Subject: HeraldSun: Army winning the battle with words

Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia)

January 10, 2004 Saturday

Army winning the battle with words

Gerard McManus

The Australian Army is using its experience in East Timor to mould a different kind of soldier and military culture to meet the needs of modern warfare, as GERARD McMANUS reports

DON'T run over the chooks or goats . . . that's unofficial rule No. 1 in the Australian Defence Co-operation Group's manual for troops operating in the villages and remote mountainous regions of East Timor.

The directive has an obvious practical purpose in an economy that still mostly operates at near-subsistence levels.

But it may yet weave its way into a new ethos in the Australian Defence Force, in its continuing confrontations with anti-western terrorist groups and their sponsor nations which sprout up in South-East Asia and elsewhere.

"You accidentally kill a chicken and you deprive a family of eggs, creating unnecessary resentment and unhappiness," Lieutenant-Colonel Malcolm McGregor said.

"We are trying very hard to build good relations with the local people in their own country, but this also serves a wider purpose in gaining their confidence and co-operation."

Lt-Col McGregor is in charge of the small but important ADCG, whose job since 2001 has been to build and train the fledgling East Timorese army.

Based at Metinaro outside the capital Dili, the Australians have been embedded inside the army on a long-term mission to "raise, train and then transfer responsibility" to the Falantil FDTL.

According to Lt-Col McGregor, the modern model Australian soldier is going to have to be part-warrior, part-aid worker, part-linguist and part-diplomat.

"The nature of warfare has changed dramatically and the days of large, conventional forces fighting one on one are virtually redundant," he said.

"Today's battles take place in far more complex environments.

"In one cluttered space you can have armed insurgents, conventional military, global media, through to sometimes dozens of aid groups like Medicins Sans Frontiers and Caritas."

While the United Nations Peacekeeping Force (with more than 1500 troops, including many Australians) is due to pull out of East Timor in May, the quite separate ADCG will remain indefinitely in the new nation working alongside the East Timorese.

IN just three years it has helped transform the country's defence force from a loosely organised but effective group of jungle guerillas into a modern, disciplined and well-trained army of two battalions.

Young Falantil soldiers who have done platoon commander courses at Canungra, in Queensland, are now training their own troops back in East Timor.

And soon, select Timorese soldiers will be sent on officer training courses in Australia.

After helping to train the new army in modern warfare techniques and communications skills, the ADCG is broadening its role to help Falantil provide medical assistance in villages, water purification programs, and minor engineering such as small bridge building.

But there have been spin-offs for Australia as well.

Lt-Col McGregor says the experience has taught the army many valuable lessons about military operations in foreign countries.

"We have had to make sure that we have the right language and cultural skills when we go into places like East Timor," he said.

"Otherwise, our effectiveness will be undermined.

"You can't count on interpreters because they filter out important subtleties, and they are often unreliable.

"But apart from anything, we are operating in a sovereign country and it is plain good manners to make an effort to speak in their own tongue."

The unstated but unsubtle inference in the ADF's linguistic and cultural efforts in East Timor is a determination to avoid the mistakes of the "Ugly American".

Despite all the official goodwill in the world, the United States has managed to accumulate many enemies over recent decades and alienate the very people they have intended to help.

The conflict in Somalia, for example, was originally a humanitarian mission to deliver food to starving Somalis, but which went completely off the rails.

More recently in Iraq, the US appears to have been singularly unsuccessful at winning the so-called hearts-and-minds battle.

The initial welcome from Iraqis has in places turned to rancour and demands for them to leave.

"In modern warfare you have to use soft and hard power," Lt-Col McGregor said.

"You've still got to be able to fight when required, but you often achieve more when you don't fight.

"If you kill a person who is trying to tell you something because you can't understand what he is saying, you can quickly turn normality into a completely unmanageable situation."

All Australian soldiers in the ADCG are under orders to learn the local Tetun language and/or Portuguese -- no matter how brief their posting in East Timor.

After several months many have become extremely proficient and Australian soldiers from other units are reputed to speak better Bahasa (Indonesian) than most diplomats.

"It is extraordinary how much the people appreciate it if you even make an attempt to talk to them in their own language," Lt-Col McGregor said.

Soldiers have also been taught to understand and respect the local culture.

But respect and empathy also pays secondary dividends, as friendships result in the exchange of valuable local gossip, information and intelligence.

The new country, which had 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule and 24 years of Indonesian occupation, has had less than two years of independence and faces many security problems.

It remains one of the poorest nations in the world.

It will take years before Timor Sea oil revenues come on stream; the departure of the peacekeeping force is likely to pop a bubble economy created by large amounts of artificial UN cash; infrastructure is still being rebuilt after the torching and trashing by the Indonesian Army; youth unemployment is huge; and there is permanent fear of retaliation from Indonesian militia.

Consequently, while East Timor remains an unstable country from both serious internal and external threats, Australia is likely to be obliged to maintain a long-term military presence there.

But it is almost as certain Australian troops will be operating in other countries in our region over the coming years as well, hopefully in co-operation with host nations.

It is often forgotten that most of the serious planning for the September 11 attacks were done, not in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, but in the Philippines -- virtually our own back yard.

The East Timor experience, however, and the "new way of warfare", combined with the Australians' natural easy-going and egalitarian personalities, should hold them in good stead to face the challenges ahead.


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