Indonesia and the US pivot

Admiral Samuel Locklear III, the Commander of United States Pacific Command, with Commander of the Indonesian National Defense Forces Admiral Agus Suhartono.

If you’re looking for an Indonesian perspective on the US pivot, check out Dewi Fortuna Anwar’s NBR and Asialink essays. Her NBR essay, in particular, sees the pivot as reversing the perception that the US neglected Southeast Asia during the Bush years. According to DFA, it was a time when ASEAN and other Asia-Pacific partners could develop new relations between themselves to manage China’s rise. But since then, as China has swung its weight around in unfavourable ways, the region (including Indonesia) is glad the US is ‘back’, so to speak.

In terms of the pivot’s substance, DFA notes Indonesia’s concern that too much emphasis on the military dimension risks stoking regional tension (something that Ashton Carter addressed in his Jakarta International Defense Dialogue speech this week). DFA explains that the Marines in Darwin are close enough to the US-owned Freeport mining operations in Papua to raise suspicions of intervention. She concedes this is highly unlikely but cites past US and Australian interference across the archipelago as the historical background for this fear.

These messages are reiterations of Indonesia’s foreign policy and strategic positions, particularly with regards to hedging great powers and promoting regional cooperation. The utility of DFA’s essays therefore is to provide Australian and American audiences with an account of Indonesia’s official perspective (she’s still, after all,  Deputy Secretary for Political Affairs to the Vice President). As time goes by, and proposals like the HADR exercise between Australian-Indonesian-American forces come to fruition, there’ll be a greater indication of how the pivot has played out for Indonesia, but until then, watch this space.

Indonesia: great power on our doorstep?

Two nights ago at the ANU, Professor Hugh White delivered a solid speech that lucidly and methodically explained why we, Australia, should be considering Indonesia with more care.

Projected to be the world’s fourth largest economy in a matter of decades and increasing in clout as a regional power, if not great power, Indonesia will be a force to reckon with, according to White. As such, many Australians will be forced to overturn their assumptions about Indonesia as a poor and weak country. White implored the audience to consider ways of redefining the bilateral relationship with Indonesia beyond third order issues like drug smuggling, people trafficking, border protection, and counter terrorism. Pointing to further evidence that the relationship was not as robust as Government would have us believe, White pointed to “fault lines” in the relationship caused by Australia’s involvement in East Timor’s independence which, for some time, severed diplomatic relations completely.

Against the backdrop of a shift in the strategic balance in Asia, and as Australia aligns itself towards the so-called “Asian Century”, White invited us to consider whether Indonesia would be an asset or an ally. In his view, Indonesia holds great potential to shield Australia from the threat of major powers in the region, if we get our bilateral relationship right. If we do, then we may start to think about the kinds of Defence capability that would complement the armed forces of Indonesia so that both countries could work towards a kind of “forward defence”.  White wrapped up his speech with five points to improve the relationship: 1) improve DFAT political reporting, 2) focus less on third order issues and more on China, 3) de-emphasise the role of aid in relating to Indonesia, 4) abolish travel advisories (as negative ones have tended to upset Indonesia), and 5) increase the importance of the bilateral relationship in Australian politics.

There are, however, a few extra elements in relation to Australia-Indonesia ties White might have explored in his speech (and I’m sure he would have, given more time), and I would like to take up three of his points to develop these further.

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Twitter Fight Club, that is. Team Security Scholar is heavily involved in this year’s TFC event, with Nat being a part of the steering committee and a competitor, and yours truly as one of the judges for the competition. You can read about my part in the event (and my judging criteria) at my personal blog, The Rogue Adventurer. For the uninitiated, check out this introductory post over at the official home of Twitter Fight Club.

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The strategic implications of a gender equal ADF

In the wake of the decision to open all roles of the ADF to women, much attention has lingered on the physical and psychological dimensions of close quarter combat. There are legitimate concerns about this, and I will examine them in forthcoming posts, however less attention has been given to the strategic implications of opening up all roles in the ADF and the contribution of female personnel.

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Security Scholar Forum: What is a Civilian Strategist?

By Natalie Sambhi & Nic R. Jenzen-Jones

As part of a new initiative, Security Scholar is now hosting monthly online forums on security, strategy and military-related issues, bringing scholars, practitioners and commentators together for debate and discussion. It was our pleasure to host the first of these on 25 August on the topic of “What is a civilian strategist?”, an issue that has grown out of a series of blog posts and comments (started on the Lowy’s Interpreter and continued on Security Scholar, Rethinking Security and Pnyx), driven by the observed disjuncture between the development of strategy and implementation of policy and what role civilian strategists play in that interface.

Our aim has been not only to extend discussion beyond defining ‘civilian strategist’, but also to unpack a key area of civil-military relations (comparing the systems of three liberal democracies) and reach consensus on the function and utility of civilian strategists.

The hour-long forum, held over Google+, hosted guests from Australia, the US and the UK, from academia, the blogosphere and the Twitterverse, moderated by the Security Scholar team. Several points emerged from the debate.

First, what struck us was the interest in this topic; this has been an issue that has generated similar levels of concern amongst our US and UK contemporaries, as it has here in Australia. There was general consensus among participants that the role of civilian strategists was crucial in interpreting and implementing government’s intent into operational-level action.

Second, when compared to the blog exchanges, there was the shift in the online discussion towards whole-of-government/interagency issues. While the lexicon between international participants differed, it was clear that we all identified the interagency nature of contemporary security issues and appreciated that the increased involvement of non-military actors dictated that the role of civilian strategists was indispensable.

Third, we quickly agreed that the meaning of ‘civilian strategist’ depended entirely upon what level of decision-making we were are addressing; that is, at the higher levels of national security, decision-making was seen to be exercised predominantly by civilian rather than military strategists, whereas at lower levels, the ratio tips in favour of military strategists. Professor Samuel Liles pointed out the crucial role played by civilians in the National Security Council Deputies Committee in determining issues national security in the United States. Moreover, Samuel and Dr David Connery noted the role that their respective education institutions—the Information Resources Management College at the National Defense University and the National Security College at the Australian National University—played in creating and shaping civilian strategists (a considerable proportion in the case of NSC).

Whilst we did not come to a concrete definition of a ‘civilian strategist’, there are a few key characteristics we feel all parties agreed upon. All participants agreed that such a person must be a civilian (that is, not a currently serving member of a nation’s armed forces). They must also either make, or directly influence, strategic level decisions (although there was some discussion about the various ‘levels’ of strategy). While the distinction was made between those who are strategists and those who are policy makers, what is less clear is the distinction in practice between strategy and policy. Such confusion has led to a misunderstanding not only of who civilian strategists are (given rise to the debate in the first instance) but also what they do.

Overall, we were delighted to be able to host thinkers from around the world, and we hope that some of the points that have been raised will continue to stimulate discussion. Ultimately, by lending legitimacy to the role of civilian strategists to help overcome mistrust and misunderstanding with uniformed peers, we can encourage greater cooperation and implementation of a holistic and cohesive national security strategy.


Prof. Samuel Liles, Washington (National Defense University/
Dr David Connery, Canberra (National Security College)
Aaron Ellis, Liverpool (Thinking Strategically)
Dan Trombly, Washington (Slouching Towards Columbia)
Adam Elkus, Washington (Rethinking Security)
Matthew Hill, Ithaca (Pnyx)
Crispin Rovere, Canberra (
Sheryn Lee, Canberra (ANU)
Caitlin FitzGerald, Boston (The Children’s Illustrated Clausewitz) [by correspondence]


Nic R. Jenzen-Jones, Perth (Security Scholar)
Natalie Sambhi, Canberra (Security Scholar)

Excerpt from forum transcript:

Crispin Rovere: … I’m just sort of wondering what everyone else’s thoughts are on whether civilians are capable, or can, or should, be involved in operational matters as well.

Nic Jenzen-Jones: … When you say ‘operational matters’ are you referring to solely traditional military operations? Or are you talking cyber-operations and these sorts of things? Because there are certainly a lot of areas now where civilians are the norm, rather than the exception.

Sam Liles: You should bring up special operations, also.

David Connery: Or are you talking about procurement decisions and budgeting decisions? You really seem to range over a whole range of areas there… In some cases, civilians are better equipped to tell what’s the better fighter aircraft; they’re the engineers that have done that training, whereas the pilots can give opinions on which is better to fly, or to deploy.

Nic Jenzen-Jones: And I guess what always springs to mind for me, is that you’ve got law enforcement professionals in that spectrum as well. You’ve got FBI agents out there overseas, you’ve got DEA agents over in Afghanistan and so on, and you’ve got AFP all over our neck of the woods. They are obviously civilians, and are conducting operational-level thinking.

Matt Hill: Yeah, I think that’s a really important distinction to make here. I think this is where we can fall into a trap when we talk about civilian strategists, in that we make the civilian strategy divide such that we put the military at the ‘means’ point and the civilians at the ‘ends’ point. The reality is the military is one means amongst the national capabilities, and the vast majority of those capabilities are in fact civilian. There is actually a greater penetration of civilian involvement all the way down the spectrum, from strategy right down to the tactical level, which you’re not going to see necessarily from the military.

Sam Liles: I’d like to add one thing. In the military lexicon, we have the DIME model – the Diplomacy, Intelligence, Military, Economic model – that’s discussed in depth. But there’s also another one, the MIDLIFE [AKA ‘DIMEFIL – ed.] model. That’s Military, Economic, Diplomacy, Law enforcement, Intelligence, Financial and so on it goes. That law enforcement piece is very important because often, at the diplomacy level, if you want to get a change made you need to take in something other than a military brew to act within another country’s borders. So an FBI, or DEA, or shared use case with a share concept of operations will be able to work in a way that a military wouldn’t. So when you’re talking about strategies, it doesn’t always have to come back to we’re going to blow something up, kill people, break things – it can also be in the order of “we’re going to help you guys arrest the bad guys and clean up the streets”. That’s still enacting a strategy, maybe by a civilian organisation.

David Connery: Yeah a great point there by Matt, ‘military strategist’ is really confusing the means with the ends, it’s making the means predominant. Picking up on Sam’s point there, truly national strategies employ instruments of national power; the DIME formulation is really far too narrow. I’m not sure, Sam, of the MIDLIFE model but I will google that pretty shortly. But yes, a strategist needs to understand how to employ every tool available to the nation – and beyond the state – including what’s available in the private sector, what’s available in the community sector, and what’s available from your allies overseas, to achieve your political goals. Now, the military is a fine tool, but in the National Security College, we have about 15% of our students are military officers. The rest are representing all of those other agencies that are tools that Sam mentioned. And in that way I think we driving towards a better understanding of ‘how do you implement national security strategy?’, and leave the application of military force to the professionals.

Nic Jenzen-Jones: I think looking outside the state is a really important point as well. We’ve got a pretty clear civil-military divide in Australia, for example, but a lot of countries have paramilitary groups, and even law-enforcement groups that border on the military. It might be a lot more black and white for us than it is in other countries.

David Connery: Yeah, although in terms of becoming blurred, when you look at the State police ‘STAR’ forces and the Australian Federal Police’s International Deployment Group, the distinctions between ‘civil’ and ‘military’ become a little blurred.

Crispin Rovere: Do you think, in certain circumstances, that we’re even bringing civilians more into military operations? I’m thinking here of the CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and it becomes so intensive that we are now at a point where David Petraeus, obviously a life-time general, has now been appointed the head of the CIA. Do we think that perhaps that the whole distinction of armed force, in terms of means, is now becoming increasingly civilian as well?

Nic Jenzen-Jones: I couldn’t agree more, mate. I think the Petraeus-Panetta shift is the example that’s on everyone’s mind right now, but even some of the stuff we were talking about before is a good example. These Law Enforcement teams, AFP, DEA, particularly FASTs in Afghanistan and Colombia and so on, are integrating into the local military or paramilitary and acting more or less in a military capacity, as well as integrating into the local law enforcement and mentoring in the traditional sense. And you’ve also got Private Military Contractors, of course. You’ve got huge armies of ex-military guys, who are very clearly now civilians, operating in country – not so much on the strategy level, but still affecting it. If you look at some of the larger companies, Blackwater, previously, and DynCorp and so on, some of the in-country managers are responsible for a large area and are in a sense involved in some strategy in that they are being consulted by civilian and military leaders in country. So these guys have a dialogue going with senior officers and civilian representatives of coalition nations.

David Connery: To follow on from Nic there, Private Military Contractors are even setting foreign policy in some circumstances. But Crispin makes an excellent point in ‘what is a military operation these days?’. I can’t think of a single operation that is a solely military activity. And I don’t think there will be again, short of a major international war, where you’ve got to impose the peace. If you think of World War Two as a continuum that lasts through from maybe 1930, to 1955 or 1960, one phase of it was the fighting, but what happened next was the rebuilding of Europe. And although it was military-led in the very early years, there was a transition out of it. So what’s a military operation? Great point.

Matt Hill: If I could just follow on that briefly, I think what we are basically seeing, at least thematically, in the problem of defining civilian strategists, is that if we take strategy as being the bridge between the means and the ends of society, we have seen two major dynamics, really, since World War Two. We’ve seen the means; and questions of the means, and in what situations and how the means are deployed has changed dramatically with these non-traditional directions, as well as the change within the military towards professionalization. And at the ends, we’ve seen changes within societies. Dramatic changes in how we operate in Western society. So there seems to be pulling at both ends of that bridge, and they are both hard to reconcile with traditional concepts of strategy. And I think that’s quite a stretch on the concept of civilian strategists, these two dynamics happening at both ends.

From Caitlin Fitz Gerald (by correspondence)

“I think the slipperiness of the definition of a ‘civilian strategist’ derives from the rarity of the breed. I see strategy as a main intersection of the civil and the military, taking input from both and ideally grounded in a strong grasp of concerns from the tactical to the political. However, military leaders tend to have far more focus on strategic training, but the civilian leaders are the ones with the power to implement. So, I see civilian strategists as something that should exist, but don’t always (and actually I would argue that strategy in general is something that should exist, but doesn’t always).”

Strategy: a symphony, not a solo

By ClosetIdealist

@ClosetIdealist is a security and risk advisor in the private sector, having previously served in the Australian Public Service and in the ADF. 

Since my last post, there have been several developments in the debate about ‘civilian strategists’, including a 15 August contribution from Professor Hugh White.  Hugh, with his conservative definition of strategy as the bridge “between the organised violence … and the political purpose”, has dragged our debate back to first principles.  Before we debate the finer points of what a ‘civilian strategist’ might be, we need to agree on strategy.

At the risk of opening a can of worms with a ‘grand strategy’ label, surely the modern experience of conflict has evolved strategy into something beyond Hugh’s restrictive definition (which I would call military strategy). Most people now instinctively conceive of strategy as implying a more general means-ends relationship.  Clausewitz once wrote that in some cases:

the political object will not provide a suitable military objective.  In that event, another military objective must be adopted that will serve the political purpose and symbolise it in the peace negotiations.

But in modern conflict the use of organised violence may not achieve certain political ends.  The political object might not be the surrender or battlefield defeat of an opposing nation; contemporary goals are more ambitious and require something beyond organised violence.  Liddell Hart wrote that the role of grand strategy is “to coordinate and direct all the resources of a nation, or a band of nations, towards the attainment of the political object of the war”. For the purposes of our debate, this serves as a useful, contemporary definition of strategy.

To slightly twist Rodger’s orchestra analogy, as political goals have become more ambitious the “orchestra” of means available to any given nation has also grown, requiring the team of composers (strategists) to exercise an interdisciplinary approach.  Military musicians once dominated the orchestra’s membership, but now there is a different range of measures that can augment, enhance or replace organised violence.  Progress towards political objects might now involve the application of diplomatic pressure to other nations, the use of aid to equip rebel groups or build infrastructure, the manipulation of economic markets or the conduct of cyber-attacks to cripple an adversary’s systems.  To touch briefly on another aspect of the debate, when civilian musicians were accepted into the orchestra, perhaps ‘civilian strategists’ were required to bridge the gap between their means and the political object ends.

To extend the analogy slightly, when governments set their requirements and request that a musical piece be written, they expect their strategists to compose a strategy that considers all of the means available to a nation; no listener would be satisfied if they expected to hear an orchestral piece, but instead were subjected only to a drum solo of organised violence!  In the modern era, strategic goals are pursued with “whole-of-nation” strategies, requiring the orchestra to contain musicians with experience in diplomacy, aid, economics, cyber-security, intelligence and perhaps even private business.   As anyone who has played music in a band or orchestra will tell you, teamwork is key – all of the instruments must play their part in time, each instrument must be played well and in a way that complements or enhances the overall performance.

Putting these arguments aside, Rodger is unsure as to whether “Australia’s political, diplomatic or security circumstances demand, or allow us to produce these types of people” (i.e. strategists).  This is a very scary thought.  Australia will very likely face a myriad of strategic challenges over the next half-century: the rise of China, shifting regional dynamics and power, global financial instability, the list goes on.  To suggest that we cannot produce the people required to respond to these challenges is the equivalent of throwing in the towel at a national level.

Some of Australia’s strategic policy decisions in recent times have proved disappointing, while some have proven successful not due to skill, insight or forethought, but rather sheer dumb luck.  There are of course many challenges in generating a culture of strategic excellence, but surely these challenges do not excuse failure. For years we have been known as the lucky country and recent global events have surely reminded us of this fact, but will the adage of ‘better lucky than good’ continue to hold true for Australia?  If Rodger is correct – if we are unable to identify, train and position Australian strategists to confront these challenges – then we had better hope our luck holds out indefinitely.

Image courtesy of the United States Military Academy Band.

In defence of civilian strategists

@ClosetIdealist is a security and risk advisor in the private sector, having previously served in the Australian Public Service and the ADF. 

I read Rodger Shanahan’s recent post with much interest and a little despair.  My background also crosses several disciplines, including a brief stint in the Australian Army.  A key principle in Rodger’s argument – that junior leaders in the ADF are expected ‘to take into account the strategic environment’ – doesn’t exactly accord with my experience in uniform.  Sure, training activities noted that in some circumstances things had to be done differently due to the ‘CNN test’ – the possibility that someone was filming you – but that was about it.  So let’s not pretend that section and platoon commanders are patrolling Oruzgan with a copy of Clausewitz in their day-pack or Evelyn Goh’s ‘omni-enmeshment’ theory at the front of their minds.  The better ones might be thinking about the practical application of COIN doctrine, but I’m not sure that this compares to strategy at the highest levels.

I’m also a ‘putative strategist’: I studied at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University and served in the Australian Public Service before moving to the private sector.  Interestingly, many of Rodger’s ‘putative strategists’ – often post-graduate qualified public servants or intelligence analysts – have keenly sought to serve Australia’s national interests in Afghanistan.  Many saw room for an expanded AusAid presence, one focussed not on Canberra’s goal of ‘spending the budget’ but on achieving results through integration with ADF operations.  When it became clear that an increased Australian presence was not politically feasible, some sought to work for the Americans in other areas of Afghanistan.  In my experience, these ‘putative strategists’ do not consider themselves as superior to those in uniform.  Many have expressed a willingness to serve their country in dangerous roles overseas, some have done so and still others have found their dreams frustrated by weak decision-making in Canberra.

I don’t think the ‘lack of mutual understanding’ is helped by the fact that some in the ADF feel that only those in uniform have the moral right and professional expertise to comment on Defence policy.  It’s forever humbling to remember that while I served in uniform I was a willing participant of this culture, where civilian commentators and strategists were routinely dismissed as ‘<expletive> civvies’.  It is certainly true that those in uniform have a unique and indispensible perspective, one rarely attained by non-combatants.  And I think the broader thrust of Rodger’s argument – that ‘civilian strategists’ should endeavour to understand the pressures and challenges faced by those who carry out the operations that achieve strategic priorities – is valid and worthwhile.

But the ADF has also reached a point where some painful, honest introspection might be beneficial.  Put simply: ADF members should remember that they, ultimately, do not define the Australian Government’s strategic goals.  Civilian decision-makers, hopefully in conjunction with senior ADF officers, will set strategic goals, identify risks and will indirectly determine, through this strategic planning process, what operations the ADF will conduct.  But those decision-makers probably won’t ever have crawled out of their sleeping bag – wet, cold and hungry – to do the graveyard shift of picket duty.  Nor will have they experienced the ‘two-way rifle range’.  So, it is the job of the senior military officers in any strategic planning process to ensure that the ‘ground-truths’ are not overlooked; that the operational objectives derived from strategic intent are realistic and achievable.

Importantly, it must be remembered that strategic intent drives the operational goals.  Rodger has commented that a well-regarded (civilian) scholar was ‘caught up in the emotion of the moment’ when writing a blog post, because the author showed ‘a complete lack of understanding of what motivates soldiers’. I think Rodger’s argument overlooks the fact that soldiers are employed to conduct operations, which in turn are meant to progress towards – and eventually achieve – strategic goals.  That some who argue for a withdrawal from Afghanistan choose to omit from their argument ‘the impact of such a suggestion on the tactical environment outside the wire’ does not automatically suggest a callous disregard for ADF members in Afghanistan, rather it implies that the strategic priorities of the Australian Government are more important that the feelings of those in uniform, a counterpoint noted (by a civilian) here.  This has always been the case and to suggest a reordering of priorities would be the equivalent of putting the operational cart before the strategic horse.

I chuckled when I read that Rodger is unsure as to what a ‘civilian strategist’ looks like.  Aside from some notable American exceptions, I am at a loss to identify what a modern-day ‘military strategist’ looks like!  Where is strategy taught to ADF officers?  At the Australian Command and Staff College?  Based on a recent round of job advertisements, it seems that someone in the ADF must hold the ANU’s ‘civilian strategists’ in high regard!  I fully agree with Rodger’s point that “’strategist’ is not a qualification – it is an appellation one can give oneself”, but we mustn’t forget that this sword cuts both ways, applying equally to both those in suits and those in uniform.  For effective strategic policy, Australia needs strategists in uniform, strategists wearing suits at Russell Offices, and strategists elected to Parliament.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia. The view from the Department of Defence, Russell Offices to Parliament House in Canberra.

There is no justification for risking Australian lives in Afghanistan: a review

On a chilly Thursday night, we descended upon Melbourne Town Hall to listen to our friend and colleague, Raoul Heinrichs, partake in the Wheeler Centre debate on Afghanistan. We came to hear whether the war effort would be savaged, whether Australian lives would be needlessly lost, whether there was hope for the Afghan people, or whether we, as a country, were wasting our time. We came to hear a lawyer, a scholar, a prominent feminist, a retired general, a young Afghan woman, and a philosopher. We came to hear their perspectives and experiences. We came to observe the public’s reactions; to hear how everyday people received and digested narratives of Afghanistan. I wanted to see whether people still remembered we were in war.

The topic of Thursday’s debate, “There is no justification for risking Australian lives in Afghanistan”, was always going to be hard to stick to. There was a sense of mission creep; a tendency for speakers to appeal to the broader merits of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, rather than centring on the specific risk to Australians (civilian and military) serving there. The affirmative team took the view that the intractability of the conflict dictated that no further Australian lives were worth risking. While each speaker had their own spin on this theme, they all concentrated on what they saw as the dire security situation on the ground, the lack of proper resourcing, and the lack of strategic interests beyond the ANZUS treaty (which, in Heinrichs’ view, we have already satisfied).

Central to the affirmative’s case was that the war in Afghanistan has been a debacle from the start. It lacked strategic direction and caused more problems than it sought to solve. Sadly, overlapping and slightly wayward directions by the first and third speakers undermined the overall coherence of their message, but in their moments, each speaker shone. In particular, lawyer Kellie Tranter impressed upon the audience that, in an environment of information shortages from the Department of Defence and Australian Government, it is difficult to appraise whether this war is worth our while. Strategist and scholar, Heinrichs, for his part, concentrated on the specific strategic interests to Australia in evaluating whether more lives lost in Afghanistan was worth the gain. Lastly, feminist Eva Cox’s gem was highlighting the disjuncture between our purported concern for the Afghan people and our treatment of Afghan asylum seekers with the recent Malaysia solution. While this was slightly off the mark, it nonetheless reflected the human complexities of the issue that the audience, no doubt, would react to.

On the negative side, MAJGEN (rtd) Jim Molan’s strong and authoritative introduction outlined the parameters of their case. The negative side would prove that there are sufficient strategic and moral imperatives for Australia to pursue in Afghanistan, and this was worth Australian lives. And indeed they did. Molan provided a frank assessment of the reasons why the strategic imperatives of regional stability and alliance management buttressed our cause there, but introduced more moral elements of the case. This latter theme dovetailed well with the impassioned and personal speech by Sonia Zaiee who reflected on her war-tainted childhood in Afghanistan. She contrasted these anguishing images with the hope of education and promise of reconstruction now possible from Australian presence, it seemed. Philosopher Peter Singer further ran with moral arguments for intervention, citing the plight of Afghan women, taking pains to stress that a vote for the motion signalled a ‘no’ for Australian aid workers in Afghanistan. While the negative team started on a strong note, the generalist approaches of the second and third speakers allowed the topic to stray away from the central element of the topic, namely “Why Australia?”

Overall, the debate represented the myriad views of the Australian public. And yet people have these divergent views about the conflict because of the piecemeal information and public narrative on offer. These opinions, coupled with questions from the audience, also highlighted, importantly, the lack of certainty with which we can say Australia’s presence there is a good or bad thing. There are indeed good things in Afghanistan for which Australian soldiers fight but there are inordinate and acute risks for what is a seemingly unclear overarching strategic interest.

And all while the debate continued, my live tweets of the event were punctuated with reports of an attack on Uruzgan province, the slice of Afghanistan for which Australia fights. The revelation of this attack, with its perfect timing, could have brought down the case of either side: for the affirmative, in support of a deteriorating security situation, and for the negative, in support of the need to maintain presence. For me, each side’s unwitting ignorance of the exact and immediate situation on the ground, with all its complexities, reflected the incomplete way in which we, the Australian public, seek to understand this conflict. And all the while, our theorising and arguing parallels another reality on the ground. Such is the nature of how this conflict plays out in the Australian psyche. Either way, the audience decided that the negative case had been the more compelling, and that there was justification for risking Australian lives in Afghanistan.

Separating strategy and tactics in the Afghanistan debate

By Natalie Sambhi and N.R. Jenzen-Jones

While we do not subscribe to all that Raoul Heinrichs proposes in his 31 May Lowy Interpreter post, we feel it necessary to outline our position relative to some of the claims Rodger Shanahan makes in his 1 June rejoinder to Raoul. In short, while Raoul is wrong about the ADF, Shanahan is wrong about strategy.

Nowhere in Shanahan’s post does he acknowledge the final note upon which Raoul’s piece actually hinges: that is, there is a need to measure our tactical and operational gains and losses against a clear strategy for Australia’s continued involvement in Afghanistan which, in Raoul’s opinion, is absent. Against a weak strategy, human costs are magnified, and it is the responsibility of those in the strategic realm but more importantly the political realm to do so. In fact, to not do so would violate the very covenant Shanahan holds sacred, that of the social contract between soldier and government.

Soldiers do not fight for strategy; on that point Shanahan is correct. But neither do they fight simply to “leave the area for which you have responsibility in better shape than you found it”. This idea in itself is a strategic concern, and certainly not always the goal of warfare. Shanahan appears to use this point as a fulcrum for suggesting that gains made to date directly translate to current strategic imperatives. Of course, these fluctuate with time and circumstance; and we have been in Afghanistan for near on ten, strategically-shifting years.

At the end of the day, both Shanahan and Raoul are focussed on the tactical level manifesting in their concern for the welfare of the soldier, except that Shanahan has also left considerations of strategy behind.

Postscript: For further views on this debate, Crispin Rovere advances similar arguments to the above in a 2 June Lowy riposte while @ClosetIdealist further teases out Australia’s strategic interests in Afghanistan on a 3 June Pynx blog post.

Image courtesy of Department of DefenceMembers of commando SGT Brett Wood’s platoon escorted his coffin at Tarin Kot airfield where a C-130 waited to commence his repatriation.