My guest today is Major General Roger Noble, AO DSC CSC, who recently retired from the Australian Defence Force as a senior officer in the Australian Army. During his extensive career, he has commanded the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, the Al Muthanna Task Group in Iraq, and was also Commander 3rd Brigade. Throughout his years of service, he has deployed six times on operations to East Timor, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Most recently, General Noble was appointed as Australia’s Ambassador for Counterterrorism and is responsible for leading international engagement and representation at bilateral, regional and multilateral forums in the field.
As you will hear, we covered a range of topics, some of which include:
- General Noble’s first deployment to Iraq in 1992 as part of the UN Special Commission to destroy Saddam’s WMDs
- Reflections on his return to Iraq in 2005 and 2016
- Context behind his three rules: ‘Be culturally aware, keep a low profile and stay in the corner of their eye’
- Negotiating with the ‘enemy’
- Importance of individual as well as organisational self-awareness
- The need for an anthropological understanding of our own culture, then of our friends and finally of our enemies
- Suggestion on how we improve our understanding of the human terrain in operational theatres
- Importance of on-the-ground personal experience within senior leaders
- Why the military is the go-to toolbox for Western democracies
- ‘He with the best narrative wins’
- The nature of contemporary war
- General Noble’s reflections on the true nature of war
- The risk of resting on our laurels
Finally, as you’ll hear about in the introduction of this episode, here is the link for a short survey on the podcast. Thank you for taking two minutes to complete it.
I hope you enjoy the episode.
Listen to the podcast here
Roger Noble – A Major General’s Perspective
Before we get to the next episode with Major General Roger Noble, a quick request, I have now published ten episodes of the show, while I have greatly enjoyed doing these episodes, I would love to hear what you think. I’ve created a short survey that would help me capture your input thoughts. I promise it won’t take any longer than two minutes, but it will help me shape the direction of the show. Thank you for your time and support. Now let’s get back to the episode with General Noble.
My guest is Major General Roger Noble, AO DSC CSC. He retired from the Australian Defence Force as a Senior Officer in the Australian Army. He joined the Army in 1984 and was commissioned into the Royal Australian Armoured Corps. During his extensive career, he commanded the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, the Al Muthanna Task Group in Iraq, and was also Commander of the 3rd Brigade. Throughout his years of service, he has deployed six times on operations to East Timor, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
In 2016, he was seconded to the United States Army, where he served as Deputy Coalition Force Commander in Iraq, and subsequently as Deputy Commander General North in the United States Army Pacific. His final role in the military was as the Head of Military Strategic Commitments at the Australian Defence Force Headquarters. General Noble was appointed as Australia’s Ambassador for Counterterrorism and is responsible for leading Australia’s international engagements. He also represents Australia at bilateral, regional, and multilateral forums.
Academically, General Noble holds a Master’s in International Public Policy, a Master of Business Administration, a Master of Defence Studies, and a Bachelor of Arts in Military History. He’s also undertaking a PhD in Strategy and Operations in the 21st Century. General, thank you very much for joining me on the show.
It’s a pleasure, Maz. How are you?
Good, thanks. Before we started the interview, I also had to make sure that I check the most appropriate title that I refer to you as. While I acknowledge that you are now out of the military, I’ll address you as General if that’s okay with you.
It’s okay. Roger’s fine, but General’s okay.
General, you’ve had an exciting long military career, before we delve into some of those experiences, which we’ll certainly look to do, maybe we can go back to where it all began. What made you join the military back in 1984?
I was a cadet at school. I liked History. I wanted to do things involved in the world. The military does that. Not always in the best fun way possible, but it certainly does. It’s involved in action and doing things. That’s what attracted me to the profession as a pretty young boy.
Talking about action, you saw action fairly soon into your career?
I was a captain. It was probably about eight years in as a young officer. I went to Iraq in 1992 with the United Nations Special Commission Iraq, after the first Gulf War as a member of the Chemical Destruction Group. Not many people know but you and I oversaw the destruction of chemical weapons and chemical precursors all across the country. That was my first tour. I was 28 and it was an experience of a lifetime.
I went by myself. I was down there. There was a very small team. We lived in Baghdad, unarmed, not in uniform, in a place that had fought a war, but we were technically the enemy. Our entire existence hung with the Iraqis and their ability to both support us then protect us, and then enable what we were doing. It was a pretty wild place in 1992.
This is while you were overseeing the destruction of chemical weapons?
After the war, part of the post-war arrangements was for Iraqis to centralise all their weapons of mass destruction, and declare them. By far the biggest amount was chemical weapons. They had thousands of rockets and artillery shells plus large amounts of what’s called precursors, the chemicals that you use to make chemical weapons. We spent most of our time in a place called Al-Muthanna, not the province that I would let it go to, but the plant Northwest of Baghdad in the desert where they were centralised and then we destroyed them with the Iraqis. It was hot, interesting work hand-in-hand with the Iraqis.
Would you consider that success back in ‘92?
It was. We did destroy their chemical weapons stockpile, and it was largely collaborative. The whole thing occurred in a very tense international period. There was nonstop pressure between the United Nations, Iraq, and key stakeholders like the US. All around us were friction and inspections, and the odd cruise missile flying through the air. It was a very tense time, but pretty exciting and interesting.
At that stage, a young captain, I’d imagine it would’ve been quite an exciting place to be, especially as the only Australian.
Others came. I went initially by myself, but then we had a pretty small group of Australians in the end, about 3 or 4 in my time doing different things. We would do everything, look for weapons of mass destruction, support inspection teams, and destroy nerve agent rockets. It kept us busy.
I find that quite an interesting unplanned segue because it will loop back onto that. We went back to Iraq in 2003 to seek out those very same weapons arguably under some really bad information.
That’s the argument about. The Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction, no question about it.
No, but in 1992. The question is, did they have any in 2003? Chemical weapons are called a weapon of mass destruction. They are technically legal, but they’re a little bit different to nuclear weapons. They’re one class. The UN Special Commission was confident they destroyed the chemical weapon stockpiles by the time it wrapped up its work.
You went back to Iraq. When was the next time you went there?
2005. As a battle group when I went back into Southern Iraq after the invasion of 2003, Australia recommitted, we had some forces there at the beginning, Special Forces mainly. We sent the battle group back in ’05, and we were the first ones to go back in again.
How was that experience compared to ’92?
It’s a much different context. Having been there in ‘92, I’d seen Saddam Hussein’s regime. There are not many people who did. I knew what it was like to be an Iraqi or to be under that regime. Southern Iraq was the toughest because of the politics, tribal, and religious differences. I knew exactly how tough it could be to be an Iraqi under him. To go back in after his fall in that period was pretty chaotic when they were rebuilding Iraq effectively trying to stand up the government, which they hadn’t. Even under him, it was very centralised and autocratic.
They didn’t have a bureaucracy or many trained people. They were trying to make it all work and build a new democratic system. The Iraqis had a lot on their plate. They were carrying the scars of war, which were pretty dramatic, particularly in the South, where they had been subject to persecution and violence for a long time.
In the South, after the war, they were called the Marsh Arabs, but the Southern Iraqis and the contention around repression of them. In 2005, one afternoon, an Iraqi National came into the base that we were in Southern Iraq and said, “I want to show you where all the bodies are buried.” It wasn’t a metaphor. It was real. I went out at dusk with the British colonel that I was with. We were walking very close to the base in the middle of the desert.
We could see something on the ground. We went up. There was a skeleton in the ground, and it was old. We looked up. As far as you could see, about every 10 feet was another 1. I said, “When were these people killed?” They said, “Saddam. After the first war, they would kill everybody on Thursday afternoons and take their bodies into the desert and bury them.” For the Iraqis, particularly the Shia in Southern Iraq, it had been pretty difficult for several years. We were coming back in. They had a bit more control over their own destiny, and they were trying to work it out.
It was quite good. That is the answer to your question. The mission was pretty positive. It was very closely aligned in support of the Iraqis with the local government. Most Iraqis wanted us there. They didn’t want us there forever. They want men with guns. They wanted more than that like an engagement in the future. I was struck by how positive most normal everyday Iraqis were having us there, and they knew that Iraq’s future was in their hands. It was good to be part of that. There are always adversaries, violence, and people trying to undermine it, which we were focused on as well.
I found it interesting. In your reflection on ‘92 to then 2005, you saw a life of an Iraqi under the Saddam regime. Coming back in 2005, seeing how that hope transpired within the Iraqi population. What’s happened since? It’s no secret. I was in Iraq in 2018 as a civilian, as a development consultant. It was certainly not a place that one would call a military success by any stretch of the imagination.
I disagree, frankly. When I went back, the ISIL held 40% of Iraq, all the Mosul, Euphrates River Valley, all the way down to North of Baghdad, including the whole of Fallujah and Mosul, threatening Baghdad itself. In the space of a year, mainly the Iraqis supported by the coalition managed to turn that all around, took them a while, but they evicted ISIS and retook their key cities like Mosul and Fallujah. Went a long way to reaffirming the Iraqi state. You can’t take that offer. That’s a spectacular success.
Does that mean all the terrorists or violent extremists are gone, or the root causes are all dealt with? No. Those things go back a long way. There are grievances, tribal, cultural, and religious, that are deep and still there. What you’re seeing now is the Iraqis through the government that they’ve built in a pretty short space of time. Countries like Australia and the United States are centuries old. They’ve built their system since the election when I was here in 2005. They’ve built a democratic state, trying to piece together all the bits. They get a lot of criticism. I always look at them as pretty amazing that they hold it all together.
It’s not Switzerland. I always used to say to them, I’d love to come back on a holiday because it’s a fantastic place. I’d love to drive around Baghdad, check out all the history, and then go down the South and drive through the Old Testament. You can’t do that yet. I’m hopeful that they’ll get there eventually. We’ve got to cut them some slack because they’ve come a long way quickly with an under a lot of duress.
The other thing they don’t get is credit for how much of that is up to them. The coalition can help, outsiders can help, and they’re very important. Not just military help, but all the other kinds. In the end, Iraqis have to do it. I give them a big tick and wish them all the best. It’s not all beer and skittles. They get hit by COVID too. They’ve got to deal with those ongoing issues of grievance and social, cultural, and religious angst, which are not easy. They’re centuries old.
I’ll clarify what I meant. I was certainly talking about the Western, the coalition strategy and mission. First, going into Afghanistan then Iraq, then back to Afghanistan rather than the local. I’ll use some of my own anecdotes from the Bosnian War. The locals adapt exceptionally quickly. They’re used to that ecosystem and surviving, arguably in an ecosystem with all the foreign influence coming in. It was a more poorly asked question referring to the Western involvement of our own planning strategy and how that then translated into tactical decisions.
The big question is, should they have gone in 2003? I’m not going to answer that. I’ll just say this. They did.
Maybe I’ll push you on that. Why is that? Conscious of your role, and now you’re speaking as Mr Noble.
I’m not speaking for anyone but myself. I’d make the observation that its geopolitics countries act in their interest. There was a pretty big coalition, not as big as others, but who made that decision for a variety of reasons to intervene? Historians will write long books about it. I think of Zhou Enlai who apparently was asked by the French at some point, “What do you think of the French Revolution in the 1970s?” He said, “It’s too soon to tell.” It’s about when you measure things as well.
Having said all that, people might think it’s a clock out, but I’m a soldier. I was who I am. The ground reality is it happened. We were there. Most Iraqis wanted us there, no question. A bunch of them didn’t. Not many of them want us to be there forever either. They want us to go. The general man on most streets was glad the coalition was there because it represented interest and commitment from the rest of the world.
I found at the micro level, particularly in the South, it was easy. It wasn’t a struggle. You didn’t feel out of place. You felt you had a place. The good thing about the Iraqis is they’ll always tell you. You don’t have to wait around to be told. They’ll explain to you what they want you to do and not do. I’ll call them the Australians in the Middle East because they’re pragmatic and got a good sense of humour, which you need if you’re an Iraqi. I found it easy to get on with.
On the micro level, I thought we were doing good work helping them. Doing what the majority wanted, helping them build their own country. They had all the same basic premises we have. They wanted people to obey the law. We take that for granted in Australia. We all do what we’re told. They don’t. They were going through the dialogue about why you should obey the law, not just a given. I used to participate in those discussions with lots of Iraqis. It was a net positive thing at a pretty grim time. 2005 was very difficult for the coalition. It was not going well up North. In the Sunni Triangle, people were talking about leaving, and it was before the surge.
My experience was remarkably positive. When I went back in 2016, we were fighting up North. We went down South. I got messages from Iraqis, from Muthanna, “How you are doing? What’s going on?” They remembered us well and our contradiction was respected. In fact, one day, I was talking to an Iraqi on the side of the road in Muthanna. He’s a lieutenant colonel. He rings on the phone. He’s talking in Arabic. He goes, “It’s the Prime Minister. He wants to talk to you.” I’m talking to the Prime Minister of Iraq on the telephone on the side of the road. He starts giving me feedback on our performance. They all got three mobile phones and everybody talks to each other nonstop.
That’s one way to get your deployment report.
From the Prime Minister.
That’s an interesting point that echoes something that you’ve been very vocal about. That is this idea of understanding a particular ecosystem. By ecosystem, I mean the architecture of a place. Whether that is the social links or the economic links that exist in the background. The political links give a place colour where we’d like to present it as black and white. You’ve been quite vocal about that and also the cultural dynamics. That’s an interesting point. They all have three mobile phones.
It’s not Australia. The West has a bit of a habit of doing it, turning up, and thinking they’re like us or they should be. We’re going to turn you into us. I would argue the height folly if to start like that. We had three rules as a battle group, which you’ve reminded me of. They’re pretty simple. One was to be culturally aware, keep a low profile, and stay in the corner of their eye. I wanted them to know we were always there, watching, always going to do what we need to do, but not in your face. It’s your country.
At the time I met the enemy, they asked to meet me. One of the enemies was Jaysh al-Mahdi. The Army of guards translated. They were not the Al-Qaeda Sunni terrorist Zarqawi mob. In fact, they were enemies of them. They were Southern Nationalist Iraqi grouping who didn’t want the coalition there. Different enemies are on their own ground in their own place. They said, “We want to have a talk with you.” I went to see him in the deputy governor’s office with the British guy.
I’ll never forget as long as I live, because the first thing I noticed is they were terrified of us. They thought we were going to shoot them or something. The very first thing they said was, “We need to make a statement before we talk.” The deputy governor, who’s the mediator, said, “Is that okay?” He said, “Yeah.” They go, “The coalition must live Iraq.” The British guy was saying, “That’s handy because that’s our plan.” They looked at us we said, “The question is, when do we leave?” Not if we’re going to leave. They laughed we said, “That was our plan.”
We realised we don’t want to stay there forever, but these are the conditions under which you’ll accelerate our departure which took us into a discussion about the rule of law, the authority of the elected government, and the use of violence. It was remarkably constructive. I said, “One of the things that is unhelpful that you think we shouldn’t do, that we don’t have to do.” They said to me, “Can you not drive armed vehicles near the schools when the kids are at school?”
We wouldn’t do it in Australia. I said, “No worries, but if something happens in a school when we have to go there, we will. Nothing should happen in schools. That’s where the kids are.” We all agreed to that, it sounds simple. Now we watch the schools closely and make sure that’s not a ruse for something else. That was a legitimate ask. To this day, they were saying, “Stay away from the kids if you can.” Totally reasonable. We didn’t have to do that to achieve our mission. It was a point where we could agree with them.
The lesson I took from us, you got to know the enemy. You’re not necessarily going to talk to them all the time. You’re not going to talk to Al-Qaeda probably. If you can, and you can have a dialogue, the better you understand, the better your chances are that you’ll do better against them because you’ll understand them better. It’s not rocket science. I’m not a fan of the international school. It is pretty strong that says, “You are the enemy. I’m not talking to you,” at any level. All it does is defeat your ability to understand them and the problem. That goes tactical to strategic.
It also humanises the “enemy.” It humanises and makes us realise that they care.
I started to talk about them differently after I met them.
I didn’t use the word enemy so much because they weren’t our enemy. They were the locals with a view, with guns. If you start using guns on us or other people, then they’re the enemy. That’s the dialogue I had with them. I said, “We don’t care. You can wear your Jaysh al-Mahdi T-shirt around town. You can have a big demonstration when they often did, I said, “We’re not going to stop you. It’s not our business. It’s Iraq.” If you start shooting people, blowing things up, or killing the police, we’re going to come down.
That sounds reasonable to us. That’s how we are. That’s not necessarily how the culture is there. That’s not quite as structured. They gave me that feedback. A local said to me once, “You are very hard to understand, you people.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You’ve got all these rules about when you’ll fight and when you won’t fight, but when you start fighting, you don’t stop until everybody’s dead. We’re quite different. We have fewer rules about when you fight, but we fight. Once we start, we stop pretty quick and we work it out.”
They gave me some examples that are pretty common in the tribal dynamic. They said, “Why do you do that? Why do you go against the grain?” It made me think, “Western Soldiers, that’s what we do. That’s our construct.” There are all these rules about the use of force which we understand as second nature and tied to the law. Once we’re across that line, we go into overdrive and stay in accordance with the law. They go, “Why do you do that?” Two cultures are looking at each other and wondering why the other one’s crazy.
That’s such a nuanced point. Looking at each other ultimately through the scope of a rifle thinking, “They’re crazy bastards,” from both ends. It’s quite easy for me to say this. You’ve been quite vocal about you and your reputation amongst the ranks. You are outspoken about the lessons that you’ve certainly learnt. You don’t hold punches either. One of the things that you also brought up in the course where you were a guest and received some presentations from a conflict analysis class where we were looking at culture cultural briefs.
It’s very obvious that you get it, because of all your experiences having reflected on all those lessons. You were the first ones to say that you are still stuck in your own ways. There’s a certain way that you lead a war. You also made a reflection on senior leadership, in general, having been shaped in a certain way or knowing how to fight a war.
One of the key things is self-awareness. That’s individual but it’s also organisational. Everyone talks about the coalition like it’s a unified thing. It could be Afghanistan. In 2001, when I went it was 51 countries to 2012. That’s nothing much unified about that other than the badge on the door. You have to look hard at the members of it, what their agendas are, and what their culture is. If you tell me European NATO culture is the same as the US military culture, they’re not. There are a lot of things in common, but they are not the same. Command, control, order of the way you do business, and the command staff, all those things are all different in each country.
In 2016, I went back as a Deputy Land Force commander in Iraq, one of our lines of effort, we only had three. One of them was to maintain the coalition. We spent a lot of time talking to the coalition and working out so that we never hit those points that sometimes arise where you get to a point of great angst because you haven’t worked it out in advance. Understanding your own military culture is very important and how others see you.
When I met the Jaysh al-Mahdi guy, they were terrified of me. It was a shock. I didn’t see us as terrifying. They were terrified of us. We’re a bit terrifying when we’ve got all these guns, tanks, and stuff. We’ve got to spend a bit of time doing the anthropological introspection on ourselves and how we think and view the world. Particularly when you go into other people’s space, Iraq, Afghanistan, and East Timor, you can be the strongest nation on the planet. You can be the most powerful coalition in the world. If you’re not self-aware and you’re not connected with the people, you’re probably not going to be successful in anything other than blowing stuff up and killing people. If that’s what you’re doing, then you might get away with it.
Few interventions or wars are about that. Normally, there’s something else. You’re trying to get to a resolution or a position that involves people who are alive. Spend more time looking at them. The more different they are, the more effort you need to put in. A lot of Australians, we’re the same as the Americans. We’re not the same as the Americans. We got a lot in common. We speak the same language. We laugh at the same jokes. We watch their TV. They watch our movies, but we have different histories, cultures, and laws. If you can sometimes fall afoul of those simplistic assumptions, we’re the same as them.
I probably shouldn’t say but New Zealand’s a good example too. Australians make the mistake of thinking New Zealand’s the eighth state or whatever. It is not. It is a very different country, culture, and history. Even your friends whom you know, you should be spending time on understanding then not become complacent. “I understood them. I worked with them years ago. I know what’s going on.” Focusing on that soft, cultural, anthropological worldview is an absolute must. It applies in great power competition, counterinsurgency, or peacekeeping. It’s important in all of them.
I particularly like the point about self-awareness because it suggests that we need to do an anthropological study of ourselves first before we look to understand others. You’re making that very point that we don’t necessarily always reflect on our own A) Organisational Culture and B) National Culture that we carry. If we don’t necessarily reflect on our own, how can we be successful in understanding someone else?
I’ll give you a practical, simple example. In 2012, I’m in somewhere in Afghanistan, Wardak. There’s an Afghan national Army base and there’s a bunch of US Army going there. They’re doing a fantastic job. We were talking and one of them goes, “They won’t fight enough. They’re not committed enough.” We train them. I said, “What’s the casualty evacuation system for the Afghan Army here?” You get shot, you get put in the back of a ute, and you drive six hours South until you get to the hospital. That’s the plan. I said, “How do you reckon we’d go? What’s our casual evacuation plan?”
Sometimes it applied to the Afghans sometimes it didn’t. We get a helicopter we’re in a first-world hospital. Best hospitals you can be in less than an hour, almost invariably, often way less. I said, “If you’re going up that hill to fight the Taliban or whatever we’re going up the hill to fight, and that’s happening to you, or you got a six-hour ride in the back of a Ford Ranger on a road to a bad hospital, do you think it might change your behaviour?” Even though they were deeply in it, they’d got themselves mentally in a position where they couldn’t see what it was like to be an Afghan.
Where are they getting paid? Where are they from? We’re in Wardak, and these guys are from up North. They’re not even from that part of Afghanistan, which is a lot more serious than not being a Queenslander in Victoria. It made a difference. Tactical to strategic, the more time you’ve got that you can spend on understanding the ecosystem, that’s pretty good. Mainly, it’s the people. The better you’ll probably do. You’ll at least increase your chances of not making a stupid mistake.
Afghanistan is a prime example. It’s now being researched to all ends as arguably a gross misunderstanding of an ecosystem because it depicts the dynamics that exist within a place. Also, when we come into a place like Afghanistan, we become part of that ecosystem. We bring a certain inertia, a certain momentum with us. We empower certain players. We disable others. We become an organism within that space. Afghanistan is a prime example, particularly looking now that talk about not talking to the enemy. The “enemy,” now commands 2/3 of the country by most estimates. The Taliban.
You remember they’re the locals as well that lived there. In Afghanistan, one of the most striking things to me was nobody could read. In Iraq, everybody’s pretty well educated. They could read. That plus Iraq is flat, and Afghanistan isn’t. Those two differences fundamentally change everything. The mountains of Afghanistan, which look spectacular from a distance and up close, combine with the fact that nobody can read makes communication and understanding amongst the Afghans themselves difficult. What does that mean? In a place like Afghanistan, the radio’s important. If you’re going to pass a message, you do it on the radio. In Iraq, you can drop a leaflet. You can publish things. They use TV a lot more because the infrastructure is a flat country. They have good TV reception.
I get quite annoyed when I hear people compare the two wars because they’re totally different. They’ve got things in common and they were connected not because they’re alike, but because the people were fighting both wars with the same group of people, the coalition. We were going, “Iraq and Afghanistan are like the Americans and everybody else.” They’re connected and they’ve got similarities, but the two places are totally different. Every time a rotation of troops goes somewhere, they shouldn’t have to learn that. They should be going in front-end loaded.
How do we do that?
You’ve got a front end loaded into the force. We try to do that. The other big mistake is we don’t go long enough. Australia was doing six months of rotations. That’s the long ones. Some of the services were shorter. I don’t know how you learn anything in six months. It depends on your job. The commanders, key intelligence officers, and civil-military guys, you got to be gone for a long time. That is what I would be doing. Having more of a posting mindset rather than a deployment mindset. The Americans do it with their senior roster. You’ll see them do three years, maybe longer. It’s the same in Iraq. These six-month cycles make it tough. The US Army at the height of the Afghan thing. The Iraq surge is done in fifteen months. They’re pretty tough.
By the time I went back in 2016, they were still doing nine with no leave. That constant cycle, as much as you’re involved, could be life and death for you. You don’t live there. You’re getting through to the, “Can I get to my six-month mark or whatever?” That changes your mindset, commitment, and understanding. There’s something to think about, the length of tours, and then the preparation force package, which we did reasonably well. For key leaders, we could do it a bit deeper and better. Source experts who know the place back to front and send them in as well if they’ll go. Anyway, those are just some thoughts.
How well understood do you think that problem is at the senior level’s defence?
It’s very much experience-based. It is pretty hard if you’re flying a jet fighter out of a third country in the middle of the night, dropping bombs to understand why you need any cultural awareness. It’s not a tedious success because it’s the nature of the job. If you’re a ship in the Gulf, you might need it for boarding. If you haven’t done and seen it, you might think, “Why am I wasting my time doing all that soft stuff when, in fact, it’s critical?”
I’d known a very senior American Special Forces Officer. I saw him back again on one of the tours. He had a senior job. He said to me quite quietly one day, “Everybody comes up and asks me about Afghanistan. This is the first rot tour I’ve ever had in Afghanistan, where I wasn’t getting out of a helicopter in the middle of the night and shooting at things. Now I’m talking to them.” He’d done seven tours, but his actual interaction because of his job with normal Afghans in normal circumstances was very low. It was coming out of a helicopter in the dark. He had the self-awareness and the smarts to know that.
It’s very much based on personal experience. Young officers and soldiers work it out real quick. The better you know the people you’re walking around, the better chance you’ll have of surviving the day and getting the job done than anyone else. If you haven’t done it and you haven’t seen it, it becomes an intellectual thing. Most people agree. In all the competing things that you need to do, it might not be as important as someone like me might think it is. It’s patchy. Although, in our doctrine, we do say it. We’ve got plenty of experience of it, but going back a long time. We’re reasonable. I would think we could be better. We should probably prioritise it a bit more institutionally.
Also, the fact that we are training for the fight. We’re training soldiers and officers for the fight. It’s almost a talk about a three block-war. This is to get the degree.
There’s no shortage of stuff to do. You’ve got better fire weapons and operate your systems and fly the plane. It’s professional soldiering now. The Army, Navy, and Air Force is a full-time professional business with complex systems. Finding time to do everything is like everything impossible. It pays you back in spades. If you do understand the environment, who you’re fighting, the ecosystem, or at least part of the force, the better you’ll be. A number of times in Afghanistan, something happened.
I used to carry the book around, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, which was the Russian POR for Afghanistan, Post-Operation Report in English translation. I open it and find they did exactly the same thing to the Russians. Nobody in the intelligence staff had read the book or bothered to. There’s a chapter in the book that tells you where they put the rockets. The first fight at the beginning was the Battle of Anaconda in 2002. They shot down two ranger CH-47s. We lost some US SEALs up in the right up high in Shah-i-Kot, and SASR played a very important role in protecting the rangers who were struck down quietly on the side.
I pulled out The Bear Came Over the Mountain and here’s the helicopter ambush conducted by the Mujahideen and the Russians in exactly the same place. They fired the heavy machine guns from exactly the same place down through the rotor blades of the helicopters because, at that altitude, the helicopters are slow. They got above the helicopter ceiling they shut down through. I went, “We should have read that book.” Where were the Russians? I’ve asked them. I don’t know if they would’ve rushed to help us, but did we?
That’s not silly because when I went to Tampa in ’01 in October, the Russians were there. They were on the base. I know because the colonel I used to talk to got arrested by the Americans who’d been waiting 50 years for the Russians to turn up by mistake. It’s not silly. Why weren’t we talking to the Russians post-September 11th about Afghanistan? There are a bunch of reasons. We could have read their books. They were published. That data mining of previous experience, you got to do that in the 21st century. We could have done it better.
That will take me to the next point. Before we get to that, I want to pick up on something you said. I wonder what your thoughts are on this that we might be throwing the military solution at problems that aren’t necessarily always military problems.
The big investment in militaries, and often, it’s the quickest available tool and the only one that can get there. It can do a whole bunch of stuff besides shooting people. It’s the go-to toolbox. It’s a Western thing too. Go to the military to fix stuff. It’s the most concrete and immediate thing. Even after the bushfires in 2020, the states have firefighters and the federal government doesn’t. It’s got the ADF and a bunch of money. It’s a powerful weapon. States don’t have a lot of immediate response options generally that they can generate. The military’s purpose was designed for that.
That’s one of the reasons we use it because we got it and we can. There’s a cultural thing about the Western world, you could argue, likes to militarise things, but all the other things are super important as well. They take time. The Defeat ISIL Global Coalition is running a Stabilisation Pledge Drive, seeking money to help rebuild Iraq and Syria through humanitarian assistance. Those things are just as important. They take time. Often, the militaries needed to build the space to be able to do it. If you don’t have security, humanitarian actors can’t get there.
When I went to Iraq in ‘05, there were no NGOs in Southern Iraq. Remember Zarqawi, that distinguished Iraqi gentleman, was cutting everybody’s heads off. You went there and you would normally expect to see NGOs helping in the local community, filling the gaps while everything’s in crisis. They weren’t there because they were getting beheaded and kidnapped.
Often, the military’s also first because it can get there and then give that space to enable the other pieces to be able to come in. I saw that at East Timor. If you look at East Timor, the military went in first. As time went on, the police effort built up the humanitarian and the interagency, and multiple diplomatic economic support tools were able to find space and operate. It’s a combination of reasons why we do turn to the military. It’s not just us, but lots of countries do it.
I’ve heard you talk about this elsewhere, and it strikes me as particularly relevant for this point. This idea of the power of narrative. There is a story that we are living as opposed to this is not the military solution, but there is an entire narrative about A) How we’re going to conduct this conflict, B) How are we going to help close off the conflict and rebuild, and finally, C) How we then depart and leave a place in a better state than we arguably found it. Do you want to comment on that?
That’s always been necessary in the 21st century. It’s vital. He with the best narrative wins because it can be transmitted globally immediately. Everybody’s got a phone, a TV, and messaging. We went into Iraq in ‘05, and I was talking to the governor at the beginning before I knew him very well, and he said, “The last thing we need is more people with guns.” It’s the second thing he said to me. I realised that’s how we’d come to do security. We needed a narrative about the future of Iraq and why the coalition was a good thing for that. Part of that was security, but a lot of it was about, “This is your future in the world and we are the world.”
That’s compelling. They want to talk about Australia, but not the Australian Army. It’s heavily agricultural. Dryland, farming, irrigation, all the things that are big in Australia, we know a lot about. They knew a lot about it. They were asking me about that. I don’t know anything about dryland probably. I was able to go to the embassy and say, “These are the things they’re interested in.” One of the things was, believe it or not, chickens and immunisation of chickens against chicken disease. I can’t remember which ones. They were struggling with it. With a small amount of money, we were able to get veterinary expertise and immunisation, but hardly any money that they thought was the bee’s knees.
They were very thankful for it. You can put up with the guys with guns because we’re not here out of our selfish national interest when we are, but we’re also here because we do think you’re worthwhile. We do want you to do well. We do want this country to go ahead, and we’re risking a lot to do it. The narrative has got to be thought through. Different audiences need different narratives.
I didn’t talk back radio into Mosul in 2016, believe it or not when ISIS had it before we attacked. I went up to Erbil and did talk back radio. People were ringing me up from Mosul with other me and the Iraqi Army asking us questions. The questions were, “Are you going to win? When are you coming? What should we do?” All the obvious things you would ask if you’re about to get attacked. We had to have a clear message because we would explain to them what was going to happen and why. We know the ISILs are listening. We had a pretty clear message for them. You’ve got to craft that. Here’s the thing. It’s got to be coherent and true. If you want it to be compelling, it’s got to be true.
This is not deception. Deception can be part of something, but your core narrative about what you’re doing in the 21st century, where it’s spread instantly is important. If you can’t articulate one yourself, you’ve probably got a problem because you may not clearly understand what you’re doing there and why, and the ecosystem that you’re operating in. A better and more resonant narrative is probably telling you how well that actor understands the situation they’re in.
Their role within it. I find it interesting, you’ve now referred to it three times, as in the 21st century, which talks very much about the change in contemporary conflict. This is something I’ve heard you talk about elsewhere. What is the contemporary conflict or war look like in your view? What makes it different to days gone by?
It’s in more domains. What’s different is space, for a start. That’s the domain that wasn’t there for most of history. Can’t talk much about it. That makes it a global ubiquitous environment that has direct impacts on the ground. The information domain’s always been there. We now call it cyber and information, but now it’s globally immediately connected.
In the First World War, the Army went to Gallipoli and then a month later, in the newspaper, they published a casualty list and you read the paper and you found out somebody was dead. You’ll know straight away now. It might be uploaded. ISIS would attack, film the attack, kill everybody in the post they overrun, and then upload it in time for us to use it in the briefs we would have in the day.
That’s all we’re in. In 2016, I read an article saying UNHCR thought the most important thing a refugee needed used to be shelter, food, and water. They said it’s a telephone so that you can find shelter, food, and water, and you know where to go and where not to go. That’s changed. When you fight now, we would do it regularly.
You might do an attack in a particular place, but it might have a targeting influence action or associated with it in another country trying to pass a message or do something simultaneously around a tactical attack. That’s pretty new. That’s this century. The physical domains are still there. They’re connected by a digital framework and the reach and power of weapons and capacities are much greater.
These ideas of locally constrained. Confined conflict is gone. Even ISIS were the masters of global information operations and messaging. They didn’t have all the stuff that states have. They were doing it on the back of the internet and commercial networks. That’s reality. If you’re going to fight big wars against nation-states across the five domains, it’s going to be a global 24/7 multifaceted, highly complex undertaking. The notion is you can sit in Sydney and you’ll be right, maybe a midget submarine will come and fire the odd round from Sydney harbour, no way you’re going to be in it.
The lights are out. The internet’s off.
You go black. There are no satellites. The globalised economy. In human history, they’ve been pretty poor at predicting nature. The First World War shocked everybody, and Second World War. My salutary lesson about wars is, “Don’t fight them unless you need to. Only fight them if they’re absolutely necessary.” When you fight them, they suck.Don't fight wars unless you need to. Only fight them if they're absolutely necessary. Click To Tweet
Even when you’re successful, the cost is often very high and the price lasts a long time in the minds and lives of people, even when you win. That’s the Duke of Wellington. “The only thing worse than a battlefield where you’ve won is a battlefield where you’re lost,” or something like that. There’d very serious undertakings and in the modern world, there’ll be nowhere to hide. The reach will be deep. Normal people will be deeply impacted by it if it’s at any scale. That’s not a very happy picture.
It shouldn’t be. That’s the reality.
If you’re a military force, you need to get ready for that. You need to build people who are ready for that ecosystem and reach. For nation-states, everybody needs to think about the ramifications of going to war. Serious business.
Truth be told, that is the motivation behind this show. It’s bringing to life the true cost of war through those who’ve lived it because of that very point. I get the sense that we oftentimes beat the drums of war, or we talk about war as something very distant and remote, which for us, Australians has been barring a very small percentage of Australians who’ve gone overseas to war. It’s been something very distant, something remote.
We’ve been very lucky. With the noble exception of the first Australians who get forgotten that they fought in the war. I don’t like military metaphors much. I don’t like war because it’s such a serious business. In the West, you have to be a veteran to have seen it. We, Australians, tend to fight them in other people’s countries. That’s part of the way it is for us. That’s been our history. You’d have to go back. Other than the families of those who were killed, injured, and damaged, it’s the second one or Australia was directly attacked the last time, and there was a significant impact on society.The older I get, the less I like military metaphors. I don't like war, because it's such a serious business. Click To Tweet
You go to Iraq and see an Iraqi family. They still go to school in the middle of World War II, in the middle of Ramadi. The kids will be getting on the bus. It doesn’t stop. Got to eat dinner, and got to go check on grandparents. The one good news about wars or all the places have been in is people are more the same than they’re different. That’s the first line of the anthropology book in the US, Introduction to Anthropology. For most people, it’s family, kids, safety, security, and getting a meal. It doesn’t matter what culture you are in. Fathers want their families to live. It’s not rocket science. Moms want their kids to be safe.
That binds most people together. In those places like Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s a pretty small number of people who are unhappy enough to use violence and lethal force, but it doesn’t take much. In Australia, mercifully, we haven’t had to experience it. You’ve seen it. When you see it in other countries, you realise, we’ve got all these things we do that we don’t even know how important they are to us. We’ll stop at the red light when it goes on. We think it’s still red. You don’t have to.
That’s not a given.
That’s respect for the government, the trust in the legal system, the belief in policemen that they’re going to treat you right and they’re respectful. We’ve got all that. Afghanistan, 2012, I was talking to an Afghan, and he said, “You have to be 40 years old to even remember what a policeman was.” They used to have a police force way back. We’d take it for granted, “The police are the good guys who enforce the law and put men accountable and the baddies in jail.” Not so much in other countries. That’s why Australia’s such a good place. Also, we’ve got to be careful that we understand it’s not like that for everybody else. It’s a real treasure that you want to protect and respect.
The freedoms we enjoy are very rare, globally speaking. This is not the status quo for most of the world. Broadly speaking, the rich Western economies enjoy. You reminded me of a quote from a former colleague of mine when you’re talking about this, recognising how similar we are. A quote was, “Cultures do not meet. People do.” That’s so spot on because it reflects exactly what you said.
I view culture as almost software as a program. That is the program that you’re running or a cultural program that’s installed. When you peel back beyond that, it is all those things, family, caring about your children, getting your food on the table, whether we want to talk about Maslow or not, which often is brought into this. That is so spot on. It’s an important insight.
I went to this dinner in an Iraqi house in Southern Iraq. They invited me to dinner. I drive around there, find a vehicle, park in the front, put my gun down, and go inside. I’m in there and it’s the father and the sons. They all surround the table. The kitchen’s next door, but there’s a sliding door you open with. They push the food out and you take it. Those were the women. They were in the kitchen because they didn’t eat at the table. I’m sitting there going, “I don’t think that’d happen at home.” I’m thinking, “That’s so different.”
In the end, the head of the house said, “My wife will come out and talk to you.” I said, “Yeah.” She came out, sat down, and she was the boss of that house. It wasn’t any different. That’s the way the rules are. She sat down and started grilling me about what the coalition was doing. It was the same. It was unbelievable. At first glance, you go, “This is totally different. The women are made to cook around the back and don’t have a say.” It’s a different framework with the same dynamics going on.
With the same animal with the same urges, desires, and drivers in a different environment.
I remember that she was super informed. She knew everything that was going on, and she was grilling me about this and that. You’re forever surprised by how similar people are, even when you don’t live in the same place, don’t speak the same language, and you’ve got a different religion. It’s still like my mum.
If we care to unpack that more broadly speaking, we’d be probably expending a whole lot less money on weapons as opposed to sharing meals. That’s reality.
The problem is as I said, it doesn’t take many people to blow things apart. I’ve met and seen people who are talking to them. It’s two completely different views and they’re going to kill you or you are going to have to kill them. ISIL’s in that space. The behaviour of ISIL, it’s the biggest belief. There are a lot of people involved in the enterprise who are probably not like that, but some of the core actors are fully committed to it. There is a bunch of intractable, whether different worldviews come head-to-head. That’s when the use of force and the law and got to have a framework around it because unfortunately, it has to happen.
Do you think we could have prevented that? Had we played our cards in a different way, come Iraq and Afghanistan?
I don’t know. The ISIL took everyone by surprise. Part of it was a modernised version of old ideas and then using the modern world. They did a global information campaign and recruited fighters from everywhere using the internet and branding the big black flag in the back of the ute. They used to play that video all the time when they hadn’t had a ute driving around Iraq for a year and a half. If you did, you’d be gone. That was still their brand and it resonated locally. Predicting what’s going to happen next, the solution is for you got to constantly watch it and endure it. You can defeat the spread of violent extremism.
It’s a narrative fight. Why am I better off being an Iraqi citizen supporting the government than becoming an ISIS guy? A lot of us go, “I can’t understand why they would do that.” They’ve got grievances. They don’t trust the government. Maybe they’re influenced by culture, people, tribes, and location. The bad news is it’s hard to kill an ideology or an idea, but you got to keep the counter-narrative up against it. You got to keep going and do everything you can.
I look at Northern Ireland. There’s an example of when I was a kid, everyone said, “They will never get better.” Can’t, it’s too long, centuries. Look at them now. It’s not perfect, but it isn’t 1975. That’s down to the Irish on both sides of the border. They’ve done it. They’ve found a way to take a lot of the worst of it away. Are those ideas all still there? Yeah. Are there people who still on all the various sides, hold the centuries-old biz? Yes, but somehow, they’ve managed to make it better.
I’m not a believer in it can’t ever be fixed. Those intervening like peacekeepers or coalitions that are willing can’t fix it if the locals are going to fix it or not. They can help. The international community helped in Ireland, and you can help or you can hinder as well. That’s an optimistic view. There are intractable places where problems like where you are from. Look at it now. Now I bet all those things are still there.
It is more divided now than before the war. They call it a cold peace.
You find a way to get away from it. It’s generational and it takes relentless attention to it.
The idea of narrative is so powerful. We are seeing it also potentially works in reverse. The US is an example now when it is the first time appearing in global analyses as a potential place of conflict of civil war where it’s going backwards and it’s all about those narratives. It is about the far-left and the far-right narratives. They call them ideologies because they ultimately fit that definition quite easily. They may not be extremist Islamic but the right-wing extremists or even the far-left extremist ideologies, they’re dismantling some of those institutions or have attempted to dismantle some of those institutions. We can also go backwards. That’s another important point about not resting on our laurels, arguably as the West and needing to protect it again.
Americans are great friends, but it isn’t simple. Their history is their history. They fought a civil war. They had 600,000 people killed in it. They fought for a revolution to come into being. They had slavery. They’ve got a fraught environment. It generally defies simple derivation, but you did. Look at the impact of the internet and spreading information and misinformation. That’s a big change. If you go back and study the history, when the book first came out and printing presses, before the Civil War, Lincoln was throwing printing presses in the river, because printing presses was how you got information out.
When you open the front of a book, you’ll see where it’s printed and who printed it. That all came about trying to verify the legitimacy of the information. Pamphlets were printed by underground printers saying whatever. Nothing’s new, but in the 21st century, you can be sitting in Australia and get stuff from the United States.
Your phone will buzz and it’ll find you. You don’t even have to look for it.
We live in an age where there is spread of information and misinformation and access to it. Clear narratives are more important than ever. You can’t rest on your laurels like US’ amazing democracy. To be fair to them, they don’t rest on their laurels. There’s a constant argument about the republic, freedom, and the law. They’re a great democracy. That didn’t come easy. Americans, part of their psyche is we made this thing. It wasn’t given to us. “It’ll be a good republic if you can keep it.” One of the founding fathers said that.We live in an age where the spread of information and misinformation and access to it makes all of the clear narratives more important than ever. Click To Tweet
You’ve got to nurture it.
It’s not just the Americans. It’s us too. We got to make sure our country stays, and you can’t be mandated. Everybody agrees.
We’ve seen through COVID how quickly this fragile veneer of society collapses. We had fights over toilet paper in shopping centres. It’s a very fragile veneer that can disappear overnight. Many nations in the world have found that.
In the 21st century, there’s the capacity to spread fear and inaccuracies. In fact, you can’t even tell what’s real. It’s pretty difficult for people to do that. Again, you can’t look at the front page of the book and say, “Who published this?” You can, but it takes a bit of effort, and you could be wrong.
It could be so well-designed. General, you’ve been very gracious with your time. I’m conscious that we’re coming right to the end of it, but maybe I can pivot towards the end of your appointment and be conscious that you are speaking as Mr Noble. You are now the Ambassador for Counterterrorism. Firstly, what does that role even mean?
I’ll speak as the Ambassador for Counterterrorism. We have a series of thematic ambassadors. There’s 1 for Women, there’s 1 for Cyber, and I’m the Counterterrorism one. I have Australia’s international engagement lead offshore with our many counterterrorist partners and in the many forums that we have. Out of tragedies like September 11th and the Bali Bombings where we lost so much, we have got this amazing international network now where we talk to all these countries and stakeholders about a common problem of violent extremism. A lot of that comes post-September 11th. It was there before, but it’s got much more developed and much deeper.
The Australian-Indonesian relationship’s unbelievably positive. That came out of the shocking experience of Bali. Most Australians were killed in an attack on Bali Bombing in 2002. We’ve got a good network of allies, partners, and friends all around the world. My job’s making sure we keep all that going, stay connected, and stay ahead of the curve, so we’re seeing right-wing extremism called Ideologically Motivated Violent Extremism. That’s the term we use. The Christchurch shooter was an Australian. We’ve got to stay ahead of the new things as they come and then do our best with all of our friends offshore to share our lessons and be well prepared. My job’s to make sure or help keep that going.
Christchurch’s example was the first time we also saw it being broadcast live on Facebook which is new.
It’s that connectivity thing in the 21st century. There’s a thing called the Christchurch Call, which is led by the Prime Minister of New Zealand and lots of countries involved. It’s on very soon again, and it’s about countering violent extremism online and what we can do to make sure that behaviour can’t occur, is stopped, and best case, prevented from ever happening. That’s what I meant by adapting. The terrorism of the 1980s in Australia was an ethno-nationalist imported from Europe thing. We got lots of them, but we now got to deal with the internet, online radicalisation, and the digital world. The bad news is it’s a never-ending challenge. It’s persistent, but the good news is we’ve got lots of friends around the world who are committed to working with us to keep us and them safe.The good news is we've got lots of friends around the world who are really committed to working with us to keep us and them safe. Click To Tweet
General, I won’t push you on that role much longer, but I do have to ask you one question that I’ll be chastised by a number of people whom I’ve mentioned they’ll be interviewing you if I don’t ask. What happened to your third star? Many saw you as being a three-star general in the not-too-distant future.
You don’t promote yourself. You need to ask the Chief of the Defence Force. There’s my answer. One of the reasons I took this job is because, to me, it was the same thing. I say to people, I had the most amazing career. It was entirely positive. It gives you the best and worst days of your life but the good ones outweigh the bad ones. I’m happy with where I got. I got to do things I never thought I would get to do.
I did everything in the Army I want to do, being all in the units I was in with soldiers. I’m a happy man and I’m still a strong soldier for life, on the American side. I’m a strong supporter of the Army and the ADF. I want our soldiers always to have the very best training and preparation. I don’t want them to learn the stuff I would have to learn again. I’ll probably have to put up lectures from me forever.
From the ranks above and below me, you’re very much known as a soldier’s officer or whatever term it is. On that note, General, I want to thank you for giving me some of your time. I appreciate it.
That’s the nicest thing you can say to me, Maz. Hopefully, it’s a half-truth.
That’s my impression. Thank you for your service. You’ll have a remarkable story and we’ll watch it unfold because it’s certainly not over as our Ambassador for Counterterrorism. Thank you.
Thanks for inviting me to your show. It’s a great thing you’re doing.