AUSTRALIA'S Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, has taken a swipe at the US military's strategy at the outset of the Iraq war, expressing disbelief that it has taken so long for commanders to realize the merits of engaging with the local population and winning their trust.
Visiting a counter-insurgency center for excellence at Taji, just outside Baghdad, General Leahy was briefed by a US Army colonel, Manuel Diemer, on the new US strategy of schooling all unit commanders in the importance of developing a deep understanding of the culture of the communities in which they are conducting operations.
Colonel Diemer said the strategy meant combat units were now living among the population, doing more foot patrols, talking and interacting with the population well before they undertook any offensive operations.
This contrasts with the previous US practice of sending in forces with overwhelming firepower into trouble spots and then returning home to the relative comforts and security of a military base after blasting their way out of, or into, trouble.
The tactics have created huge resentment among ordinary Iraqis and helped fuel the insurgency. General Leahy expressed his strong support for the new strategy, but with an important, and thrice repeated, caveat. "I can't believe you guys weren't doing this two or three years ago," he said. Colonel Diemer concurred.
As he has travelled around the Middle East, General Leahy has emphasised to his troops how the nature of warfare has progressed from the Cold War principles of conventional warfare.
Rather than pitched battles between large militaries, soldiers were now working within and for communities.
"It's about protecting, supporting and persuading ... and paving the way for reconstruction," he said.
Among soldiers anxious to be at the sharp end of a conflict such a message was not always warmly received, he said.
"Some of them think I'm a mongrel because I won't let them shoot the shit out of them [the insurgents]," he told Colonel Diemer.
In the two southern Iraqi provinces where Australians have been operating, they have achieved considerable success in developing links with tribal leaders and consulting widely before they undertake operations or reconstruction projects.
In Iraqi society, tribal affiliations are paramount, often trumping any loyalty to nation and even religious sect.
For Australian units patrolling in Iraq's south, a meeting with each village leader is essential.
Their efforts to reach out are usually met with traditional Iraqi hospitality, the slaughter of a goat and a long feast for the soldiers.
The only drawback, said the Australian commander in Iraq, Brigadier Gerard Fogarty, were the resulting bouts of diarrhoea many soldiers suffered.
Four Australians have been working with Colonel Diemer at the counter-insurgency centre since its inception eight months ago, a reflection that such policies have been an integral part of the Australian Army's doctrine for years, certainly well before the East Timor intervention in 1999.
Copyright © 2007. The Sydney Morning Herald.