Aussie commander criticises Iraq mission

US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis (left) greeting Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last month at the Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. Mr Turnbull was visiting Australian troops stationed there. With the two were US Gene
US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis (second from left) greeting Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last month at the Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. Mr Turnbull was visiting Australian troops stationed there. With the two were US General John Nicholson (left), commander of international forces in Afghanistan, and Air Chief Marshall Mark Binskin, Australian chief of defence force.PHOTO: REUTERS

Handling of overseas missions being debated amid US request to send more troops to Afghanistan

Since they first fought a major battle at Gallipoli in Turkey in World War I, Australia's soldiers have long prided themselves on their courage and willingness to face risk on the battlefield.

So it came as a heavy blow for Australian troops - according to the recent admission of a brigade commander - to learn that they had been branded cowards by their American and British colleagues during the war in Iraq.

In unusually candid comments, Brigadier Anthony Rawlins, who commanded a battle group in southern Iraq and now heads a military strategy branch, has criticised the Iraq mission, saying it was aimed at achieving political goals without providing clear direction to the forces on the ground.

He said the mission was designed to keep the troops out of harm's way and was "confusing, disappointing, sometimes deeply embarrassing and, in the final analysis, professionally disheartening".

As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull considers a request from Washington to send additional troops to Afghanistan, senior Australian military figures and analysts have been debating the handling of the missions to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The debate has prompted calls for the country's leaders to rethink the tactics for future deployments in support of the US.

Brigadier Rawlins made the comments at a conference in Brisbane earlier this month, which was reported a week ago by The Saturday Paper, a weekly newspaper.

Brigadier Anthony Rawlins, who commanded a battle group in southern Iraq and now heads a military strategy branch, has criticised the Iraq mission... He said the mission was designed to keep the troops out of harm's way and was "confusing, disappointing, sometimes deeply embarrassing and... professionally disheartening".

He said the operation in Iraq damaged the credibility of the Australian military and "fatally wounded the morale and esprit de corps of many of the task and battle groups".

"The arguably duplicitous approach we took as a nation to committing our troops to stability operations in Iraq - ostensibly to put an Australian flag in the sand and support our major ally, the United States - actually generated some very mixed results," he said.

"Some were very good, mostly at the strategic level, but there were very many bad at the tactical and certainly at the individual soldier level."

The comments sparked a range of responses from other military figures and analysts. Some noted that troops are not deployed to be "happy" and must accept the tactics and aims of their mission.

Major-General (Ret) Michael Crane, who commanded Australian troops in the Middle East in 2012, reportedly said the soldiers had played an important role that had been appreciated by the US.

The dispute reflects disquiet in Australia's military about recent deployments.

Australia, where military service is voluntary, committed combat forces to Iraq between 2003 and 2009 but lost no soldiers in combat. In Afghanistan, Australia had a more extensive combat role and lost about 40 soldiers; it still has some 270 troops there.

A defence analyst and former Australian Army officer, Mr James Brown, from the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said some troops were clearly upset by decisions made during recent deployments.

He said Australia's most recent defence blueprint, or White Paper, released last year, had encouraged politicians to have more involvement in military decision-making - a change that could help to ensure goals and tactics in future deployments were clearer.

"There is obviously a sense among tactical commanders that political considerations have reached too far down into the Defence Force," Mr Brown told The Straits Times.

"The White Paper committed to greater political involvement and more national security, Cabinet involvement… It will make the decision-making more deliberate and more informed."

But he added that the US was Australia's main ally and that Australian security would inevitable be seen "through the prism of the alliance".

Earlier this month, Mr Turnbull said he was "actively considering" the request by Nato to send additional Australian troops to Afghanistan. He said the request was made during his meeting with the US Secretary of Defence, Mr James Mattis, and the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, last month.

Noting the "frustration and confusion" that emerged at the Brisbane conference, Ms Catherine McGregor, a former senior military officer, said the Afghanistan deployment "was really military diplomacy".

In Sydney's Daily Telegraph, she wrote: "We were a minor partner and never had a clearly defined strategic objective other than being seen to support the Americans."

Beyond concerns about the handling of the deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, analysts continue to question whether either of these wars were, or are, winnable.

Interestingly, Australia departed from the Gallipoli battle with heavy losses and no victory - but the apparent display of courage has endured as something of a benchmark for those who have served since.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2017, with the headline 'Aussie commander criticises Iraq mission'. Print Edition | Subscribe