A Tale of Two Aussies


The nature of modern warfare is changing rapidly. Most of today’s conflicts are discreetly disguised as peacekeeping (PK) or counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. These operations are carefully monitored from Washington, where government agencies, think tanks and research centres ponder why the United States has not been doing very well on the new battlefield.

The US military machine relies upon the advice of various guidebooks. The one governing ‘small wars’ is dubbed Field Manual 3, which revised so-called Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) after the Cold War. Between 2004 and 2006, the new strategy was presented in interim form. This was tentatively replaced in December 2006 by a ‘final’ draft Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency (FM 3-24).

It is difficult to exaggerate the moral morass into which American warfighting has sunk. The problem for the US in all this has been trying to devise ways to win David and Goliath contests (or so-called Asymmetrical Warfare) while appearing to remain within the bounds of humanitarian law.

But help is at hand in the guise of an Australian Army officer, Lieutenant Colonel David Kilcullen,   originally seconded to the US State Department as Chief Strategist for Counterterrorism and now one of what Thomas Ricks in the Washington Post called ‘a small band of warrior-intellectuals’ advising the new US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus.

Kilcullen is the darling of the international and domestic media, being presented widely as a brilliant theorist with new ideas for a new way of war. He is regarded as a practical iconoclast, a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia. For now, he is the human face of counterinsurgency.

Kilcullen’s flavor-of-the-month status is based on his PhD (on the politics of counterinsurgency operations in Indonesia), his language skills and his contribution to the so-called ‘anthropology of counterinsurgency,’ which is no more than recognising the importance of local issues wherever insurgencies break out. He advocates a policy of ‘disaggregation,’   which mean wrestling regional disputes away from jihadists and other global terrorists and dealing with local grievances, locally.

Leaving Iraq aside, the irony is that, in places like the southern Philippines, the CIA is deliberately asserting links between local insurgents and a global, jihadist movement in order to discredit separatist struggles.

In the end, Kilcullen’s spin on counterinsurgency lacks subtlety and remains a shallow military option to serious problems. At times, it’s difficult to decide whether to take the US’s new field manual seriously. Either a dry humour is running through its several hundred pages, or else the document is a ploy to lead American soldiers straight into Human Rights violations. Take an example of FM 3-24 at its jolly best:

It is easier to cut an insurgency off and let it die than to kill every insurgent. Attempting to kill every insurgent is normally impossible. It can also be counterproductive, generating popular resentment, creating martyrs that motivate new recruits, and producing cycles of revenge.

This sanguine passage appears in a section entitled ‘ Isolate Insurgents from Their Cause and Support ,’ which notes the recuperative capacity of insurgencies; that is, their ability to endure losses. This must be addressed by resolving grievances. The report also notes: ‘Physical support can be cut off by population control or border security.’

The whole document is chilling, with the excesses of the Vietnam War writ large throughout.

To achieve its goals, the Pentagon is enlisting social scientists into its ‘Cultural Operations Research Human Terrain’ project. Five-person teams will serve with combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing information about insurgent activities. These cultural advisers will be deployed later in 2007 as part of a shift away from hard power (munitions) towards soft power (persuasion).

The suggestion by both FM 3-24 and Kilcullen that the Western coalition is losing the propaganda battle against the jihadists makes little sense and smacks of the old ‘stabbed-in-the-back’ argument used by Rambo-style hawks after Vietnam. Kilcullen is quoted in the New Yorker as claiming, ‘If bin Laden didn’t have access to global media, satellite communications and the Internet, he’d just be a cranky guy in a cave.’ The COIN effort is to neutralise the advantages of the insurgents.

But Kilcullen and FM 3-24 merely acknowledge what should be obvious that understanding people is the most effective way to understand people! This is not a new concept, but military types interpret it as ‘Know Your Enemy’ and conjure with terms like ‘human terrain.’

The Philippines is one of the places where the Pentagon’s silly jargon morphs into State terror. This poverty-stricken nation has endured the excesses of its murderous armed forces since the overthrow of President Ferdinand Marcos 20 years ago. With no accounting (not even a truth and reconciliation process) and complete impunity, the torturers and kleptocrats of the Marcos dictatorship have managed to retain power and wealth by ceaselessly re-inventing themselves and by unleashing the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to silence dissent.

Australian taxpayers have supported the ruthless AFP since Marcos. Exact figures are difficult to obtain: aid to the Philippines was largely co-opted into ‘trade’ until the all-embracing ‘War on Terror’ diverted a large proportion of the budget into military hardware.

The AFP stepped up its own terror campaign with the approach of important elections on 14 May. A serious crisis of legitimacy President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has been accused of stealing the 2004 election requires that her Administration retains control of Congress. A loss there would see Arroyo finally impeached, so Opposition leaders are being targeted and a reign of terror implemented.

International outrage about the AFP’s campaign of repression led to the United Nations in February sending in its Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Killings, Philip Alston, to make a 10-day study of the situation. His visit was extremely controversial. The Justice Secretary, Raul Gonzalez, charged him with being brainwashed by Leftists,  and the military responded in fury, the Chief of Staff, General Hermogenes Esperon, calling him ‘bli
nd, mute and deaf’ precisely because he was none of these things.

Alston bravely went to Davao, on the conflict-ridden southern island of Mindanao, where the AFP is conducting a ruthless war against the Moro (Muslim) people disguising the horror as a counterterrorist campaign against the Islamic separatist organization, Abu Sayyaf.  One of the witnesses who gave evidence in Davao was Siche Gandinao. She told Alston about the murder of her father-in-law the previous month.

Two weeks later, while she was walking past a military post in her home town, Gandinao herself was shot. AFP spokesmen have since alleged that Gandinao was killed by guerillas because she was an informant working with the armed forces. The Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA), however, accuse the AFP of not adequately protecting witnesses who gave evidence to the Alston inquiry.

Alston is a New York-based Australian academic who has undertaken a number of difficult assignments for the UN in the past. He currently works for the new Human Rights Council; ironically, the Philippines is a member. Alston has concerns about the inability of the UN to enforce its recommendations, which currently threatens the world body with irrelevance and marginalisation. He wants to find a means of enforcement which would end decades of AFP impunity in the Philippines. There is no doubt that the UN has to do something dramatic if it is ever to be taken seriously.

Lt Colonel Kilcullen and Professor Alston are two prominent Australians currently working in the international arena. The former advises the US on how to fight insurgencies in hotspots like Iraq (and the Philippines), while the latter seeks to ameliorate the excesses of so-called ‘counterinsurgency’ through the mechanisms of the United Nations. Each is exerting an impact on modern warfare Kilcullen by devising devious and dubious methods of suppressing Third World unrest; and Alston by investigating how those methods all too frequently spill over into State terror.

So, which man would you nominate as Australian of the Year?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.