Trapped in a long war
29 May 2017|

Australia has been part of America’s long war against terrorism since the war began in 2001. In the first stage (2001–02), al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was badly mauled in a quick special forces and airpower campaign. In the second stage (2003–12), al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, was killed, the group’s core sharply reduced and its Iraq affiliate crushed. In the third stage (from 2013), ISIS unexpectedly emerged from the remnants of that affiliate and rapidly captured large swathes of territory across Syria and Iraq.

A fourth stage seems imminent. ISIS-held areas are being progressively (if slowly) recaptured. The group appears likely to go ‘underground’ in Sunni areas in Syria and Iraq, adopt guerrilla warfare tactics and try to survive until circumstances change and it can re-emerge. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda has restructured itself and dispersed across the greater Middle East. The Syrian franchise, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, is the most successful, with some 10,000 fighters, about a third of them foreign.

Across the Middle East, Australia has deployed more than 1,500 ADF personnel, who are undertaking train–advise–assist missions, special force activities, air combat operations and naval missions. The defeat of ISIS in Iraq won’t end the need for these deployed forces. Al-Qaeda and ISIS will remain active across the greater Middle East for a considerable time to come. Further deployments to Afghanistan are being considered, while the Trump administration is signalling that it would like the Australian train–advise–assist mission to stay in Iraq for the foreseeable future. This deployment may grow further to include a long-term presence in Syria.

Sixteen years into the long war, victory looks distant. Indeed, some now talk of the war lasting decades more. On present indications, Australia can expect to be involved as long as it lasts. This has several implications.

First, the protracted nature of the long war allows the ADF (and especially Special Operations Command) to be well prepared for the continuing strain of ongoing deployments. A considered personnel rotation plan can allow experience to be shared across the ADF, rather than sending small number of individuals time after time. Moreover, ADF training can be optimised to ensure that personnel are well trained, especially in language and cultural skills.

Second, for the Air Force the long war’s prolonged nature might allow the expedited acquisition of armed unmanned aircraft, as foreshadowed in the 2016 Defence White Paper. The current deployed air combat force may be able to be partially replaced by unmanned aircraft, allowing precision strikes at a sharply reduced cost. The decades-long duration of the long war calls not only for effectiveness, but also for efficiency. Some RAAF personnel are already embedded with the US Air Force, flying MQ-9 Reaper drones.

Third, the ADF aims to become a ‘joint and integrated’ force, but the long war involves Australia providing tactical level units that fit into a much larger US-led coalition force. In Iraq, for example, Army land forces, special forces, the air combat force and the deployed naval warship aren’t fighting as a joint and integrated force in an Australian operational area but rather as separate, geographically distant force elements. The type of force element needed for the long war—one that fits easily into a large combined force—isn’t necessarily the same as is needed for an Australian ‘joint and integrated’ force. The long war’s requirements and the ADF’s aspirations are at odds. There’s a worrying level of incoherence developing between warfighting reality and the force structure vision.

Fourth, strategically, the ongoing long war presents some real problems. The 2016 Defence White Paper emphasised building up air and naval forces to meet the China challenge. Doing this while fighting across the greater Middle East for decades more will create difficulties in prioritising scarce funding and manning. As problematic as ISIS and al-Qaeda are Iran and its activities across the region. Iranian tactics tend to both stoke sectarian tensions and turn local militias against deployed Western forces. Neither is helpful for Australia in its long war involvement. Moreover, the Trump administration is wary of Iranian geopolitical aspirations, and some foresee a US–Iranian conflict within the next five years.

Fifth, the long war has revealed real shortcomings in the ability of the US and Australia to develop successful strategies. President Trump has a point when he complains that America doesn’t win wars anymore, instead letting them drag on at high costs in blood and treasure. He recently declared that ‘We’ve either got to win [the war], or don’t fight it at all.’ US forces prevail in most battles but seem unable to translate those successes into victory. The national security apparatus seems to have embraced an Israeli-style ‘mowing the grass’ strategy that cuts down terrorist group offshoots periodically but accepts that the grass will keep growing. This is a strategy for endless war that runs the risk for America of its allies growing tired and returning home. (Germany may have already reached that point in Afghanistan.)

Generals will argue that the politicians are at fault in failing to devise war-winning strategies. Politicians, though, can’t be expected to be as competent as experienced military strategists. Generals need to take the lead in offering proposals that can be realistically implemented—and this means working within resource constraints, not suggesting waging total wars of World War II proportions.

Australia has so far let the US do the strategic thinking in the long war. If victory looked to be in sight, that might be an appropriate approach, but peace seems decades away—suggesting that a more activist Australian stance might bring rewards. So far, Australian generals have been noticeably absent in long-war strategic thinking debates, perhaps reflecting institutional shortcomings and a certain societal myopia. The education of our generals in strategic thinking might well need greater attention so that they can make meaningful contributions to American strategy development. This takes on more importance when it’s recalled that the long war isn’t a threat to Australian survival, so poor strategic performance isn’t fatal. Other conflicts might be different. It’s time to get our strategic thinking ability up to speed so we can win wars, not just fight them.