One of Australia's most respected former military leaders, Admiral Chris Barrie, just declared that Australia is "sleepwalking" towards war. In doing so, Barrie drew parallels between current simmering geopolitical tensions and those at the outbreak of World War I. He also highlighted that, as in 1914, Australia is unprepared for war. In his words, the complacency of Australians towards the looming threat "beggars belief".
Surely, after almost 20 years of deployments to East Timor, Iraq, Solomon Islands and Afghanistan, the Australian Defence Force is fully prepared for the challenges ahead?
Not according to senior serving and retired military leaders attending a recent seminar titled "war in the sandpit", where Barrie voiced his concerns. The two-day event, organised by the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre along with Military History and Heritage Victoria, was the most significant gathering of policymakers and military practitioners since the global war on terror began. The outcome was a discussion of hitherto unseen brutal honesty.
Many participants did not portray Australian strategic thinking in a positive light. A lack of identified end states, a failure by successive governments to clearly state Australia's national objectives, and dissonance between the strategic aims and the tactical implementation of national policy, were all raised as issues.
The heart of these issues lies within Canberra's decision-making machine. Strategy is best understood as the alignment of ends, ways and means. The government's failure to adequately understand the ends it is trying to achieve, or to allocate adequate assets to those tasked with conducting the operation, results in what we have seen in the Middle East for the last 17 years: commanders trying to do their best, often second-guessing what it is they are supposed to achieve, with minimal assets.
Let us take Iraq as an example. Australia is an important member of the coalition. It is the largest non-NATO troop-contributing nation and third-largest contributor to the alliance overall after the United States and Italy. Australian Special Forces play a crucial role supporting the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service as it leads the clearance of Mosul. Meanwhile, we have Australian officers embedded in key positions in coalition headquarters, a significant training team doing great work in Taji, Australian F/A-18s bombing Islamic States positions across Iraq and Syria, and the Royal Australian Navy with a permanent presence in the Arabian Gulf.
By any definition, despite our size – indeed, perhaps despite our best intentions – Australia is a major player in the region. As such, we must take our share of the responsibility for the aftermath of the fight against ISIS.
The reality is that the post-ISIS outlook for Iraq does not look positive. The country will have four large, heavily armed groups in the forms of the army, the Counter Terrorism Service, the Iraqi federal police and the Shi'ite Popular Mobilisation Force. Generally speaking, only the first two are fully under command of the Iraq government; the federal police and Shi'ite militias are heavily influenced by Iran. This means the Iraqi state is unlikely to have a monopoly on the use of violence. By any international measure, this is a prime indication of a failed state.
As former Howard-era defence minister Robert Hill said at the seminar: "I'm still trying to work out what winning the war in Iraq is now ... As soon as we actually defeat ISIS – which will happen – you'll be back into the sectarian divide and the internal fight."
Is there a "winning strategy" or, as some have argued, is it simply impossible to defeat an ideology? In this regard, Barrie is right to turn to history, but perhaps 1945 would be a more useful precedent. The end of the World War II saw the ideological regimes of Germany and Japan comprehensively defeated, with both countries not only nurtured back into the international global order as democratic nations but also as economic powerhouses. How did this happen?
First, the end state of the allied strategy was clear and concise. It was not, as some might presume, the unconditional surrender of the axis powers. Rather, it was setting the conditions so that these nations would not descend into expansionist dictatorships again. The ways were twofold: the complete military defeat of both countries, followed by rebuilding their institutions and economies. The means were whatever it took. Allied nations mobilised their entire economies to win the war, and then invested unprecedented amounts of capital into Germany and Japan to win the peace. It is almost the exact opposite of the US-led strategy in Iraq.
Barrie might be right to suggest that future conflicts lie in wait for Australia. But we are not "sleepwalking" into war. We already did that more than a decade ago and we are still fighting devoid of a comprehensive strategy.
If we are to be prepared for the challenges that lie ahead in our region, we must ensure that we don't just win the war, but win the peace in Iraq, too. That will require playing a leading role in bringing the international community together to match the ends, way and means to achieve a stable, peaceful, democratic nation state of Iraq. Otherwise we will find ourselves sleepwalking through war in Iraq for yet another decade.
Lieutenant-Colonel Greg Colton is seconded to the Lowy Institute as a research fellow. These are his views and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Army, the Defence Department or the government.