Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:23 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:23 | SYDNEY

Big problems with small wars

3 November 2009 08:35

Peter Leahy, formerly Chief of Army, is Director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra. This post is based on remarks he gave yesterday at the launch of Mark O'Neill's Lowy Institute Paper, Confronting the Hydra.

In Confronting the Hydra: Big Problems with Small Wars, Lt Col Mark O'Neill has produced a very readable, timely and extremely relevant paper on Australia and our difficulties. This is an important topic as it is the war our soldiers are involved in now and the most likely type of warfare we will encounter as a nation for some time into the future.

Mark's conclusion, that Australia has not developed a suitable counterinsurgency policy or strategy, is correct. Like Mark, I contend that Australia's strategic policy community has been unduly focused on the least likely fight and has been distracted by an enthrallment with conventional war and platforms and capability acquisitions. 

Despite the hints from our own experiences in Somalia, Rwanda, Cambodia and East Timor, we were not properly prepared for the fight in Afghanistan and we are not prepared for the most likely future fights. To be able to cope in this new environment we need to recognise the requirement for a comprehensive policy approach set in the context of a national strategy. This strategy needs to comprehend a number of important issues:

  • COIN applies at all levels; strategic, operational and tactical. 
  • The most important level is the strategic level. This is because a COIN campaign is primarily a political campaign aimed at restoring or establishing the legitimacy of the government.
  • COIN at the operational and tactical levels will help build support from below and is important but will generally not be decisive.
  • A counterinsurgency campaign must be a whole-of-government solution to what is essentially a political problem. The primary responsibility for any challenge to the legitimacy of a government must belong to the government under challenge. 
  • In the absence of a response from other elements of government, the military has taken the lead in developing counterinsurgency doctrine. Government needs to do better.
  • The other elements of government have so far been unable to develop or implement a response. The International Deployment Group from the AFP is developing a workable capability but they need to be properly resourced.
  • While there is a general recognition that counterinsurgency is not exclusively a job for soldiers it seems that only soldiers are available to do the work. The military, as the most capable and responsive arm of government at the moment, is stuck with the counterinsurgency task.
  • As a junior partner in ANZUS and most campaigns, we have a limited ability to influence the COIN strategy to be pursued.
  • In all of our COIN operations we have been a junior partner in a larger coalition campaign – Malaya, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – and our focus has been at the interface between tactical and operational. As Jeff Grey has said, we operated at the local and tactical level. We have used counterinsurgency tactics relatively effectively.
  • With regional responsibilities and a presumed leadership role we need to prepare for a spin of the COIN in the Pacific region.

As the inaugural Chief of Army Fellow at the Lowy Institute and a keen student of counterinsurgency warfare, Mark has produced a paper that everyone in the Australian strategic and defence communities should read and consider. As part of the preparation for the paper, Mark spent a tour of duty in Iraq at the Counter Insurgency Academy at Taji, just north of Baghdad.

The practical experience of working at Taji and observing a huge range of American units struggle with the notion of counterinsurgency warfare during the Surge has made this a better paper. Mark has been through the mill, he has been on the ground and observed the fight at first hand. He has seen success and failure and he has had to think about the topic as both a practitioner and a theorist. 

While Afghanistan is the current problem, Mark considers the nature of counterinsurgency beyond Afghanistan and focuses on the strategic and political nature of insurgencies and how Australia needs to adopt a framework approach to developing a counterinsurgency strategy.  

The Hydra is the current fight. It is the likely future fight. Are we ready?