the team.  It is of course likely that men will tend to predominate in certain activities; men, particularly young men, tend to be higher risk-takers and tend to be physically better suited to certain activities.  But the same is not true of all men.   Nor do all men automatically bond together to the exclusion of women because, you know, they’re all blokes.  Where a woman meets the standard, contributes to the team (and bearing in mind that team-building is facilitated by good leadership), her gender of itself should not exclude her.

I could go on, but life is too short…  And Mr Baldwin needs to pay more attention to the changes in modern warfare and society.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the transformation of the military is less to do with hardware, and terms such as ‘jointness’ or ‘multidimensional manoeuvre’, but about social and organisational structures.

And that includes the role of women in the military:

But the Iraq insurgency obliterated conventional battle lines. The fight was on every base and street corner, and as the conflict grew longer and more complicated, the all-volunteer military required more soldiers and a different approach to fighting. Commanders were forced to stretch gender boundaries, or in a few cases, erase them altogether.

Perhaps the status, command and roles undertaken by women can be used as one indicator of the evolution of Western militaries beyond the traditional, conventional, Napoleonic paradigm—and even of willingness to engage in the heavy lifting of counter-insurgency.

Brought up as an old-school Army warrior, Mr. Baumann said he had seriously doubted that women could physically handle infantry duties, citing the weight of the armor and the gear, the heat of Baghdad and the harshness of combat.

“I found out differently,” said Mr. Baumann, now chief financial officer for St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota. “Not only could they handle it, but in the same way as males. I would go out on patrols every single day with my battalion. I was with them. I was next to them. I saw with my own eyes. I had full trust and confidence in their abilities.”

Mr. Baumann’s experience rings true to many men who have commanded women in Iraq. More than anything, it is seeing women perform under fire that has changed attitudes.

These are not lessons easily learned, or transformation understood, by militaries that carefully constrain their involvement in such engagements.

The pieces by Mahnken, Singer and Harp all point to an increasing dependence on information technology:

  • strategically, to help overcome weaknesses elsewhere (such as demographics);
  • operationally and tactically to secure battlefield advantage and in an effort to gain certainty; and
  • in terms of resourcing and capability, to enhance existing systems.

As Harp notes, the reliance on information technology to deliver an ‘edge’ now lies across a range of domains, from warfighter to strategic strike to counterinsurgency to humanitarian missions.  And increasingly the end-users of capability are ‘digital natives’  comfortable in information-saturated environments, who not only rely on information and social technologies, but expect those technologies in their work as well.

The use of information technologies increase the West’s dependence on immediacy as the dominant paradigm.  The effort to ‘get inside the OODA loop’ is an expression of immediacy, as is the collapse of time, space and hierarchy as generals seek to direct their lieutenants through real-time video.

Immediacy indeed can be useful in the tactical level, but its utility lessens as we move from the tactical through the operational to the strategic.  As we ascend the layers, immediacy becomes one of a range of considerations, such as positioning, sustainability, escalation (and de-escalation) and political ends.  A preference for speed risks excluding other means of shaping the environment and achieving strategic objectives.

In the Iraq invasion, a broader and heavier footprint was eschewed for speed and leadership decapitation.  Subsequent experience from both Iraq and Afghanistan emphasised the importance of slower, more patient understanding of change-resistant traditions, and of the time needed to build trust with communities.

Greater reliance on information technologies increases interconnectedness.  Considering organisation purely as information processes—a very IT-centric view—the behaviour of the organisation is a function of its network structure and the information-processing capability of its agents.  A completely connected structure—every agent connected to every other agent—would, one may think, have the highest possible processing capability.  But that would assume a) infinite processing capability on the part of the agents; b) immediate information transfer, with no delays or attenuation; c) completely accurate information.

None of those assumptions holds, of course.

People have limited processing capability, and we filter information and exclude data that does not fit with our preconceptions.  Even real-time systems suffer from delays, though they may be imperceptible–and data may take time to assemble itself into meaningful information.  Nor do we necessarily want the immediate to crowd out the important.

Moreover, we reinterpret data and information as it arrives and is processed—and errors creep in and are rapidly magnified through speed and linkages.  And information is contextual, and context doesn’t always translate easily through technology.  High degrees of interconnectedness increase system complexity and the chances that poor or simply wrong information will cascade across technological and social networks.

Such systems can be self-correcting, when, for example, individual agents have the ability (and authority) to self-correct, the wider context and information to self-correct, and there exists source in which they have sufficient degree of trust.  The latter, of course, is not necessarily the government or highest authority.

All this implies that to be effective, increased reliance on information technologies has to be accompanied with changes to social systems and organisation.  Social organisations are far more adaptable than brittle, complicated IT systems—and the more sophisticated the technical systems, the more fragile it is.  The popularity of current social networking technologies is that they are lightweight and match much more closely social organisation.  They don’t match top-down command and control or silo organisations.

Briefly, we can expect that information technologies, amongst other attributes, will

  • Enhance speed and immediacy as discussed—the challenge will be to avoid their temptations, but take the long view and choose their use wisely;
  • Allow the retrieval of past patterns of behaviours—both sides can build up ‘pattern libraries’.  Terrorists and insurgents already scout out targets using information retrieved from the internet and Google Maps; human terrain teams seek to understand and map the social environment in which the military operates.  Information technologies can capture conversations, traffic streams, local weather conditions, trade flows and so on ;
  • Reverses traditional command and control, both as illustrated by Singer, but also through enabling different means of organising (for example, swarms, ‘pop-ups’).  The need for human capital—skilled, experienced, and educated people, both military and civilians—will increase: it takes people to programs, understand, assess and make judgments on the vast streams of data enabled through technology; and
  • Obsolesce old platforms, as old platforms are made vulnerable by new technologies and, as Harp points out, advantage in a shift from platforms to systems  It also enables new capabilities to be developed, and implemented quickly.

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.

Central Asia remains a strategic crux, where key contests are played out.  Fouad Ajami:

In the 1980s, Pakistan led to Afghanistan, and to the final battle of the Cold War. Nowadays, the struggle in Afghanistan leads back to Pakistan, and for a battle on behalf of Muslim modernity.

We should be thankful such battles are not closer to home while realising their importance to our own future and so play a part.

Kenneth Payne argues that unconventional, asymmetric and hybrid wars aren’t new, but that Western militaries have evolved away from that such warfare.  The challenges to the Western way of warfare have arisen have done so because of trends in society and changes to the nation-state.   

In particular, Payne argues that the post-modern Western military has arisen from the changing relationship between the citizen, states and soldiers.  So that now, 

western society and western militaries have discovered that they must fight foes who use ‘conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder’. And, being postmodern, their approach will necessarily differ from the colonial and imperial approaches of earlier times.

I wonder if there’s more to it.  If I recall correctly–I haven’t the book or my notes to hand, and so may have to correct myself later–Charles Tilly argued the modern state emerged because it offered the best means, through the concentration of capital and labour, to exert force.  

So perhaps there’s another dynamic at play.  Perhaps it’s possible that through globalisation, technological and societal change, and the ability to exert force in different ways, new stable and sustainable forms of organisation are emerging–have emerged–and are offering alternative, viable means to use force to greatest effect.   After all, there’s no reason why the nation-state should be the end point of evolution in human organisation.  If so, we are entering a time of considerable, and probably bloody, dynamism, as not simply states and non-state groups but organisational forms compete.

Tilly also noted that, confronted with something that didn’t look like a state, Western nations did their best to make sure that the entity became a state, that it was bought into the fold–or destroyed.   Certainly that has reflected conventional approaches.  In the past Western empires and states bought off and eradicated tribes and colonised voraciously.  We now seek to ‘reconstruct’ weak and broken states to look like us.  We seek to eliminate al Qaeda not simply because of the threat it poses to lives, but through its use of force it threatens directly the nation-state as dominant organising principle.  And at least one international relations scholar has suggested that the Caliphate should be restored so that nation-states can deal with an entity they recognise.  But if alternative organisational forms are strengthening, it will become harder to apply ‘conventional’ methods.  


Bell, C. (2007). The End of the Vasco de Gama Era: The Next Landscape of World Politics. Lowy Institute Paper. Sydney, Lowy Institute.

Tilly, C. (1990). Coercion, Capital and the European States AD990-1990. Cambridge, MA, Basil Blackwell.

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