The new one's in charge of the forces in the MEAO.
Craig Orme in AMAB
More importantly, he's been here on four occasions in the last four decades.
I did this profile for Tuesday's Canberra Times . . .
I suspect it’s impossible to get through an entire dinner with the commander in the Middle East, Major General Craig Orme, without at least one sporting analogy, a throw-away reference to German strategist Carl von Clausewitz, and the quotation of a couple of lines of Shakespeare. The conversation stretches seamlessly from cultural issues to military ones, before shifting back again from tactics to strategy.
The huge Mess Hall’s packed with the Australian, British and New Zealand troops that have come as reinforcements in the fight against Isil, or Da’esh. Although there aren’t (yet) “boots on the ground” in Iraq, the general’s got no doubts about the strategy they’ll follow. He puts down his knife and fork to emphasise a point.
“It’s complex forming a coalition; but defeating Isil isn’t a challenging task. All wars are won through the culmination of tactical actions.” Orme leans back. “The laws of military physics apply. Isil doesn’t have the capability to bring up ammunition, reinforcements and the logistics to support (conventional) assaults”.
This is a key insight into the significant military fragility lying at the centre of the terrorists’ operational method. Its one that explains both how their vehicles have been able to sweep close to the outskirts of Bagdad but also why they’re finding it so difficult to press their attack further. It’s one thing to assault and rout troops who aren’t willing to stand and fight, yet the lightly armed Islamic fighters lack the combat weight to challenge for possession of the capital itself. Orme doesn’t see that dynamic changing and that’s why he believes Isil is vulnerable.
The insurgent’s rapid success has been made possible because it hasn’t been forced to engage in battle – in many cases the Iraqi army has simply melted away when Isil fighters have appeared. In one recent case an entire brigade dissolved as rumours of the sudden appearance of their lightly armed enemy spread. Nobody was prepared to die for the former Baghdad government. This allowed the rapid spread of the insurgency, but that growth has now led to its own vulnerability. It has become tied down in occupying and administering areas, a very different requirement from simply overrunning them. This is why Orme believes the battlefield dynamic is about to change.
“This is why the formation of the new Iraqi government is so important. There was . . . ” Orme pauses. “There was a certain lack of cohesion in the security forces. It’s vital we now take the time to ensure the fundamentals for success are in place.” Orme insists this is a vital precursor before any offensive can take place. It’s difficult to disagree.
The battle for Iraq can only be fought and won by Iraqi forces. The most the coalition of outsiders can do is provide support and the easiest (and most effective) way of doing this is by airpower. Critics of the operation have seized on this, pointing out that bombs alone can’t hold ground and that using hugely expensive missiles to destroy cheap Toyota’s doesn’t represent a particularly good exchange. Orme insists that this is not necessarily the case. As Isil has grown and engaged in the use of conventional tactics, it has increasingly begun to present targets that are highly vulnerable to air attack. This is the situation in Kobane. Two weeks ago the town on the Turkish/Syrian border was poised to fall to the insurgents. Fighters were rushed to the town in an effort to push the remaining defenders out of the buildings to which they were desperately clinging. But the attacks failed and the insurgent’s momentum stalled. Isil’s seemingly inexorable advance had relied very much on propaganda, together with the idea that its swift advance was inevitable, particularly against the poorly armed and equipped tribes people in northern Iraq. Today it appears the tide has, finally, turned.
The bombing campaign has been sparse but effective. Analysts searching for a turning point have found it in the destruction of a building where a number of insurgent leaders were meeting. About thirty elite fighters were killed and although they were quickly replaced by second-line troops, these have lacked the same degree of fanaticism and skill. They haven’t been willing to prosecute attacks and, very slowly, the tide has turned. Although Isil still holds about a fifth of the town, there are now unconfirmed reports of fighters abandoning the clash and retiring. Similar sources suggest the insurgents have lost almost two fighters to every defender killed. It appears certain that the US bombing campaign, which commenced on October 7, has contributed significantly to this outcome. Isil’s black flag, which had flown over a hill at the edge of the town, has now been torn down. It is difficult to predict what the effect will be if the attack has actually been repulsed. It will puncture the terrorist’s psychological dominance. If the Iraqi army can be persuaded to take the offensive in the south, some optimists are even willing to venture that Isil might collapse as quickly as it developed.
Targeted airpower will have been critical in achieving this result. Although the earlier combined strikes of the Arab Gulf states haven’t been repeated, these demonstrated the first precondition for destroying Isil: confirmation that the rest of the world was against the fanatical grouping. The second step came with the rolling out of the bombing campaign itself. But this would have required careful targeting; it appears as if some Western special forces elements may have already been deployed to achieve this effect, certainly in Syria. The final element of the matrix will come with establishing advisors – including diggers – to support the main combat elements of the Iraqi army.
And, if it comes to this, Orme is quietly confident in the ability of his troops to turn the tide.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer embedded with the Australian forces in the Middle East.