How US military culture worked its way into Australian defence policy

Oct 28, 2021
US soldiers afghanistan
(Image: US National Archives)

By participating in the US-led wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, Australia has deepened its integration into US military strategy and operations.

While the rapid and profound locking of Australia into the frontline of US-coordinated attempted containment of China is the most potent and potentially dangerous development of the networked alliance in recent years, there are other developments and shifts in the character of the alliance over the last two decades that are now clear.

The US-derived mantra of the “rules-based international order” is one of the key ideological frames of the US containment of China. This frame is an ideological construct of government and media that permits vilification of the actions of some governments seen as hostile to the US, while similar acts by the US itself or its allies are ignored or dismissed as unacceptable claims of “what about-ism”.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling against China over its South China Sea constructed islands is an important application of the Convention on the Law of the Sea that is very frequently framed as an example of China’s rejection of the rule-based international order. Leaving aside the fact that the US and its Australian ally initiated an illegal war in Iraq, the most important US military base between Africa and Japan, the Diego Garcia Naval Base is a precisely comparable violation of directives from the international legal system by the United Kingdom. But Australia supports and is closely involved in the US resulting from UK/US violation of the “rules-based international order” without ever seeking its rectification.

The high operational tempo of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in recent years for what is in international terms, a small military force, has reportedly had serious negative effects on the ADF in a variety of ways.

The Australian community is just beginning to comprehend the scale of serious mental health effects of war service on veterans, including those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. The degrading and criminal behaviour of leadership in ADF Special Forces deployed to Afghanistan documented in the pioneering work of the Crompvoets report and the Bretherton Inquiry can in part be attributed to both the tempo of operations over a long period and the integration of Australian special forces into US command in Afghanistan.

In foreign policy more generally, the collaboration of Australian in the illegal attack on Iraq in 2003 is well-known.

Australia emphatic framing of the Chinese occupation and construction of islands in the Paracels and the Spratleys in the South China as illegal under international law is often over-stated in legal terms. More importantly here, a brazen Australian collusion in the trampling of international law and corrosion of good faith in international relations is the Australian government’s willful refusal to note, let alone criticise, the much more clearly illegal forced displacement of Chagos Islanders from Diego Garcia, and the subsequently provision of the island to the United States as a major military base (accessed by Australian forces).

The Australian participation in US-led wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan clearly contributed to a deepening integration of Australia into United States military strategy and operations.

Australia’s war in Afghanistan has finished after almost 20 years. Not Australia’s longest war, as is usually said, but certainly Australia’s longest war abroad. The war ended in yet another defeat in a ground war for the United States and its allies. For Australia the war ended in the double disgrace of confirmed ADF war crimes against Afghan civilians and the year-long agony of Canberra’s inability to face up to its minimal human obligations to provide harbour to Afghans who served with Australian forces.

The war was catastrophic for the poorest countries in Asia, and almost wholly counterproductive for Australia — 41 Australians dead, more than 200 seriously wounded physically, many more again suffering the psychological consequences, and a small but potent virus of brazen criminality has tainted the collective psyche of our social forces.

Beyond these tragic and well-noted disasters, the Afghanistan war has had two important strategic consequences for Australia — deepening and expanding the degree of integration and cooperation with other countries, allies old and new.

Most obviously closer than ever direct integration of the ADF and US-linked military and intelligence facilities to United States global planning and operations. The Morrison government is following the strategic mindset inherited from the Gillard and Rudd governments of clinging ever more closely, repeatedly seeking favour with the United States by offering more Australian military resources and diplomatic capital even before the US asks.

But through the Afghanistan and Iraq wars Australia embraced new strategic partners in Europe and Asia.

The Afghanistan war was fought under the banner — and command of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and what it formally describes as its Asian “partners across the globe” to make up the “NATO+4”.

Not only did Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand all contribute forces to the Afghanistan war, but each now has individual cooperation partnerships with NATO, with Australia rising up the ranks to the status as a NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner, together with Finland, Sweden, Georgia and Jordan. This brings the Australian defence minister and chief of defence force into NATO’s annual main planning meetings, but also into the heart of modern operational planning, NATO’s Partnership Interoperability Initiative. Australia’s enrolment in the Partnership Interoperability Initiative means that the ADF “can contribute to future crisis management, including NATO-led operations and, where applicable, to the NATO Response Force”.

If all this has the sound of the US alliance mantra of interoperability that’s because NATO is at heart an American-dominated organisation.

The fiasco of AUKUS and the brutal cancellation of the enormous French future submarine contract will undoubtedly set back this long-planned Indian Ocean integration with France and India, especially over maritime surveillance.

But the roots of global NATO have worked deep into Australian military culture over more than two decades of intense high rotation combined operations.

This is part five of an edited extract of Richard Tanter’s submission to the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network People’s Inquiry in US-Australia Alliance, September 2021. Read parts one, two, three and four.

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