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As Australia considers extending its presence in Afghanistan, key figures have split over what has been achieved in the Middle East. By Karen Middleton.

Exclusive: Ex-military heads disagree over Middle East operations

Then defence minister Robert Hill, on his way to Iraq in 2004.
Credit: AAP Image / DAVE HUNT

On the day Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed he is considering expanding Australia’s forces in Afghanistan, senior military planners and members of Australia’s security community were gathering in Brisbane to review past efforts in the Middle East – the area of operations they call “the sandpit”.

It was a rare no-holds-barred engagement, as senior players offered assessments of what had gone well and what arguably had not. Reflecting other analysis, one former Middle East commander, still serving in the defence force, said Australia’s post-2005 mission in southern Iraq had been “duplicitous”, designed only to “put a flag in the sand” and leaving soldiers in the field humiliated.

Another, more senior, said this had damaged Australia’s military credibility.

But a third, retired at equally high rank, called that a “disgraceful” suggestion that denigrated the contributions of thousands of Australians. He said whether or not soldiers enjoyed their designated jobs on operations was “of interest but not importance”.

Several participants said Australia’s view was not heard in Washington, DC on how to run the war in Iraq – including its opposition to the disastrous US decision to dismantle the Iraqi army. Some said Australia might have had more influence if it had agreed to do more. Others, including former Defence Department secretary Ric Smith, said it would not have made any difference.

Former Howard government defence minister Robert Hill declared it wasn’t clear to him how the current war in Iraq and Syria would be won.

“I’m still trying to work out what winning the war in Iraq is now,” Hill said.

“What’s the definition of winning? ... As soon as we actually defeat ISIS – which will happen – you’ll be back into the sectarian divide and the internal fight in Iraq. And what’s going to be the role of America and us then?”

The War in the Sandpit conference, organised by the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre along with Military History and Heritage Victoria, brought together former military chiefs, intelligence experts and commanders – retired and serving – alongside aid workers, police and former policymakers.

It was the first such senior gathering to publicly dissect Australia’s role in these Middle East conflicts.

Robert Hill’s lament followed a presentation from the former chief of operations of the multinational force in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, retired Major-General Jim Molan, who suggested Australia tended to enter conflicts without enough force to actually win.

“If you’re going to decide to get into this, you should get in and commit,” he said.

Molan said military planners should determine their country’s national interest but not try to design the “end state” at the start.

“What’s winning? Winning is defined as achieving aims of your deployment, the aims of your war,” Molan said. He said those could change as the conflict changed.

“So it’s a circular definition. But if you don’t define what the national interest is to begin with, where do you go from there?”

Hill, who was defence minister when Australia committed troops to Iraq, challenged that. “When you say we can never set an end to these conflicts, an end result, that scares me. Because we’re everywhere together,” Hill said of the US and Australia. “… I don’t understand now what winning in Syria is. I don’t understand what winning in Yemen is or in Iraq. I think Iraq is a tragedy, to be frank … You say there is a government in Iraq that is stronger than it might otherwise have been but it is still a deeply divided country, a deep sectarian divide that they are not prepared to address.”

Former chief of the defence force, Admiral Chris Barrie, was equally pessimistic about Afghanistan.

“I doubt there’s anyone in this room who knows when this is going to end,” he said. “It seems to me it is getting uglier and uglier with the passage of time and harder and harder to see an end.”

Barrie said the initial US military proposal for operations in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks called for 800,000 coalition troops, not the 200,000 eventually committed.

He said reaching 800,000 would have required conscription in both America and Australia – so politically unpalatable it was never considered.

“I think we should have [considered it],” Barrie said. “It was easily discarded.”

Prime Minister Turnbull revealed last week that he was considering a third incarnation of Australia’s contribution in Afghanistan, having discussed a possible troop increase during talks with US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis on his recent visit to Afghanistan.

The Saturday Paper has been told that whatever boost Australia offers, it is likely to be small.

The extra forces are expected to be in the tens, not in the hundreds, and will most likely add to training efforts already under way in and around the capital, Kabul. There is unlikely to be any move to re-establish an Australian presence in Uruzgan, the southern province where Australians fought alongside Dutch, American and other forces from 2005 until they were formally withdrawn and their base dismantled four years ago.

It is possible some Australians may be engaged in a slightly more dangerous fly-in fly-out training squad that travels to other provinces to train locally based Afghan troops. While some Special Forces may be deployed to contribute to the training efforts, they are not expected to engage in front-line fighting.

Whatever the government decides, its military leaders will offer a suite of options.

And, as Hill recounted, sometimes a minister can take one deployment proposal into the national security committee of cabinet and come out with a greatly expanded one.

At last week’s conference, ANU professor of diplomacy William Maley said he hoped Australia would make even a token increase.

“What determines outcomes in theatres like Afghanistan is the psychology of the situation,” Maley said.

While ordinary Afghans might not follow the political nuances, they understood acutely the dynamics of power for survival.

“It does not pay to be on the losing side,” Maley said. “So if people think the Taliban are going to come back, even if they loathe them with every fibre of their body, there’s a possibility that for purely prudential reasons they might switch sides. Preventing that from happening is actually a central element of an effective policy in Afghanistan.”

Maley said the troops didn’t need to be engaged in combat. “It wouldn’t matter to me if they sat in the barracks and played canasta,” he said. “The key point really is to send a signal to the population that the risk of abandonment is one that is dissipating.”

But others warned of the dangers in sending troops on a do-nothing operation, alleging that this happened in Iraq after 2005, damaging soldiers’ morale and Australia’s international reputation.

Former Overwatch Battle Group commander in southern Iraq, now the commander of the Brisbane-based 7th Combat Brigade, Brigadier Tony Rawlins, said he and other tactical commanders at the time were never given a clear explanation of Australia’s national intent in that operation, contrary to the normal rules of military command.

Rawlins suggested the commitment was disingenuous and activities had been restricted to avoid casualties. He quoted other unnamed tactical commanders who agreed with him.

Between December 2006 and June 2007, Rawlins and his soldiers had moved from providing security to Japanese forces in Al Muthanna province to an overwatch role in Dhi Qar province, north of the Euphrates River, under British-led coalition command. He suggested the restrictive orders he was receiving from Australia’s national commander at the time, now retired Major-General Mick Crane, contradicted their coalition mission statement.

Identifying him by position, not name, Rawlins suggested Crane had unfairly reined in his forces and they’d been left in the dark as to why.

The former national commander listened from the audience as Rawlins called it a flawed execution of command, an “organisational own goal” that had been rectified for the Afghanistan recommitment.

“My personal belief is that the means by which we, as a military, sought to deliver the political outcomes demanded by the government of the day on Operation Catalyst were actually not in keeping with our history, our traditions, our doctrine or our character as an army,” he said.

“The arguably duplicitous approach we took as a nation to committing our troops to stability operations in Iraq – ostensibly to put an Australian flag in the sand and support our major ally, the United States – actually generated some very mixed results. Some were very good, mostly at the strategic level, but there were very many bad at the tactical and certainly at the individual soldier level.”

Before Rawlins spoke, former minister Hill had expressed regret at not doing more in the rebuilding phase. “We, Australia, were at pains to argue we were not an occupying power and therefore did not assume the responsibility of an occupying power,” he said. “I think in retrospect that may have been a mistake. I think we should have accepted more responsibility, partly because I think we could have contributed more in that regard. But I was surprised at how underdeveloped the US plans seemed to be.”

Rawlins said British and American colleagues on the ground had called his soldiers cowards because they weren’t going out to fight, even in what he regarded as self-defence.

“At the tactical level many of us viewed our deployment as confusing, disappointing, sometimes deeply embarrassing and, in the final analysis, professionally disheartening,” Rawlins said.

“To this day, my ability – our ability – to put our hands on our hearts and to declare mission success remains somewhat elusive.”

He said it had impacted then and caused trauma later, with “a grave impact on the reputation of Australian forces in theatre”.

“I can personally attest this was felt, resonated, and fatally wounded the morale and esprit de corps of many of the task and battle groups, most particularly my own … It did our soldiers a massive disservice and it returned counterintuitive results in that there exists a generation of coalition soldiers and officers and Iraqis out there who think that the Australian Army does little more than talk the talk, but is loath to walk the walk.”

He said he was tracking three cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among officers deployed there at that time, which he attributed to a sense of betrayal.

Other presentations identified continuing trauma related to both conflicts as a terrible unresolved legacy of Australia’s Middle East commitments.

While such criticisms about the Iraq deployment have been made before, Tony Rawlins is the most senior serving officer to level them so stridently in public.

A recently declassified report by department historian Dr Albert Palazzo also suggested Australia’s southern Iraq deployment was made to boost the alliance more than to actively fight.

The heavily redacted report became public earlier this year through a Fairfax Media freedom of information request.

Rawlins’ assertion that the deployment cost Australian forces credibility won support from Major-General Molan.

Molan delivered a slight backhander to troops who complained about their jobs.

“We do not deploy troops to a war zone to impress American military officers,” he observed. “… Neither do we deploy our troops to the war to be happy. That’s irrelevant. If they whinge and complain, that’s tough. That’s what our junior commanders like Tony have got to manage.”

But he went on to endorse Brigadier Rawlins’ argument about reputational damage in an operation, Admiral Barrie described as “Iraq light”.

“Defence credibility for a small nation who will not spend enough money to defend itself … is absolutely critical,” Molan said.

Australia’s actions in Afghanistan had saved it from being seen as “just another ally”, he said.

“If the Americans had walked away from us after what we did in Iraq, we would have been in a degree of trouble.”

His comments – and those of Rawlins – drew a firm rebuttal from Major-General Crane.

Speaking the next day, Crane said the tasks for Rawlins’ battle group – including the constraints – had been “very clear”.

“The fact that successive commanders and their soldiers may not have liked it is of interest but not of importance,” he said.

Crane was more forceful in his rejection of Molan’s assertion that work in Afghanistan had saved Australia from disgrace. Having served with US forces three times from 2006 – including a second stint as Australia’s Middle East commander in 2012 – he insisted he had heard “not a whiff of dissatisfaction”.

“Now, sure, the Americans are unfailingly polite but in that period of time you would expect to hear something,” he said.

“I think also that such a suggestion diminishes the great contribution by thousands of Australians in Iraq in the time up to 2007 – not least those young men and women who bravely put their lives on the line … disarming IEDs in Baghdad and having the daylights mortared and rocketed out of them down in Basra with the Brits. I think we’ve done our bit and more. So I think to suggest we need to recover that reputation in some way is disgraceful.”

But Crane revealed there had been tension between Australian and American commanders ahead of their 2013 withdrawal from Afghanistan.

He said the Australian leadership felt the US was dragging the chain on withdrawal. “The Americans at that stage were in denial,” he said of the US 82nd Airborne Division in Uruzgan, explaining this was why Australia had finally taken on the coalition forces’ lead there in 2012, after repeatedly resisting.

“We then thought we would be in a better position to close it out, to have control,” Crane said, describing what they feared would be a “train wreck” otherwise.

He claimed the Americans from the 82nd Airborne were so unhappy at the power shift that when they left, they “poisoned the well” of Australia’s relationships with their successors.

But he rejected outright any assertion that Australia’s reputation overall was damaged from its engagement in Iraq.

A current military planner told The Saturday Paper the defence leadership also strenuously rejected any assertion of either damaged credibility or a lack of allies’ understanding of Australia’s role in Iraq.

The senior source said American and British military commanders had understood the restrictions, once explained, in the context of Australia’s mission and national interests as political and military leaders had defined them.

But conference co-organiser ANU professor John Blaxland told The Saturday Paper Australia had not used its US relationship well enough to exert influence in either conflict.

“We’re a middle power with small-power pretensions,” Blaxland said. “We actually are quite powerful but we have never really exercised the full limits of our capability.”

He said Australia had let its national interest be subsumed by US demands in far-off conflicts and should think carefully before expanding its Middle East commitment.

“We should be very circumspect about doing any more than we are doing and we should be looking to withdraw in the medium term,” he said.

“They’ve got to stop asking us because it’s not even in their interests for us to do more. It’s in their interests and it’s definitely in our interests for us to do more in our neighbourhood.”

The conference heard the cost of the coalition’s whole-of-government attempts to stabilise and support Afghanistan.

Former AusAID official David Savage, wounded by a child suicide bomber in Afghanistan in 2012, described the impact of the Afghan national government’s demand that it handle coalition aid.

“Whether unintended or by design – you can decide this – it enabled large-scale corruption and diversion of critical funds from projects into the hands of individuals,” Savage said. “And undoubtedly some of those funds would have found their way into the hands of insurgents who our own forces were fighting.”

The conference debate – and the private discussions it sparked – highlighted the fact that definitions of Australia’s “national interest” and mission success can vary up the chain of command and beyond.

A former officer, speaking privately, recalled a meeting of Australia’s military leadership in 2006 when one general had declared that having persuaded the Dutch to partner in Uruzgan the previous year and secured a place for Australia at NATO’s decision-making table, they had achieved their mission.

Others had observed privately later: “You can’t tell the soldiers that.”

Described like that, the mission might not be something for which they would be willing to risk their lives.

By the time Australia formally left Uruzgan, 42 Australian soldiers had died there, including one serving with the British Army.

Of those, seven were killed in so-called “green on blue” attacks by Afghans they were training.

In a rare public glimpse behind the veil of military intelligence, former senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan retired Colonel Mick Lehmann told last week’s conference that those deaths were his “greatest professional regret”.

With the parents of one of the soldiers sitting in the audience, he said: “This inability to make a contribution to the prevention of such attacks sits heavily on me.”

Constrained by secrecy, Lehmann sketched what he said were the considerable achievements of intelligence work in Afghanistan, describing them as a story that should be revealed one day, like the World War II efforts to break the Germans’ Enigma code and the project codenamed “Magic” to decrypt Japanese messages.

But he also detailed the limits of intelligence, suggesting that while sometimes effective it had perhaps not been employed correctly for that kind of conflict.

“As I’ve pondered since I’ve left Afghanistan in late January 2016, was intelligence kicking goals but playing a game of cricket?” Lehmann asked.

He described operational “scars” from the limits of their intelligence capability. “I’ll leave it up to others to judge if these were failures but certainly they were not successes.”

The most painful scar came from the deaths of the seven Australians at the hands of Afghan soldiers.

“There was an unrelenting intelligence focus on combating green on blue attacks,” Lehmann said. But methods that had worked to track enemy Taliban commanders could not stop insider attacks. “Technical intelligence proved to be unsuitable for this task.”

Prevention required advance whispers of plans or intent. But there were none.

Just what soldiers were being asked to die for underpinned much of last week’s debates. Brigadier Rawlins said he and other commanders at that time had concluded that they did not know. Because of that – and the alleged orders not to do anything dangerous – his soldiers had told him they were “embarrassed to be Australians”.

They had said: “You don’t see it at your level because they’re all very polite to you but down in the DFAC, the dining facility, they’re telling us that we’re cowards – that there are National Guardsmen, men and women, rolling out Humvees to do the tasks that were in our mission set.”

Rawlins said that was devastating. “It was like being hit with a four-by-two,” he said, “when soldiers that you’ve trained with and have done great things felt embarrassed to be Australian. So all we could say to them at the finish was: ‘You need to go out and look after each other.’ And the mantra – trying to translate into what we would say to the soldiers – was ‘There’s nothing worth dying for in Iraq, except each other’.”

But for senior military leaders – and the government – the lack of casualties and stronger US alliance made the mission a success.

Jim Molan, who had been embedded with the US coalition leadership in Iraq, said Rawlins’ battle group and others who fought only for “Australia’s national interests” had no experience of fighting to win.

“Winning and fighting was more important than life,” Molan said of his deployment.

“There is a real lesson in this, if ever Australia has to do this at some stage in the future. When the poo hits the proverbial fan, the Australian population will say to us: haven’t we been giving you guys 30 to 40 billion dollars for the last hundred years? Well, go out and win a war.”

Professor John Blaxland said the price of not having won is high and getting higher.

“In the Middle East, we’ve been playing whack-a-mole for 17 years,” he told The Saturday Paper. “We’ve cut off heads of hydras, they keep re-emerging. And in the meantime, the ADF’s regional network has atrophied … The war in the sandpit is not over. The legacy is profound and will be long-lasting.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2017 as "‘I don’t know what winning means now’ ". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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