Govt not rushing to pick up Abbott plan

Nine days after the 9/11 terror attacks, the US inserted a small group of special forces into northern Afghanistan and they were followed soon after by another few dozen.

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Their role proved crucial in the air campaign that started on October 7 directing precision air strikes against Taliban defences, and allowing forces of the Northern Alliance to sweep south, capturing Kabul on November 12 and Kandahar a fortnight later.

So former prime minister Tony Abbott’s suggestion Australian special forces play a similar role against Islamic State in Syria could have merit.

It would address the fundamental shortcoming of the air campaign against IS in Syria – a lack of eyes on the ground to direct precision air strikes.

This is a specialist role the military calls a “joint terminal attack controller”, or JTAC.

In Iraq, targeting requests come from Iraqi soldiers in direct contact with IS forces on the frontline, and are conveyed through coalition soldiers including Australian special forces to the Combined Air and Space Operations Centre, called CAOC, in Qatar, from where missions are allocated to coalition aircraft.

It’s not perfect. But it’s better than what happens in Syria, where picking targets relies on aerial surveillance and intelligence from such sources as phone intercepts.

Nevertheless, Australia is unlikely to unilaterally deploy soldiers into Syria which hosts a chequerboard of warring factions.

Such a move could only happen as a part of a much larger mission, and as the consequence of a political deal involving the US, Russia, Iran and other regional nations to resolve the conflict.

And Australia would at best play a modest role, which could be years away if it happens at all.

The federal government won’t rush to adopt Mr Abbott’s suggestion.

“We are part of an international coalition,” Defence Minister Marise Payne said on Tuesday.

“We will work with our partners to determine what is the best response from day to day, from week to week. Those discussions will develop consequent on events in France.”

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Australia played by the rules.

“We’re not going to expose our soldiers to international consequences, should we be acting unilaterally,” she said.

Mr Abbott also suggested Australia step up air attacks on IS in Syria by adopting less restrictive targeting rules. These are the rules of engagement designed to minimise the risk of civilian casualties.

But government has no plans to step up the mission frequency, Senator Payne’s office said.

So far Australian combat aircraft have flown nine missions over Syria and dropped just two bombs.

RAAF chief Air Marshal Leo Davies said the stringent application of the rules of engagement must continue.

But as the campaign against IS continues and there’s a better understanding of what the terror group, also known as Daesh, is doing and Australian aircraft may be able to reach more targets.

As an immediate gesture of support for France, the government appears to be leaning toward accepting a French invitation to attach a warship to a carrier task group deploying to the Persian Gulf to attack IS targets in Iraq and Syria.

Senator Payne said the request came some time ago, well before the terror attacks in Paris.

“The government is considering that and I look forward to speaking about it further with the PM when he returns. He has had a chance to meet with the foreign minister and to speak to President Hollande,” she said.

Australian warship HMAS Melbourne is now operating in the Middle East as part of the multinational taskforce conducting security, counter-piracy and counter-narcotics operations.

It’s the 60th deployment of an Australian warship to the Middle East since 1990.

Navy chief Vice Admiral Tim Barrett confirmed Defence was considering the French invitation and providing advice to the government.

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