Niche Wars: Australia in Afghanistan and Iraq, 2001–2014 Edited by John Blaxland, Marcus Fielding, and Thea Gellerfy – Book Review

In addition to its availability as a free download, Niche Wars is unique for the breadth of its authors’ expertise—a blending of strategic, operational, and tactical insights and a frankness rarely seen in such collective efforts.

Canberra: Australian
National University Press,
377 pages
$70.00 –

It provides a valuable opportunity to learn from one of the United States’ closest and ablest military partners as they confronted operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Niche Wars is organized into four sections and three appendices (two of which provide helpful chronologies of Australia’s commitments in the two conflicts). The first section, “Policy and Strategy,” presents a strategic overview of the country’s national leadership decisions to commit forces from the perspectives of a minister of defence, a secretary of the department of defence (generally a long-serving senior bureaucrat). and a former chief of the defence force. This trio of chapters sets the strategic context for what follows, making it clear Australia’s participation was a response to what its government perceived was, in the words of Minister of Defence Robert Hill, “not only an attack on our ally the United States but also, and fundamentally, an attack on our shared values” (23). Significantly, Hill addresses the failure of the leaders in Washington to include key partners in critical decisions, observing “I do not think we were even consulted on what turned out to be two of the most unwise decisions following the conflict: to disband the Iraq army and the Ba’ath Party,” while admitting “I think we preferred to pass these responsibilities to others” (28).

There is much wisdom to be mined between these lines. US officials—civilian and military alike—too often default to a “not invented here” approach during both preparation and execution; a default that deprives them of what can be invaluable insights from knowledgeable parties who might assist in avoiding unfortunate missteps. Yet, ultimately, the responsibility for outcomes rests with the coalition lead nation. While partners might be hesitant to assert their views, lead partner solicitation of input constitutes a win-win. Resulting views often provide options those immersed in day-to-day planning or management of operations overlook. Solicitation also overtly recognizes the truth that the lead nation and partners alike are in this together and all legitimately have a right to be heard.

Authors of the second section have muddier boots than the authors of the opening chapters. Here special operations forces— air and maritime activities—and conventional ground force challenges in Iraq receive attention along with a rarely heard vantage point of an international officer embedded in a US headquarters. The tensions a tactical commander experiences in a coalition environment are clear in Anthony Rawlins’s chapter recalling his tour of duty as commanding officer of the Overwatch Battle Group West (Two) in southern Iraq. His force served alongside British and other partners to whom he felt a justified obligation to support in extreme cases. Those tensions came to the fore when guidance from the senior Australian officer restricted his force if commitments were thought to threaten casualties amongst Rawlins’s soldiers. It was a situation exacerbated by the battle group’s discomfort in not having full access to strategic intentions from Canberra—to include those regarding casualty concerns. A situation presenting a conundrum never fully resolved during the unit’s time in-country.

Section three delves into specific functional areas spanning operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Military functions such as intelligence, command and control, and civil affairs find complements rarely provided in conflict compilations; the chapter on the military and media perhaps being an exception in that regard. Two authors address undertakings by the Australian Federal Police in Afghanistan during the period 2007–14, making clear the value of civilian law enforcement experts who are able to complement military training for a host nation’s other-than-military security forces. It is a task more difficult than it might appear. This reviewer’s interviews regarding the British Army’s experience in the early years of its coalition commitment to Iraq reflected that while military police can undertake such training, the differences between military and civilian law enforcement are such that this approach is not the preferred solution.

The third section concludes with chapters analyzing Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) operations and gender considerations, the latter being particularly significant when dealing with populations in which female-to-female interactions are essential to successful intelligence collection, gauging local attitudes, and not violating social norms. Here as elsewhere throughout the book, readers will find observations that might stir unpleasant memories while also constituting worthy reminders of lessons too valuable to lose.

Dave Savage’s “AusAID Stabilization,” for example, rightly observes, “often enough, the provision of aid is the easiest part. The real challenge is ensuring the aid is what is really required, is compatible with the mission, is not supporting the insurgency, and is both viable and sustainable over time. Indeed, aid that is poorly delivered can often be worse than no aid at all” (232). This observation is again in keeping with several interviews this reviewer conducted during visits to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past now nearly 20 years, an observation that calls for providing effective training to personnel who might be tasked with the authority to disperse Commander’s Emergency Response Program funds or some equivalent thereof during future contingencies.

The fourth section includes several essays that do not fall into the above three categories with two essays focused exclusively on lessons thought to be of value during contingencies yet to come. The five chapters in the closing section are an apt topper to a worthy collection of essays that will be of interest to readers seeking a better understanding of these ongoing conflicts and to other readers with specific functional area interests. Their value, and that of the book as a whole, extends to conflicts beyond those involving counterinsurgency to touch on coalition leadership, occupation responsibilities, and interactions with local populations and governments—in short, virtually any contingency the future might hold.


Reviewed by Dr. Russell W. Glenn, director, plans and policy, deputy chief of staff G-2, US Army Training and Doctrine Command.

USAWC Press, “Book Reviews,” Parameters 51, no. 2 (2021),

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