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Spread too thin: Why Faulkner is wrong

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23 July 2010 10:59

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

John Faulkner is considered to be a good man, but does that make him a good Minister for Defence?

His speech at Lowy Institute last week could have been an opportunity to make a detailed explanation of the major part of his portfolio, the war in Afghanistan. He had the venue and he had the time. He elected not to. His speech was relatively short, it avoided the issues, it contained generalisations and non-sequiturs, and it tried to give the impression of addressing the hard questions while squibbing it. It was, in fact, very similar to his statements on the same subject to the Senate.

The debate is simplistically seen by the Minister as having two extremes: those who say that we should leave Afghanistan and step back from our alliance with the US (definitely not me) and those who say that our commitment should be significantly increased – 'some say to as many as 6000 troops'. There is a vague chance that this refers to me!

Having characterised this as 'extreme', the Minister then dismisses such a view without addressing the issue. Our commitment 'is both substantial and appropriate', asserts the Minister, with the next sentence pointing out that we are the largest non-NATO contributor to ISAF and the 10th largest contributor overall.

Let me summarise my views on the '6000 troops' issue, the one subject the Minister seemed to be citing me on; readers can then decide if my views are 'extreme'.

If your plan is to conduct counter-insurgency by the tactic of population protection, yet you fail to allocate sufficient resources, then your plan is likely to fail. The 6000 figure is based on 'troops density ratios' which link strategy to tactics (I explain my thinking in detail in 'How Much is Enough in Afghanistan', in the Australian Army Journal). This is what allows you to protect a reasonable percentage of a population, not just this bit of population today, that bit tomorrow and most of it never.

Population estimates of Uruzgan go from 300,000 to 600,000. Let's assume a round number of 500,000. History tells us that about 10,000 effective security forces are needed to counter an insurgency in a population the size of Uruzgan. My judgement — given population centres, geography, and technology — is that you could probably do the job, over a number of years, with 6000.

We have had a bit over 3000 effective security forces in the province now for several years and the Dutch are about to take half of those away. So for a long time, we have tried to do a 6000-person job with half the number needed. Now, with the Dutch gone, we face the future with one quarter the number of effective security forces needed.

The Minister tells us that the US will put a 'battle group' into the province. Battle groups are (generally) about 1000 strong. This means that we are going to replace 1700 Dutch with 1000 US troops. So at best, we are still trying to do a job with no more than half the number of troops needed.

I totally reject the Minister's criticism that the need for a minimum of 6000 troops in Uruzgan province to support the Coalition's war plans is an extreme view. It is a logical, defensible, internationally held view based on learning from history. I also totally reject the Minister's inference that Australia could not supply more troops to Uruzgan because of regional contingencies. That is merely a convenient smoke screen. 

The recent Four Corners episodes showed our troops in Uruzgan, from private soldier to major general, as being smart, committed, courageous and capable. One captain was explaining the counter-insurgency technique where small areas are secured, with security then spread out from one area to another in the manner of a spreading oil spot. The problem was, the captain said, 'sometimes there is not enough oil'. The troops know.

Photo by Flickr user chrisjfry, used under a Creative Commons license.

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