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Australian forces: Drinking the Kool-Aid?

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11 March 2010 11:19

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

I recently came across this speech by Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, at Kansas State University. The first sentence should provide cause for pause for Australians:

The Australians are experts at counterinsurgency warfare; the British have a long tradition of service in that part of the world [Afghanistan and Pakistan] and bring unique insights; the Germans and the French and the Italians have superb national police organizations for Afghans to emulate. 

In my view, whatever drawbacks of alliance management there may be, they are more than outweighed by the benefits of operations in unison.

Readers may like to ponder whether Australia deserves this compliment, and whether it is important to have military credibility in this modern world.

I struck this view time and time again when I served with the US over many years. It may exist because it reflects the part-myth that we have constructed around ourselves, and part of a desire by the US to see good in everyone.

If we ever deserved such a reputation it may have come from earlier generations. Our reputation in World War I was superb. Our reputation in World War II was just as good, but there were times when MacArthur would not have shared Mullen’s view.

Our soldiers performed brilliantly in Korea at the tactical level. We created myths about our achievements in the Malayan Emergency when we only deployed small ground forces once the British and Malays had almost completely defeated the CTs. But I suspect it was Vietnam where we cemented the kinds of views that Mullen reflects here.

We did well in Phuoc Tuy province. I like to say that our soldiers fought brilliantly there until the day we lost the war. But the respect that many in the US hold us in now was earned in part by the sacrifice of 500 Australian lives, by the fact that we took responsibility for a province, and by the fact that our contribution was, at its height, a force of 8000 soldiers. Significant indeed.

It is my view that we did not cover ourselves in glory in Iraq during the counter insurgency. In fact, we probably harmed our strategic interests by being there and not fighting. In Afghanistan we have pulled our weight a little more because part of our forces are fighting, but our government has decided not to commit to an extent that we can support the Obama war effort at the theatre strategic level ('disrupt, dismantle and defeat') or at the tactical level ('shape, clear, hold, build and transition').

The danger in such fulsome praise is that we believe it. We are not experts in counterinsurgency (COIN) and we are not better than the best modern COIN forces in the world, the US and the UK. Perhaps the US is softening us up for something.

Photo by Flickr user Kylos85's photostream, used under a Creative Commons license.

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