Friday, September 26, 2014


Bombing is not a strategy. It is simply one way of achieving your objectives. 

This is something the West appears to have lost sight of. 

Arming planes on the USS George Washington

At the Chief of Army's conference this week it was the military men who appeared to understand war far better than the politicians, as this column for the Canberra Times explained . . . 


Two policemen stabbed and a man shot in a typical suburban setting. A deployment to the Middle East (again) and the Chief of Army warning of a new, Hundred Years War. The fracturing of society as the government introduces new terror legislation. Most accept these measures are necessary yet others see grubby political motives intruding onto our streets. Police, armed with automatic rifles, surround parliament and mix, as if it’s normal, with passing tourists.

What’s true; what’s normal?

Firstly, war has changed. The vital ground used to be a hill on a battlefield: today it’s the dust trampled by fleeing refugees or perhaps inside the minds of those at home, trawling through the dark reaches of the internet late at night. The key to victory is recognising this. We are in a new war; a contest of ideas. Winning requires new strategies.

The army has already begun to engage on this front. This week General David Morrison hosted a conference in Brisbane bringing together military heads from rivals such as China and Japan; countries as diverse as the US and Papua New Guinea. Forums like this make a significant contribution to reducing tensions in the region. An impressive, Japanese four-star general made consistent attempts to engage with a counterpart and was, eventually, rewarded with smiles and even laughter. Our top soldiers openly discussed security challenges. Although the honesty they offered to others wasn’t always reciprocated, trust gradually developed as the discussions continued. Morrison has reaped enormous value for the country at the cost of a couple of hours flying time for a single fighter jet.

The conference didn’t shy away from the dangers of involvement in the Middle East – it couldn’t. Professor Jeffrey Grey emphasised the current war won’t have any “Zero Dark 30” moment; that instant when the enemy commander is ‘taken out’ and the conflict suddenly ends. In another tightly written presentation Professor Michael Evans questioned whether dropping bombs alone will deliver victory in these new shape-shifting wars of the future. This was the context behind Morrison’s comments that this conflict could last a century. His was not a mindless call to arms, beating the drum and blowing the trumpet. It was, rather, a sophisticated warning that old shibboleths about how we fight need to be examined. Military force won’t necessarily create the end state we desire. At some point a political solution will have to be found.

Driving his message home, General Morrison quoted off by heart the great anti-war poet Siegfried Sassoon. As a young subaltern in the First World War, Sassoon watched as his men were slaughtered in front of machine guns. These weapons spat bullets across the battlefield, halting offensive after offensive, yet the generals couldn’t come up with an answer. If we seek victory today it’s obvious we’ll have to devise new tactics, but at least our military is searching for solutions. It’s now up to the politicians to accept the intellectual challenge of defining force is meant to achieve. 

It’s already possible to discern impoverished legacy Barack Obama will bequeath us. It’s one of failed dreams and dismal incomprehension of what power can achieve. He (seemingly) thought he could get away with half-hearted verbal support for the rebels in their fight against Bashar al-Assad’s government. Today he reaps the reality of a region that is out of control. The US President sat on his hands thinking, hoping, that everything would sort itself out. By ignoring the framework nation states he created room for chaos and terror to spawn in the space in between. But nature abhors a vacuum. Without legitimate government – however bad it may be – the fanatics with the strongest desire for power will generate room for themselves. This is exactly what occurred with the rise of the terror group Isil, or Daesh.

Obama’s now chosen a method – military force – but bombing, by itself, is far from being a strategy. Airpower won’t defeat this insurgency. Embedding ‘trainers’ for local forces won’t be effective either: they don’t need training to be effective. It might help but won’t create any reason for soldiers to be prepared to die for the compromised regimes they’re fighting for. It’s difficult to find any solution that depends on those old international boundaries, arbitrarily drawn on a map by French and British diplomats almost a century ago. These borders don’t reflect realities on the ground.

Turkey, interestingly, has successfully negotiated with Daesh to secure the release of 49 diplomats. Ankara knows it doesn’t have the luxury of withdrawing from this region or choosing to wage a war using standoff munitions. It is intimately involved. The key to victory won’t be found through some miracle new weapon – it doesn’t exist. The answer is to convince the terrorists that they cannot win, because only this will cause them to abandon the fight. This requires understanding where the enemy is coming from, because this is the new vital ground. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to drop bombs on peoples’ minds. New weapons and strategies are called for. And not just in Iraq – the home front is equally important.

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