A long-dead Chinese general once said that strategy without tactics is a slow road to victory, but tactics without strategy is noise before defeat. We can imagine what he might have said of a war where the strategy is challenged and the tactics are lacking – a slow road to noisy defeat?
The strategic decision to confront ISIS has been made. The operational decision is to do it without boots on the ground. It is the tactics that have been under examination since the loss of Ramadi and Palmyra. In making strategy, the importance of tactics is often overlooked. Tactics always have strategic consequences.
When we say we are 'training the Iraqis', the uninitiated assume that we are training them to be fully competent for combat. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don't know exactly what training our forces are offering in Iraq today, but no one has the luxury of time so the training will be at best be measured in months, and our soldiers are not accompanying the Iraqis into combat.
When I was Chief of Operations in Iraq in 2004-05, we conducted as much training as possible in a very short time. But the Australians and British did not accompany the Iraqis into battle. You cannot train for experience and leadership in only a few weeks or months, and you can only develop experience on a battlefield as long as you remain alive. Non-accompanied units were either intimidated out of existence once they were on their own, or they failed in combat and the troops were killed or deserted. Or, as in Basrah, they were suborned to support the Sadrists.
US forces, by contrast, accompanied the Iraqis they trained into battle (at that stage, nine advisers per 500-man battalion); they ran a 'train-fight-train' sequence to build experience. As a result, US forces were tactically successful.
Both Australia and Britain effectively admitted their errors in Iraq by changing their tactics in Afghanistan. They accompanied units they trained into battle and, on a very long road to a vague victory, they were tactically successful.
Our experience in Afghanistan shows that accompanying local troops into battle has important benefits: local soldiers are more likely to be paid and receive ammunition, food and fuel; intelligence can be brought into the unit; fire support can be accessed; local commanders will make better tactical decision and won't get their soldiers killed carelessly. Iraqi soldiers are not fools. They know they will not be abandoned, as happened at Mosul, if there are advisers with them. Any veteran of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam will tell you that.
The greatest tactical tool in Iraq is air power, but it must be correctly applied. To do this, two changes are needed that could reinforce the effect of accompanying local troops into battle.
First, the rules of engagement must be appropriate to the battlefield. Inappropriate rules of engagement are restricting the targets that can be attacked. This is being exploited by ISIS, and the strategic price is that we are not winning. We can allow more freedom in the targets that aircraft can attack without transgressing the laws of armed conflict. More innocents will be killed, but this must be balanced morally against the costs of taking a much longer road to (one hopes) victory. Tighter rules of engagement do not necessarily deliver a more humanitarian result; they may just prolong the agony.
Second, the effectiveness of air power will be greatly assisted if the bombs are controlled from the ground by a joint terminal attack controller (JTAC). Better targets can be chosen and better results achieved. The tactical ability of even the smallest unit is magnified, as is the confidence of the soldiers on the ground. Terminal control of bombs, even through a sandstorm as at Ramadi, could have delivered a strategic effect.
To control the bombs onto targets based on more realistic rules of engagement, JTACs need stability in ground units. JTACs need to be protected and supported while they are supporting and protecting the unit they are with and destroying ISIS. JTACs might only be able to accompany Iraqi units that are trained and then accompanied into battle by our advisers. This is the link between accompanying Iraqi units into battle, realistic rules of engagement, and the deployment of JTACs.
It is not yet panic time in Iraq, even though it has been bad couple of weeks. But the longer we fail to decisively defeat ISIS in Iraq, the higher the chance of external events totally dislocating our operational strategy. What price our grand strategy then?
We must act now to avoid a slow road to a noisy defeat. The question our leaders need to address is whether we are merely participating in this war or are committed to it. If we are committed, we must take responsibility for the outcome rather than just conducting training. As one of the many great soldiers of the Vietnam era reminded me, the Vietnamese used to say: 'Either protect us and be with us, or leave us alone'.