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War in the Sand Pit — Alexandra McCubbin

The War in the Sand Pit conference was held 12-13 May 17 to examine perspectives and lessons from Australia’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2014. Hosted by Military History and Heritage Victoria and Australian National University’s Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, the conference addressed  a range of perspectives from speakers with experience  in the political, Governmental and military dimensions of Australia’s involvement in the Middle East and South Asia.

The conference was held in memoriam for Private Robert Poate, who was killed on operations in Afghanistan in 2012.

The conference opened with discussion of the political decisions that led to Australia’s commitment to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Hon. Robert Hill, Minister for Defence from 2001-2006, recalled that the initial commitment to Afghanistan was not controversial, and that while nation-building efforts are ‘costly and frustrating’, they ‘remain our business’. Former Secretary of Defence Ric Smith also spoke of the decision to contribute forces to Afghanistan, and how the original intent had been for a limited commitment – for Australian leaders the war had been about terrorism, Afghanistan was just the venue.

Australian Special Forces board a C-130 Hercules, Afghanistan 2005 [Image credit: Defence]

Australian Special Forces board a C-130 Hercules, Afghanistan [Image credit: Defence]

On the Iraq War, conference presenters covered controversial issues: the absence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the US decision to disband the Iraqi Army and Ba’ath Party, the failure to plan for ‘Phase IV’ stability operations, and poor perceptions of the Australian Army’s performance in that war. There was some debate over Australia’s contribution to Overwatch Battle Group-West (OBG-W), with Brigadier Rawlins calling the deployment ‘confusing’, ‘disappointing’ and ‘professionally disheartening’, while others responded that the Australian troops carried out the mission they were assigned, that success shouldn’t be measured in terms of casualties and that it was not the job of Australian units to impress coalition commanders.

The whole-of-government nature of the Afghan war was a theme of the conference, with valuable perspectives provided by police, development and policy practitioners. Lieutenant General Peter Leahy (retd), who was Chief of Army between 2002 and 2008, indicated that diplomacy should be used as a tool of state before the military. To make diplomacy a more effective tool of first resort, more money needed to be allocated to Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) to support shaping and developing in pre-conflict countries.

Leahy’s point was reinforced by David Savage, who served as a stabilisation consultant with Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) in Afghanistan, who painted a stark picture of the challenges facing development in Afghanistan; including illiteracy, corruption, and the inability of international actors to comprehend the effects of poorly implemented aid projects. This highlights the importance of understanding the community in which coalition forces are operating. Fred Smith, a DFAT policy officer who served in Uruzgan, Afghanistan, drew attention to the need for local cultural understanding and an informed strategy for working with local forces. He traced the different approaches of coalition members to tribal elements in Afghanistan, concluding that Australia managed the local politics reasonably well.

The insurgent-criminal nexus in Afghanistan was a key focus for the coalition, and Superintendent Col Speedie provided insights into the police efforts, which included counter-narcotics, kidnapping investigation and establishment of a Major Crimes Task Force. Speedie explained how the ‘rule of law path’ provides an alternate option to target insurgents – rather than being seized by special forces, an insurgent can be investigated and prosecuted under Afghan law. This approach elicits a very different reaction from the local population and provides flexibility to the battlespace owner. Superintendent Speedie also provided observations on rebuilding local security forces, arguing that the Afghan National Police should have operated as a paramilitary gendarmerie in order to assist in defeating the insurgency prior to shifting focus to community policing.

Former intelligence officer Colonel Mick Lehmann (retd) spoke about the successes and limitation of intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and cautioned against drawing the wrong lessons about intelligence support. He spoke of the ‘scars’ that some intelligence personnel carry due to the limitations of the intelligence they were able to provide, such as the lack of success in gaining information on a key Taliban commander and – even more devastatingly – the inability to provide warning of green-on-blue attacks, where Afghan soldiers targeted their Australian mentors.

Academic Bill Maley reminded the audience that the Afghan people needed to be considered in any discussion of the war. He cited reporting from the Asia Foundation which showed that the population had been optimistic about the future of their country in the first few years after coalition operations began, but the most recent survey (2016) showed that two thirds felt that their country was moving in the wrong direction. Maley posited that this psychology would determine the outcome in Afghanistan – if the majority of the population believed that the Taliban would come back, then they would. For this reason he felt an additional deployment of troops would be useful in assuring the population that it had not been abandoned. Maley also advocated for greater study of anthropology within Defence institutions, and discussed the possibility of longer deployment rotations in order to better build and maintain local relationships.

A joint perspective was provided by Air Commodore (retd) Chris Westwood and Vice Admiral Peter Jones (retd). Westwood’s talk was focused on the Control and Reporting Centre which deployed to Kandahar, but offered broader lessons about the value of niche capabilities, the need for mission rehearsal exercises and a unit culture of deployment, and the benefit of being a ‘trusted agent’ with the US through regular exercises and exchanges. The longevity of the maritime contribution in the Middle East was emphasised by Jones, who described a combination of counter-smuggling duties and more conventional maritime security operations.  

Moderator Ben Roberts-Smith looks on as Brigadier Dan McDaniel answers audience questions at the War in the Sand Pit conference

Brigadier Dan McDaniel looked at lessons at the strategic, operational and tactical levels. McDaniel identified the US Alliance as a key strategic enabler, but warned that it cannot be taken for granted – when his Special Air Service (SAS) unit arrived in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11, they didn’t receive the level of support from the US that they had been expecting. Later, he provided an example of the benefits of investing in the relationship, with contacts he had made on exchange in the US years earlier providing access to key leadership in Afghanistan. His central operational lesson related to national command and control, noting concerns related to competition with the in-country C2 structures and inconsistency in application of the national HQ’s mandate. Key tactical lessons identified by McDaniel included the requirement for self-sufficiency and modernisation of ground units, and the need for a new suite of enablers including armed and unarmed unmanned aerial vehicles.  

Several speakers discussed the costs of the wars, both in terms of the physical and psychological impact on personnel who served there, as well as the opportunity costs of focusing ADF efforts on the Middle East rather than on the Pacific region. The conference participants acknowledged that they had largely discussed ‘lessons identified’ rather than ‘lessons learned’, and that – with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan still ongoing – there were still more lessons to be identified in future.

Members of the Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan project briefed on the status of their research at the conference. If you participated in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and would like to be interviewed, please visit

Squadron Leader Alexandra ‘Kanye’ McCubbin is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.


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