Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 07:44 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 07:44 | SYDNEY

What did you do in the war, Australia?


Rodger Shanahan


12 March 2010 14:04

Jim Molan's post raises some excellent questions about the nexus between military commitment and political influence in the broader Australian-US relationship.

I agree with Jim's view that the national caveats that we have placed on our commitment in Afghanistan and that were in place for our battle group in Iraq have and will continue to irritate our allies, and that it makes the claim we are counterinsurgency experts ring a bit hollow. But I don't believe that in the long run such caveats have harmed our strategic interests.

Australia has limited military resources to expend so our contribution to coalitions is never going to be about quantity, rather it will more often be about the high quality niche capabilities we can provide, our ability to largely self-deploy and sustain ourselves and our ability to work effectively in US and British military staff systems.

Our presence I would argue is often of more importance than our contribution, particularly when the employment of military force is unpopular. Hence, while the US military likely saw our Vietnam contribution as making a qualitative difference due to the size and ability of our deployed forces, the broader (and much more long-term) political kudos we earned from our participation came from the fact that we were there when so many others weren't.

Likewise, the US will be more inclined to remember the fact that we were one of only three allies that took part in the invasion of Iraq and the contribution of our staff officers and training teams post-invasion, rather than the limitations we placed on our task group.

The notion that the alliance is 'a perishable resource that needs sustenance' to quote the unnamed senior military source in this Herald report is true but it also focuses too closely on military contributions as the sole means of sustaining the alliance and inflates the overall importance of the type of contributions we make.

Of course coalition commanders are not going to be happy with national caveats placed on the use of troops assigned to them where they restrict the flexibility to use them. All military commanders would, but equally national governments would be remiss if they didn't place restrictions on the use of their forces to accord with their own national interests. Such are the vagaries of coalitions.

But the broader Australian-US alliance is still strong regardless of where we deploy our troops, just as Canada's strategic interests didn't sustain irreparable damage when it decided not to join the four-nation 'coalition of the willing' led by its largest trading partner during the invasion of Iraq.

In the same vein, despite the UK's willingness to commit large numbers of combat troops to the contact battle in Iraq and in Helmand province there is no evidence that such actions have made their already close relationship with the US demonstrably closer.

The fact that a senior Australian military officer has been appointed the first adviser to the Afghan Defence Minister, just as Jim Molan himself was appointed to a senior role in Iraq would also seem to indicate that our military reputation remains credible despite the limitations we place on the deployment of our troops.

Where Australia has to be careful though, is to avoid being seen as publicly advocating that our contribution is more substantive than it actually is.

Too often irritations can be confused with damage and while I agree that our Iraq battle group deployment was deliberately more about symbolism than substance, and that our geographical caveats limit commanders' flexibility in Afghanistan, the long-term impact of military deployments to bilateral relations is specific to time and place.

We may have punched above our weight in Vietnam, below our weight in post-invasion Iraq and arguably more or less at our weight in Afghanistan, but we were there all the same and it is our presence more than our contribution in these conflicts that advances our strategic interests in the long term.

Photo by Flickr user Canada in Afghanistan/Canada en Afghanistan's photostream, used under a Creative Commons license.