In his first in-depth interview since his retirement as Chief of the Australian Army in 2005, General Peter Cosgrove speaks exclusively with APDR’s Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe about his experiences in Vietnam, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan and Australia’s evolving approach to counterinsurgency (COIN).

COIN Lessons from Vietnam

As a decorated veteran of the campaign in Vietnam, General Cosgrove (being a recipient of the coveted Military Cross for gallantry) has throughout his career drawn upon his considerable operational and combat experience as a young Lieutenant with the 9th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment.

Peter Cosgrove: “When we departed the conflict in South Vietnam, from my tactical perspective when I was a junior officer, it was clear to me that the Australian Army was superior, and possibly superlative, at the conduct of COIN operations, especially in a tropical environment, that is, where the operational setting was characterised by jungle and agrarian peasant-type activities in an underdeveloped country.
“In that regard, the Australian Army was in the very front rank of practitioners. I walked away from Vietnam thinking what good soldiers we all were and how effective we were as a war-fighting force. As the years rolled by and I advanced up the ranks, I thought, ‘I’m supposed to be looking at different things,’ and some of the things I looked at, back in the days of Vietnam, suggested to me that our settings at the strategic and political level were ineffective,” he said.

If you are intervening in what is essentially relationships and loyalties and support issues within another country, between groups of people within that country, to simply guard the street corners or the hilltops is a sort of robotic and ultimately unproductive role. You must provide the framework and the attractive conditions for people to opt for the government you are supporting. In South Vietnam we struggled to do that for Phuoc Tuy Province, although we won the military contest hands down. It became a very unprofitable area for the sorts of operations of the Viet Cong (VC) for those that Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN) would have wanted to prosecute, that is, main force operations, sitting in villages dominating and basically clearly impressing the South Vietnamese that the National Liberation Front (NLF) were the desired government of South Vietnam – we prevented that from happening. What we struggled to do, was to mobilise the population in a very enthusiastic way towards the central government in Saigon.

That was outside our scope, I mean it required other people to be doing other things. It required national programmes which had a resonance with the people. The Australian Army could not provide that, we were a junior partner in the coalition, welcomed for our boots on the ground, but not particularly asked to play a powerful political/military role.

To give them their proper respect, the VC were an ‘enemy’ in that they were a powerful and significant force – I think we denied them relevant and useful safe havens which would allow them to roll over the population. There is no doubt that the VC were all over the place. There is no doubt that when we walked into villages and towns we were rubbing shoulders with them from time to time. Equally, there is no doubt about the fact, their uncles and aunties and mothers and fathers were in those same villages.

But on the other hand, when they wanted to operate as an armed force, they needed to have sanctuaries and bases where they could train and prepare and come together and then sally forth, and it was the fight to locate the VC and the NVA in their safe havens and in their supposedly safer operating areas which was the meat and drink for the Australian Army. We did that very often, and made our province a place where it was extremely dangerous for the enemy to congregate and to stay for any protracted period. We made that a very dangerous proposition; so much so that we had a few large pitched battles over the years, but even when we started to withdraw from South Vietnam, in 1972, we had a safer province than virtually any other place in the country.

In a planning phase, this manner of tactical units operating at arms’ length in very difficult circumstances, I was familiar with the fact that all of our technological, logistical edge starts to narrow down as you start to project troops out who are sneaking around in the jungle or through subsistence plantations, or walking up dirty great hills day in and day out, that it came down to the quality of command, the quality of leadership and the training and cohesion of small groups.
These are the similarities – small units operating somewhat in isolation; I understood that when I was running around Vietnam, that the brigade commander or task force commander might vaguely know where I was, but that’s about as far as it went. He would find out later whether I’d been wiped out or if I’d done something good or if I’d done something awful. The vast majority of operations in South Vietnam were, especially in Phuoc Tuy Province, asymmetric in terms of the desire of the adversary to avoid a pitched battle. That generally remains the underpinning of asymmetric warfare today.

We, in the Australian Army, should make the direct correlation between the asymmetry of our experience in Malaya against the Communist Terrorists, in the Indonesian Confrontation against the so-called freedom fighters – and in Vietnam against the Viet Cong; and the way we operate today in Afghanistan. The Australian Army understands the nature of asymmetry in modern warfare.

In Vietnam, of course, from time to time, asymmetry went out the window, but that was when an emboldened enemy felt that now was the time to attack. Crucially, from time to time, when we were good enough to basically push the enemy into a corner – where he had to fight, then, we revelled in the symmetry. If you were occupying your bunker system and you find you’re slugging it out with an Australian unit that has caught you on the hop, then you would know that we were assembling other forces to hold you in there, we’re getting aircraft into the air, we’re firing artillery at you and we will assault you. Crucially though we didn’t invite symmetry by sitting back in bases and saying ‘Come and attack us’. Our job was to endlessly search for a battle on our terms.

The East Timor Operation

After Vietnam there was a long period of relative operational inactivity (in terms of the numbers of Army units and people involved), until the Australian Army’s intervention in East Timor in 1999, under UN auspices, which provided much needed overseas deployment experience, especially in emphasising stabilization operations, civil-military relations and logistics support.

Peter Cosgrove: “The East Timor intervention was not an insurgency, even though some of the ingredients of our previous counter insurgency experiences were present; it was a tropical and agrarian economy, an underdeveloped country, and a non-mainstream enemy, a non-main force enemy. The enemy, in fact, were certainly adversary in that they hated us and didn’t want us there. Another very important point in East Timor, was of course that we had the overwhelming support of the population, and if you walk into any situation with that as one of your advantages, then that’s pretty good. Some of the ingredients were there from our COIN experiences, using the ‘ink spot’ technique of establishing a point of solid control and expanding from that; never ceding, never giving up an area, never providing an effect and then walking away from it. That’s all good COIN stuff.

East Timor was pretty much the same as South Vietnam, in that it was the preserve of section commanders in the infantry, or platoon commanders in the infantry. Company commanders, battalion commanders, were experienced and able people but it was the point of the action where young soldiers were confronting situations which were unable to be resolved by some kind of push button effect from Canberra or Dili or even from battalion headquarters. So, in that respect, I thought it was extraordinarily important for my subordinates to know enough of the strategic intent, and the political-military factors, so that they would react with that in mind and always react in a way appropriate to the circumstances. By that I mean, well, if you’re getting shot at, shoot back but even as the corporal and his men had the boxing gloves on I wanted them to understand our broader situation and intent.

Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan

Although the East Timor mission was largely devoid of combat, there were many important lessons that were learned from the experience by the Australian Army, which were absorbed and proved useful when Australian troops were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Peter Cosgrove: “The Australian Army had to rapidly learn the nature of all that it was confronting, and adapt. We were an army that prided ourselves on the agility, energy, courage and ‘the smarts’ of a very deeply experienced COIN army. In the long ago Vietnam conflict our Army was used to sneaking around in the jungle with heavy loads on our backs, because we were quite prepared to go into the depths of the jungle looking for weeks at a time for our adversary.
That’s where all this agility and energy comes from, you see, but increasingly in a situation where the enemy always enjoys the advantage of initiating battle, generally through a large bomb, he always has the initiative, then you have to first survive that encounter in order to be able to counter whatever followed. So we had to rapidly become more highly protected in a response to the ever-larger bombs being produced. This was no longer, you know, the apprehension such as in Vietnam that a man might be round the next clump of bamboo with a sub-machine gun.

After the defeat of Saddam, which was a conventional operation, after a hiatus of only a few short weeks, the battle moved avowedly out of the countryside into the towns. You could still get blown up on a country road, but the adversary was very ready to have the fight in towns and in village squares and marketplaces. The nature of the conflict was characterised by a reliance overwhelmingly on explosions to debilitate the coalition’s willingness to fight, through car bombs and IEDs. This became another big point of difference between what happened in Iraq and what now occurs in Afghanistan and most other insurgencies the Australian Army has experienced before that.

In Vietnam weput it under the heading of ‘Mines and Boobytraps’ in that operating environment like nowadays it was pretty much the search for a needle in a haystack. Basically, the enemy put mines on the roads, but not with the same proliferation as in Iraq. It’s a bit hard to characterise, but while it was not quite an afterthought weapon against us in Vietnam, it was more a tactic to annoy us and make us more cautious, rather than a full-on campaign to achieve a knockout.

These days it is the possibility that in the next hundred metres of road a 200 kilo explosion might blow me to kingdom come and all of my comrades in this vehicle. Because of this we needed our soldiers to be more protected. But if you are highly protected and walking on your two feet, then you’re still vulnerable. I mean, simply protecting the front of a man with a very heavy flak jacket, and protecting the back of his neck and his head with a helmet, and maybe even giving him a very hard visor to protect his face and his sight all goes only part of the way.

All of these are very important things to do for the individual but wearing all this stuff you can move only at a snail’s pace for a very short period before you become exhausted. Secondly, you’re still vulnerable because you have a lot of limbs and can’t be totally encased in armour – it’s impractical. So, we had to retain some foot mobility but overall become more mobile and that mobility had to be protected.

The Australian Army has certainly evolved a very strong COIN doctrine, COIN where it happens to be in an urban environment. I think we have adequate doctrine, we already had an adequate doctrine for COIN in a rural environment, which could be adapted to take into account slightly different terrain or evolved tactics by the agrarian or non-urban insurgent. The doctrine for urban-based COIN operations is very much of intelligence, overwatch, highly cautious manoeuvring, and of doing one’s utmost to avoid creating a new wave of enemies through collateral damage. I can’t stress enough the role of intelligence in that.

In some ways, the operations in Iraq, in those what I might call the middle years of insurgency, around Falluja and the like, were a ghastly insight into the issues of a wholly kinetic approach to the enemy operating in that urban complex environment. Of course I’m focusing in on the terrible impact on the innocent, of people slugging it out on your street corner.

Iraq was much easier terrain than the jungle, but provided much more difficulty in identifying and finding and fixing the enemy because of the will o’ the wisp nature of the insurgency, it was almost like the Afghan situation without the terrain. I’ll put it this way, the operational areas of Iraq in those days, were much more densely populated with the contest happening on street corners and roadsides, where people who may or may not have been politically motivated, some of them may have been motivated by religion and some might simply have been angry at the continued presence of unwelcome foreign troops.

But these were people who could move from the living room, past the settee under which they’ve got their AK, out the front door to engage a passing convoy or patrol, and then reverse the process when they’ve had their fill and this became virtually intractable for the US coalition until such time as the Iraqis themselves became exhausted with the terrible life that this was imposing and started to organise to ensure peace and security on their own streets.

In Afghanistan, we sent Special Forces in late 2001 after 9/11 and they were operating primarily in their special operations role, but you might say in a more conventional setting. They certainly had a long-range reconnaissance role, they had to be combat capable, combat ready, and in operations like Operation Anaconda, they had to play a very strong fighting role because if you’re the only troops in a particularly brutal area and the need arises, then you must fight, and the SAS were prepared to fight, but it’s not the way they’re organised, to get involved in pitched battles.

That did come their way once or twice, and I was very grateful that they’d had the sort of opportunity to establish their operational patterns and their own self-confidence in East Timor, in a less demanding situation. I think it would have been pretty tough to go straight into an ancient battleground like Afghanistan in 2001 against the Taliban, who’d been fighting for years against the Soviets and each other, and here come the Americans, or the Northern Alliance and thus for the Afghans it was more of the same. They were a very experienced enemy; they weren’t necessarily structured as a conventional force or anything like that. They were just really ferocious. I think our boys would have been behind the eight-ball even as good as they are, without the ‘primary school’ experience of East Timor.

For our first deployment to Afghanistan in 2001, I was Chief of Army and my job was to raise and provide troops to the Chief of Defence Force for operations. Part of my role was to advise the Chief of the Defence Force on the use of land forces – so in the very quick lead-up to the commitment to Afghanistan, I had to be the CDF’s right hand man on the Army’s contribution.

While the operations in Afghanistan were commanded by the CDF, I maintained a very close overwatch, because it was my job to support them with reinforcements and, equipment, to monitor their operations and, to look at emerging warfare trends. Then before they came home, in later 2002, in the middle of that year I became the Chief of the Defence Force, so I was then in detail, responsible for the execution of their operations, responsible to the government. We brought them out in late 2002 and at the time it looked like the Taliban had been dispersed and Al-Qaeda were on the run; it looked like it would be a sort of holding operation, not sedentary so much as reasonably low key.

Late in 2005 and early 2006, the pacification campaign in Afghanistan was faltering and it was decided by Australia and a number of other countries that they had to beef up the forces in Afghanistan. Being in on the ground floor, so to speak in 2001,it was natural that Australia would provide a bigger contingent the second time around.

Our force which had lapsed down to few staff officers in headquarters went up again to incorporate a Special Forces element and later on a civil affairs type function with engineers and the like with appropriate protection, and now we’ve got mentoring as well. All that happened after I left the job in mid-2005.

In Afghanistan, winkling out who is an insurgent and who is a normal innocent head of the household is part of the difficulty. The terrain in Afghanistan is much more open, thus you might superficially say that concealment was more difficult in Afghanistan than in Vietnam, and that Vietnam was tremendously complex terrain, very high degrees of concealment. The two fighting environments are equally demanding; totally different in character but equally demanding. For example, the terrain in Afghanistan is enormously difficult and very mountainous and the climate is one of extremes.

There are possibilities for concealment in Afghanistan, in the uninhabited areas through the mountainous nature of the terrain; and indeed, one of the things which has characterised operations in Afghanistan, is a very close proximity between ordinary Afghans and armed insurgents, whether they be Taliban or Al-Qaeda or any people with guns and explosives who want to fight.

The nature of the insurgent as being actually a member of the population of the area in which you’re operating is underscored in Afghanistan. Some may be the head of the household who might sub-contract to a local Taliban senior figure to come out and do some anti-coalition work; a person who might be particularly politicised, but who also might simply think ‘I don’t want these foreign troops in my village.’

It’s in Afghanistan that this Australian urban COIN doctrine is taking a major step forward, and mostly stemming from the second deployment. In the first deployment there was some of it going on, but it was in its infancy. Now it’s evolved, and our intelligence and surveillance arrangements, our use of discriminating fire to neutralise the enemy but not the innocent person nearby, all of these things have taken a major boost.”

General Peter Cosgrove AC, MC was the Chief of the Defence Force from July 2002 until July 2005, when he retired from active service. He graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon in 1965 and served in Vietnam. In the mid-1980s he commanded the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. Latterly, in 1999, General Cosgrove led the UN endorsed INTERFET peacekeeping and stabilization mission to East Timor. He was promoted in 2000 to Lieutenant General as Chief of the Army, and in 2002, to General occupying occupied the position of Chief of the Defence Force.

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