The strategic leadership question – is this what Australia should be doing?

You only go to war for important issues, and these issues have to be important enough to take casualties for. There are things in this world that are still worth dying for, despite the personal and family tragedy that comes with it. If as a strategist you’re not prepared to accept casualties, then I’d suggest you get a new job. Simplistic questions in facile polling, like asking ‘Do you believe Australian troops should be brought home from Afghanistan?’ is not a basis for policy.

If the Australian government believes that it’s got to go to war, it should do it properly. This government and the last government believed that Afghanistan was worth the sacrifice of Australian soldiers, and if that’s still the case, the government has got to lead on this issue. I’m astounded that we spend so much time talking about what lessons the army has learned. The Army will always learn its lessons and will learn them well. But what lessons have the politicians and strategic thinkers learned?

The mark, not necessarily in Australia, but the mark of Western nations overseas, is the failure of strategic leadership in marked contrast to the success of operational leadership. We saw this in the first couple of years of Iraq and we’ve seen it in the last couple of years of Afghanistan. Are the politicians in the Western world as good as our generals? On military strategic issues, I don’t think so.

The challenge for those running the war at the operational level is that General David Petraeus has to take the lessons learned from Iraq and apply them, with appropriate adaption, to Afghanistan. I think he and his predecessors have been doing this quite well. However, you can have the best plan and team in the world, but if you won’t resource the plan, you can’t succeed.

The strategic lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan is the same—wars must be resourced. If you can’t resource the war then do not commit. The Coalition did not do that in Iraq until towards 2007, and only just started doing it in Afghanistan.

Australian troops do exactly what the government wants them to do, which is to conduct regular restricted operations in limited areas with limited forces, involving Special Forces, train the Afghans, and work on reconstruction and some civilian military operation. The question remains is that what Australia should be doing?

Major General Jim Molan AO DSC retired from the Australian Army in July 2008 after a long and distinguished career as an infantryman. This is an answer to a question in an interview published in POLICY magazine this week. In late June 2010, he spoke with Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe, a defence analyst who has published widely on Australian, South Asian, and Indian Ocean political and security issues.