The United States has recently admitted that there are now maybe 5000 irregulars operating against the coalition occupation force in Iraq. Where lives are being lost, saying "you were warned" offers little satisfaction, but certainly the US was warned. Our own Defence Minister, Robert Hill, has recently admitted that the coalition may have underestimated the likely degree of postwar resistance in Iraq.
The situation there has gone beyond residual resistance by a few surviving Saddam loyalists. The US has proven unable to effectively control Iraq's extensive land borders and it would seem that numerous people, certainly including Al Qa'ida operatives but also many others who see an opportunity to hurt the Americans, have entered the country to fight. Make no mistake: the US is engaged in a growing counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq and Australia still has about 800 of its own Defence Force personnel there.
Statements by President Bush and other top Administration figures suggest that, as in Indochina, considerations of prestige and credibility will keep the Americans engaged in Iraq. For how long this will go on is difficult to predict; much depends on the longer-term ability of the resistance to maintain and escalate its campaign over time. It is, of course, clear to all concerned that there is a point when too many body bags return home: at this point, if it is ever reached, the US will fold.
Historically, the Americans have been poor at counter-insurgency. It is not a form of war for which they are well-suited either psychologically or in terms of military doctrine and practice. Nevertheless, they are now caught in two such wars: one in Afghanistan, following the overthrow of the Taliban, the other in Iraq. Neither seems likely to go away.
The recent announcement that Australia's 800 will now remain in Iraq for a further six months is a worrying sign. For those of us old enough to recall the creeping escalation of our involvement in Indochina, this announcement is redolent with memories, few of them pleasant.
There is an equal déjà vu in US statements to the effect that they would like Iraqis to take more responsibility for their own security. In the Indochina conflict this was one of President Nixon's special contributions, frankly called "Vietnamisation". It was the first strong signal that the US was looking for a way out as the toll of casualties mounted. The [South] Vietnamese, we were told, would be properly trained and equipped and, thus strengthened, could deal with the insurgency. Whether Washington actually believed that at the time is, however, doubtful.
By contrast, George W. Bush actually seems to think that in time he can rely on an Iraqi force to provide basic security and civil order. To be sure, Bush, Condoleeza Rice and Don Rumsfeld are considerably less perceptive than were the likes of Nixon and Kissinger but if they really think that any pro-Western authority can survive in Iraq without a large occupation force to prop it up, they are sadly mistaken.
The Howard government has Australia teetering on the brink of involvement in another bootless US-run counter-insurgency war. It is only by great good fortune that we have not as yet incurred any losses among our military personnel. But as the insurgency grows we must expect that, if we stay, we will start losing people too.
Unfortunately, this government has a remarkably muddled set of national security priorities. While the ongoing subservience to American wishes is nothing more than one might expect, it is in this case mixed with a realistic appreciation that it is terrorism, not foreign conventional forces, that poses the real threat to our security these days. Nothwithstanding this commendable common sense, we then find a range of military capability goals that in many ways have little relevance to or applicability against the threats we realistically perceive.
The recent announcement of a swag of new or renewed military capabilities includes some very curious - and appallingly expensive - items. There are to be three so-called "air warfare destroyers", equipped with the latest gold-plated maritime US air defence technology. By preference, these will be built in Australia. Given our history of major naval construction incorporating advanced electronics (the Collins class submarines), this decision is nothing more than a thinly disguised subsidy to Australian defence industry. There is little use for these destroyers in a counter-terrorist role, though (if they work) they will integrate nicely into American naval task forces next time Washington decides to attack a foreign country with or without UN approval.
Even more curious is the decision to acquire fresh main battle tanks to replace our obsolete Leopard 1 inventory. There is an indisputable case for our soldiers to see tanks and to have some hands-on experience with them. There is, however, no justification in the contemporary strategic environment for fielding a significant Australian tank force. A dozen or so for basic familiarisation are all that is needed. Or can the government perhaps explain how tanks will help our counter-terrorism or border protection efforts?
In fact, tanks are to the Army what an aircraft carrier used to be to the Royal Australian Navy: a symbol of prestige. When, 20 years ago, it was argued that strategic, operational and financial considerations no longer supported retention of an aircraft carrier, many in (or recently out) of the Navy set up a dismal wail of protest. "We will just not have a blue water Navy any more," declaimed one former Chief of Naval Staff, only to be refuted by subsequent history. The present government, by swallowing the Army's "advice" that a "combined arms" approach - which by definition includes tanks - is the best way forward, has given in to the khaki equivalent of such attitudes.
In danger of being sucked into the growing Iraqi war, wedded to obsolete and/or irrelevant concepts which fly in the face of what are admitted to be our actual strategic challenges, the Howard government's approach to Australia's security is misguided, incoherent and, in the long run, prohibitively expensive. The tragedy is that before this last is recognised many billions of dollars will have vanished forever into the Russell Hill black hole.