Smart, measured and energetic, Colonel Gilbert Toropo seems a good choice to be Papua New Guinea’s next Defence Force Commander. He’ll need to be. Even the circumstances surrounding the announcement of his selection highlight difficulties likely to confront him in this demanding role. It’s worth knowing a bit more about recent developments concerning Papua New Guinea’s defence forces (PNGDF) and its new commander as security ties form a pillar of the Australia–PNG relationship.
Toropo will take over at a time of some hope about the PNGDF as well as daunting challenges. These positive signs owe much to outgoing commander, Brigadier Francis Agwi. As the PNGDF’s ninth Commander, Agwi was able to begin modest capability-rebuilding, as scars from a necessary but very painful 2000–06 retrenchment exercise (initiated by PNG and funded by Australia to stabilise the unruly post-Bougainville/Sandline Crisis-era force) started to heal. Relations with key defence partners, especially Australia, recovered under Agwi. The force also sent its first few UN peacekeepers overseas to Sudan. And in December, troops from a revitalised special force unit rappelled out of a leased PNGDF helicopter—Agwi had begun re-establishing a safe and effective air transport capability—to hand-deliver PNG’s first ever national security policy (PDF), and its first defence white paper since 1999, to Prime Minister O’Neill for release.
Agwi’s key legacy, though, will be his quietly heroic resistance to enormous pressure to draw the military into the 12-month political crisis that followed the constitutionally-dubious unseating of Prime Minister Somare as he lay gravely ill in a Singapore Hospital in August 2011. Agwi’s efforts to minimise PNGDF involvement helped save the soul of Port Moresby’s political class as well as that of the Defence Force, and no doubt spared many lives. To the extent his selection as PNG’s next High Commissioner to New Zealand is partly a reward, it’s richly deserved.
But at the same time, Agwi will pass on a force that’s cause for more concern than comfort. Although publication of the new white paper shows the PNGDF is far from rudderless, it’s hardly very cohesive or full of direction. The end of RAMSI’s military role (where PNG troops performed well) removes a useful practical operational focus. The white paper is understandably cautious about focusing on internal security—the force’s contribution to protecting multinational resource firms is highly valued by Port Moresby, given the national significance of these projects, but occurs under the reassuring limits of formal call-out provisions. Given this, and with little sense of external threat, the strategic focus has fallen back on a reflex urge to grow the force. An impulse to expand a bit, driven by PNG politicians as much as by officers, isn’t entirely baseless, and the white paper sets out a sensible enough timeline for doing so. But any major growth unaccompanied by a level of massively increased and sustained funding that’s hard to imagine even if PNG’s economy continues to boom, will exacerbate the first of a pair of key dangers faced from the PNGDF’s outset: the corrosive impact on discipline and capability of unsustainably high expenditure on recurrent costs, such as wages, leaving almost nothing for training, equipment, and patrolling.
And here, Agwi was already struggling to tackle misbehaviour by his troops, fuelling criticism by both competitors settling old scores and others genuinely dissatisfied with his leadership. Headline-grabbing outrages, such as a soldiers’ rampage at Port Moresby Hospital last July, have increased, while less dramatic incidents are reported in the media almost every week (yesterday’s story here).
There are also early signs Toropo could face similar pressures to Agwi from the second perennial menace to the force: politicisation and political interference. Coming just days after Opposition leader, Belden Namah, declared a 72-hour ultimatum for police to enforce (subsequently overturned) arrest warrants against O’Neill and two other prominent highlanders, the Finance Minister and Treasurer, Toropo’s appointment had the appearance of being rushed to shore-up Government support. Toropo comes from O’Neill’s Ialibu Pangia district, and will be the first Commander from the highlands. PNG’s Post-Courier newspaper linked the new military chief’s appointment to highlands-based police riot squads being hurried into the capital ‘to ensure stability’. O’Neill labelled the arrest warrants, issued by a Namah-associate ‘another attempt to try and stage a coup’. Namah, in turn, revived allegations that the officer suspended after his troops attacked the hospital last year had been reinstated due to his tribal links to O’Neill. Cabinet has put another previously-sacked highlands colonel, understood to be over retirement age but who enjoys strong political support, in a senior role.
Toropo’s profile would seem to make him as well qualified as any of his contemporaries, and better prepared than most, to meet such challenges. At 51, he’s got operational experience, led both PNGDF special forces units and the 1st Infantry Battalion, and filled key staff appointments—most recently as Joint Forces Commander responsible for tasks such as the PNGDF’s contribution to election security in 2012. He graduated from Australian staff college in 2001 and Australia’s senior defence school in 2007, and has attended advanced training in Hawaii and the mainland United States. He’s got a reputation as a slightly reserved but thoughtful, dedicated and talented leader, with useful connections across PNG’s elite.
In terms of Australia–PNG relations, we might allow ourselves a quick sigh of relief that one of the PNGDF’s steadiest and most capable officers has been selected. But there’ll be value in General Hurley or even Minister Johnston meeting with Toropo soon to personally reaffirm recent commitments. And in doing so, they’ll build on an increasingly mature partnership based on distinct but generally complementary interests in regional stability and security.
Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI. Top image courtesy of the US Navy. Bottom image courtesy of the PNGDF Media Unit.