As Australia considers extending its presence in Afghanistan, key figures have split over what has been achieved in the Middle East.
On the day Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed he is considering expanding Australia’s forces in Afghanistan, senior military planners and members of Australia’s security community were gathering in Brisbane to review past efforts in the Middle East – the area of operations they call “the sandpit”.
It was a rare no-holds-barred engagement, as senior players offered assessments of what had gone well and what arguably had not. Reflecting other analysis, one former Middle East commander, still serving in the defence force, said Australia’s post-2005 mission in southern Iraq had been “duplicitous”, designed only to “put a flag in the sand” and leaving soldiers in the field humiliated.
Another, more senior, said this had damaged Australia’s military credibility.
But a third, retired at equally high rank, called that a “disgraceful” suggestion that denigrated the contributions of thousands of Australians. He said whether or not soldiers enjoyed their designated jobs on operations was “of interest but not importance”.
Several participants said Australia’s view was not heard in Washington, DC on how to run the war in Iraq – including its opposition to the disastrous US decision to dismantle the Iraqi army. Some said Australia might have had more influence if it had agreed to do more. Others, including former Defence Department secretary Ric Smith, said it would not have made any difference.
“At the tactical level many of us viewed our deployment as confusing, disappointing, sometimes deeply embarrassing and, in the final analysis, professionally disheartening.”
Former Howard government defence minister Robert Hill declared it wasn’t clear to him how the current war in Iraq and Syria would be won.
“I’m still trying to work out what winning the war in Iraq is now,” Hill said.
“What’s the definition of winning? … As soon as we actually defeat ISIS – which will happen – you’ll be back into the sectarian divide and the internal fight in Iraq. And what’s going to be the role of America and us then?”
The War in the Sandpit conference, organised by the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre along with Military History and Heritage Victoria, brought together former military chiefs, intelligence experts and commanders – retired and serving – alongside aid workers, police and former policymakers.
It was the first such senior gathering to publicly dissect Australia’s role in these Middle East conflicts.
Robert Hill’s lament followed a presentation from the former chief of operations of the multinational force in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, retired Major-General Jim Molan, who suggested Australia tended to enter conflicts without enough force to actually win.
“If you’re going to decide to get into this, you should get in and commit,” he said.
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