Terrorism and the new Defence White Paper

The new Defence White Paper describes Australia as entering a more unpredictable and potentially more dangerous world. It frequently mentions terrorism, almost twice as much as earlier White Papers do, as a worrying element in Australia’s strategic outlook:

Events during the three years since the release of the last Defence White Paper in 2013 demonstrate how rapidly Australia’s security environment can change. The relationship between the United States and China continues to evolve and will be fundamental to our future strategic circumstances. Territorial disputes between claimants in the East China and South China Seas have created uncertainty and tension in our region. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continues to be a source of instability. State fragility has helped enable the rise of Daesh (also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) terrorists in the Middle East, incidents across the world have demonstrated the pervasive nature of the threat of terrorism, and a violation of international law led to the deaths of Australians in the skies over Ukraine.

Yet Defence often isn’t perceived as having much of counter-terrorism role. For example, Allan Behm’s Strategist post on the White Paper said that:

Similarly, terrorism isn’t ultimately a defence matter. It’s evidently a law enforcement and intelligence issue, and some elements of the ADF capability (particularly the precision assault skills of the SAS) are applicable in certain situations.

This is true domestically, but internationally it underplays Defence’s role, which has gone beyond “certain situations” to become almost routine. The Australian Defence Force has directly fought groups like al-Qaeda and IS. The ADF engaged in combat against al-Qaeda during the initial invasion of Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda elements were among the insurgent groups Australia fought in Afghanistan in subsequent years. Recently, the RAAF has carried out air strikes against IS in both Iraq and Syria. While IS should not be seen as purely a terrorist problem, and nor should the insurgency in Afghanistan, this does demonstrate the ADF’s extensive use in operations against proscribed terrorist organisations.

It’s not just direct operations, as the ADF has more commonly played a counter-terrorism role through what’s called ‘building partner capacity’. Much of their role in Afghanistan involved training local forces. Australia has also helped train units of regional militaries, such as in Indonesia and the Philippines, as part of this capacity building effort. The ADF has reportedly assisted the Philippines military with operations against the Abu Sayyaf Group in Mindanao.

This is similar to the Australian Federal Police’s Fighting Terrorism at its Source initiative launched in 2004 following terrorist attacks in Indonesia, such as the Bali (2002), Jakarta (2003) and Australian Embassy (2004) bombings, which helped improve police counter-terrorism skills in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. The ADF’s effort to build partner capacity in several countries across the world has been the Defence equivalent of the AFP’s regional initiative.

Australia’s current role in Iraq is an extension of this effort, and shows how significant Defence’s role is. In early 2015 the government approved “the Building Partner Capacity (BPC) mission comprised of approximately 300 Australian Army personnel which will operate in partnership with 110 New Zealand Defence Force personnel.” Much of this effort has involved training the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), which has become one of the most militarily and politically important entities in the country.

Militarily, they are important because they have remained standing while many other units have collapsed, with the result that they are taking on tasks much more ambitious than the activities (such as launching raids and gathering intelligence) they were created for. Counter-terrorism services aren’t usually thought of as firing artillery and seizing cities, but that has become required of the CTS. This Vice video follows members of the CTS during the retaking of Ramadi late last year, a city whose fall to IS in May 2015 represented a major setback .


Politically, the CTS is important because they operate outside of Iraq’s Ministry of Defence and Ministry of the Interior, and have proved controversial within Iraq’s political system. They have operated only under executive authority ever since they were created by the United States after its invasion of Iraq, raising fears they could become the Prime Minister’s personal army. This has not happened – when Nouri al-Maliki was doing everything he could to avoid being deposed as Prime Minister in 2014, the CTS did not come to his aid – but the fears remain. Another reason for the CTS’s political importance is that it acts as a counterweight to the Iranian-backed Shia sectarian militias that work closely with other units of the Iraqi military, which is why the CTS is favoured by Western military forces.

Australia’s Special Operations Task Group, deployed as part of Operation OKRA, has been assisting the CTS. During the Ramadi operation, Australian troops helped direct air strikes and provided remote support to at least one unit within CTS, the 1st Iraqi Special Operations Force Brigade. Australia’s role has been described as vital, but we don’t get to know much about it. The secrecy that covers Australia’s military operations (often excessive secrecy when compared to other Western democracies, which resulted in Australians rarely being able to see their own war in Afghanistan) prevents this.

Important questions are unlikely to be answered. For example, was the recent scaling down of 2nd Commando Regiment’s commitment (which provided the bulk of Australia’s assistance to CTS) a good or bad decision? How effective is Australia’s assistance in the fight against IS, can it be improved, and what would help improve it? How does Australia tackle the human rights problems involved in working with Iraq’s military? With videos and images appearing of CTS units engaging in war crimes, is it still true, as the Defence Department stated early last year, that “no instances of alleged human rights violations have been reported [internally through the ADF] since the Special Operations Task Group started co-operating with the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service”? What impact does Australia’s assistance have on the internal political fighting within Iraq’s security establishment? Does it help counter Iranian influence, and what are the risks involved in that?

These types of questions matter, because we can anticipate that Defence will continue to have a significant counter-terrorism role. The threat isn’t going away. As David Kilcullen rightly pointed out in The Australian:

As I write, Western countries (several, particularly the US, now with severely reduced international credibility) face a larger, more unified, capable, experienced and savage enemy, in a less stable, more fragmented region, with a far higher level of geopolitical competi­tion, and a much more severe risk of great-power conflict, than at any time since 9/11.

It isn’t just Islamic State; al-Qa’ida has emerged from its eclipse and is back in the game in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Syria, Somalia and Yemen. We’re dealing with not one but two global terrorist organisations, each with regional branches, plus a vastly larger radicalised population at home, and a flow of foreign terrorist fighters 10 to 12 times the size of anything seen before. Likewise, last year’s Taliban resurgence shows that as bad as things seem now, they can get much worse if the Afghan drawdown creates the same opportunity for Islamic State next year as the Iraqi drawdown did in 2012.

This will likely mean more military action by Western countries, with Australia participating. The White Paper goes into a few specifics on this: continued participation in international coalitions and building partner capacity efforts, new equipment such as armed unmanned aircraft, as well as light helicopters for special forces. But it’s hard to be optimistic about this reducing the overall threat. Military action has been able to weaken particular groups, and overthrow governments, without undermining the broader global jihadist movement. As Kilcullen points out in the same article, Western wars over the past decade and a half don’t have a good track record:

The first step is to admit that this really is, every bit, the strategic failure it seems to be. For the hard truth is that the events of 2014-2016, including the “Blood Year” that started with the fall of Mosul, represent nothing less than the collapse of Western counterterrorism strategy as we’ve known it since 2001.

After 14 years, thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, we’re worse off today than before 9/11, with a stronger, more motivated, more dangerous enemy than ever.

Despite this, it’s good that the new Defence White Paper includes this focus on terrorism. Greater recognition of Defence’s role in counter-terrorism should mean it can be more appreciated, but also more scrutinised.