General calls for war debates

Peter Leahy

EXCLUSIVE: Parliament should be more involved in any decision to go to war…and even more involved in a decision to stay at war, says retired General Peter Leahy, the man responsible for our soldiers for most of the Afghanistan war so far. He calls for a clear statement of Australia’s national interests and strategy, and debate in parliament and throughout civil society.

Going to War in Afghanistan and Staying There

Professor Peter Leahy
Lieutenant General (Retired)
National Security Institute
University of Canberra



In the last decade Australia has gone to war in Afghanistan twice.  The first time in October 2001 is pretty easy to explain.  The second time in 2005 is not so easy to explain.  We are still at war in Afghanistan.  The Prime Minister has suggested that we will be there for the remainder of the decade.

This morning I want to talk to you about Afghanistan in the context of how we decide to go to war.  I also want to talk about Afghanistan in the context of the decisions or lack of a decision that means that we have stayed at war in Afghanistan.

As a soldier my training is to give my bottom line up front.

My bottom line is that Parliament should be more involved in any decision to go to war or engage in conflict.  Parliament should be even more involved in the many decisions that are made that mean we stay at war.

General Rupert Smith in his book, The Utility of Force, makes the challenging proposition that, “War no longer exists

What Rupert Smith is really saying is that the nature of war has changed.  In his book he challenges the utility of military power in the complex and ambiguous environment of modern hybrid war – what he calls war among the population.

As the nature of war changes we need to reconsider the way we commit the nation and then decide to persevere in what have become long drawn out affairs –   East Timor 1999, Afghanistan 2001, Solomon Islands 2002 and Iraq 2003 until only very recently.

The decision to go to war in Afghanistan in 2001 was almost a reflex action.  The United States had been attacked, Prime Minister Howard was in Washington at the time.  He and most Australians reacted almost instinctively to join the American retaliation to reach out and get bin Laden, give al Qaeda a spanking and at the same deny them sanctuary in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

A lone Army Lieutenant Colonel on UN related demining duties remained in Afghanistan during 2003 to 2005.

The decision to return to Afghanistan ,with a substantial force, in 2005 is not so easy to understand.  It needs to be understood in the context of a resurgent Taliban and a weak national government in Afghanistan.  At this time President Karzai was known as the Mayor of Kabul.  At the same time Australia’s focus was on Iraq where things were not going so well.  Elections were imminent in both Australia and the United States.   Iraq became the bad war and Afghanistan became the good war.  In many ways we slipped back into war in Afghanistan.

This is largely because it is difficult to define war.

The old indicators of war – declaration, mobilisation and large scale conflict between states are no longer a reliable indicator.

War has changed. , Now it is undeclared, come as you are, among the people, asymmetric, against non-state actors and it perhaps best waged with soft power rather than military power.

Today it is clear that war is no longer exclusively defined by state, territory, industrial might, military involvement or political will.  The proponents of 4th generation and hybrid warfare speak of the diminishing power of standing armies and the advantages of asymmetric warfare.

Carl von Clausewitz would be confused.  Just what is the culminating point for the leader of a terror franchise hiding in a mansion in Abbattobad and just where is his centre of gravity?

How do we as a Nation, ensure that we are prepared with the right response options to meet new threats?

Perhaps we need to reconsider the most appropriate balance of national responses which may involve the reallocation of existing defence, diplomatic and security resources and budgets?

The Language of War

By misusing the rhetoric of war we confuse the issue of when we are at war.

We used to know quite clearly when we were at war.  Now we are not so sure and I think this means we are more likely to get involved in war.

In September 2001 President Bush called the American reaction to 9/11 a war on terror.  In Australia we had an “Economic Security Strategy”.  America is also engaged in a war on drugs.  More recently the U.S. national security community have sought to avoid the use of the phrase “war on terror” to call it an “overseas contingency operation”.  On 24 March 2010 the U.S. Treasury Secretary declared a “just war” to reform the banking sector.

Often what starts out as something other than a war ends up as being a war.  Recall Operation Restore Hope the humanitarian operation in Somalia from 1992 to 1994.  This became a classic example of mission creep as UN diplomats sought a more active role for the military in nation building

We used to know we were at war when the legislature authorised a declaration of war. These days are gone.

Insurgencies, coups, revolts and rebellions, the most frequent form of conflict today, are not heralded by any formal statement of intent.

Terrorist attacks by their very nature are kept secret to accentuate the fear factor.

In Australia “Crown Prerogative” allows the Prime Minister with the support of the Cabinet to act without a statute and make proclamations of war and peace.  This can be done without reference to the Parliament.

Given the ambivalence and confusion often attending contemporary decisions to commit military force it is time to reconsider the issue of Parliament being asked to endorse any decision by the Prime Minister to engage in military activities.

A further way of knowing we are war and one that is most relevant to small and middle powers like Australia is because our security partner is at war.

Australia which is often a ‘security follower’ frequently finds itself with limited strategic choices.
We used to know we were at war because the end state was clear and the strategic, operational and tactical levels of war were aligned. 
Today it is often difficult to link the military objective with the political intent.
Despite the warlike rhetoric of our politicians they do not commit the resources of the nation to seek a warlike solution. 
In Afghanistan the overarching goal as expressed by President Obama is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and its allies in the future.  To achieve this goal the objectives are; deny al Qaeda a safe haven, reverse the Taliban’s momentum, deny it the ability to overthrow the government and strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces. 
This involves effective military and civilian contributions and an effective partnership with Pakistan.  These aims and objectives are unlikely to be achieved with the size and nature of the resources currently committed.  The civilian contribution to the counterinsurgency strategy is dramatically under estimated and under resourced.
At the moment the military are being used as the default setting for action.  This is bad strategy.  In Afghanistan the war will be won by political, economic and judicial actions rather than military action.  The civil side of the war is inadequately resourced and weakened by a large alliance, a resilient Taliban, coalition tokenism, a weak, illegitimate and corrupt host government and with the United States increasingly distracted by internal economic and social matters.


War has changed, it is intrastate and smaller; less likely to lay waste to countries and populations; is more frequent; of longer duration; is being waged by non-state actors; and is happening among the population.

If the character of war has changed so too must our means of dealing with it change.

We must be more prepared for the war that we are in now rather than the least likely type of war – an attack on mainland Australia.

We will need boots on the ground and people who can deal as adeptly with anthropology as they can fire an AK47. We need soldiers and civilians with solutions to political, social and economic as well as military problems.

There are limitations on what the military can achieve.  Many of the tasks they perform today are not jobs for soldiers but only soldiers are available to do them.  This is clearly the case in Afghanistan today.

We used to say that war was too important to be left to the Generals.

We now need to say that war is too important not to involve the civilians.


Let me leave you with three basic recommendations;

Consideration by the Parliament of Australia

Parliament should be required to debate and ratify any decision to commit the Australian Defence Force within sixty days of the deployment.  Given the extended duration of modern conflict the ongoing commitment of the ADF to the deployment should be reconsidered by the Parliament on an annual basis.

Whole of Government Effort

An available, deployable, sizable and robust civil contribution to Australia’s national effort should be established.  This increased civil effort should include a greater commercial and industry element.

Statement of National Interests and Strategy

A clear statement of Australia’s national interests and strategy for each military deployment should be provided and regularly updated.  The strategy statement should include the elements of power to be used, the end state to be achieved, an exit strategy and likely time frame for the commitment of force.

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