RECIPE FOR DISASTER? Australian Suggests the Fight Against IS Should be a ‘Battle of Ideas’

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 6.23.52 AMSounds like something Obama would say.

Calls to relax targeting rules for airstrikes against Islamic State ignore the lessons of our recent past and the fact that a battle of ideas, not body counts, will determine this war, writes Travers McLeod.

Tony Abbott has argued Australia and her allies should relax targeting rules for airstrikes to destroy the Islamic State.

At best, he is ignorant of the lessons of the military campaigns waged in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. At worst, he is willing to repeat mistakes to differentiate himself on national security and open a pathway to take his job back.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Abbott isn’t as narcissistic as the latter reading suggests. Let’s assume he was insufficiently briefed on recent military campaigns or has forgotten the lessons of our longest wars.

The battle of ideas, not body counts, will determine this war. Disproportionate use of force will only inflame and grow the Daesh insurgency. There is no military solution to destroy IS.

“A military force, culturally programmed to respond conventionally (and predictably) to insurgent attacks,”wrote General Stanley McChrystal in November 2009, “is akin to the bull that repeatedly charges a matador’s cape – only to tire and eventually be defeated by a much weaker opponent.”

McChrystal should know. He was commander of the United States-led coalition of forces in Afghanistan from 2009-2010 and headed up US Special Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan from September 2003 until February 2006.

When McChrystal took over as commander he told his troops to “get rid of the conventional mindset”.

We know the prequel. In 2005 the US was accused of being a “lawless hegemon”, one that avoided the laws of war or sought to exploit gaps within it. Commanders misunderstood the battlespace in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their “enemy-centric” mindset harmed civilians and alienated the people. David Kilcullen described US forces as “chasing their tails”.

From late 2006 military doctrine, strategy, tactics and rules of engagement began to shift decisively. Australian military advisers and judge advocates were pivotal in this change of mindset.

Phillip Bobbitt put the new position best in 2010: “The war aim in a war against terror is not territory, or access to resources, or conversion to our way of political life,” Bobbitt wrote. “It is protection of civilians within the rule of law.”

McChrystal’s tactical directive to troops in July 2009 made this explicit. “We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories – but suffering strategic defeats – by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people.”

Losing popular support would “translate into more insurgent recruits, more IEDs, and a prolonged conflict with an uncertain outcome.”

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