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The Solomons deployment may be too little and it's certainly very late

By Gary Brown - posted Friday, 25 July 2003

The decision to commit Australian troops and police to the Solomons comes late and at unnecessary cost to many parties. It is in fact a classic example of the falseness of false economies.

When the Howard Coalition came to power in 1996 it brought in a plan to reduce the Australian Defence to 50,000 regulars by mid-2000. The government was motivated by a desire to reduce personnel costs and free-up resources for the so-called "sharp end".

In the event, this plan was abruptly derailed by the crisis in (then) Indonesian East Timor. When Mr Howard, taking advantage of Indonesia's post-Suharto weakness, reversed decades of Australian complicity in the rape of East Timor, certain responsibilities came with the new stance. Not least of these was leading and providing a substantial component for a Timor peacekeeping force.


This was duly done, but the INTERFET deployment placed stress on the Defence Force, stress further compounded by the commitment to Afghanistan and later Iraq. The plan to cut the ADF to 50,000 was quietly shelved. Plan? What plan? you will hear them say.

But it had already created a casualty. In mid-2000 the Solomons government requested Australian police and military aid to prevent a threatened coup and a further slide into disorder and rule by corrupt local warlords. But at the time Australia was heavily committed in Timor and, though the Solomons' request could have been met, it would have placed a significant extra load on the military.

As a result, the request was declined and the feared coup took place. Australia confined itself to brokering ineffectual peace talks, short lived ceasefires and non-observed weapons surrender schemes. This has proven to be a major mistake, a classic false economy.

Only now, three years later, has Australia moved to rectify its mistake. But since the missed opportunity in 2000 the Solomons have moved much further along the road towards becoming a failed state. Its people have had to endure an additional three years of decay and violence. The situation has become so bad it can no longer be ignored.

Now Australia must commit a substantial military force to the Solomons, at significant cost, in an environment become sufficiently dangerous for the Defence Minister to speak of "heavy weapons" and rules of engagement which include lethal force. Our force will be the backbone of a nominally international effort to assist the Solomons, but there can be little doubt who will call the tune.

Nevertheless, cries of neo-colonialism emanating from some quarters are certainly misplaced. Australia is very much the reluctant participant, and there are probably many more in Canberra who would just as soon the Solomon Islands vanished than there are who see them as an opportunity for a touch of Aussie empire. Yet the now necessary scale of our commitment is such as to lend credence to those who might see profit in representing Australia as regionally imperialist. In 2000 we would not have needed to deploy so extensive a force. Now we have little option unless we wish to see the country collapse entirely, with catastrophic humanitarian consequences. In the short term, we are more or less obliged to run the country via the agency of a transitional authority, because the country can no longer run itself.


But this deployment has risks and problems all of its own. If the corrupt Solomons police and regional/ethnic warlords, some heavily armed, take fright at the size of the foreign intervention, all may yet be well. But if any significant force takes to the hills and jungles to fight an insurgency campaign, we may face a considerable challenge. Counter-insurgency operations in such places are fiendishly difficult.

The complication in the Solomons is that we will be confronting not just political or even ethnic problems that have degenerated into violence, but also out-and-out criminals whose interest requires continued local conflict as a cover for murder, extortion and extensive corrupt dealings. The ethnic groups and squabbling politicians can be brought to a table and probably be reasoned with. The criminals, however, are another matter, especially if they wear uniforms, call themselves "police" and have both money and arsenals at their disposal. These people will seek to maintain their positions so long as it is both safe and profitable to do so.

Reconstructing a failed state is fraught with challenges. Somalia has spent a decade partitioned between various warlords since the notorious failure of an international effort there in the early nineties.

Whether the force now deploying to the Solomons and its accompanying civilian administration will be able to contain the violence, help sort out the politics and ethnic issues, and defeat the criminals, remains to be seen. In all probability the Solomons will end up better off for this deployment: the costs of avoiding our responsibilities back in 2000, however, are still being counted. It is fervently to be hoped that they do not include too many dead Solomons citizens or international peacekeepers.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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