ASPI’s decades: Exiting Iraq

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

Approaching Australia’s 2007 election, the Liberal government and Labor opposition were sharply divided over how to depart from the military commitment in Iraq. The Liberal position was condition-based; Labor’s was time-based.

The Liberal government had ‘made clear that it is in no hurry to withdraw Australian forces’, Rod Lyon wrote, while Labor would withdraw troops after consultation with Washington:

So far, broadly speaking, we’ve seen Iraq as the US’s game; so the most likely exit point has been one virtually of Washington’s choosing. If we want to move to a more ‘independent’ sense of our exit point, then our exit point logically depends on us reaching one of two decisions about the conditions in Iraq:

– either we judge that we have achieved what we wanted out of our engagement or

– we judge that what we wanted is no longer attainable at a sensible price.

In the 2007 federal election campaign, Labor’s Kevin Rudd argued that the scale of the Iraq disaster showed it was the wrong war: Australia should withdraw and concentrate on Afghanistan. Rudd’s case was that Australia could leave Iraq while holding firm to the US alliance.

Security issues had helped deliver two election wins for John Howard. The 9/11 attack was an element in his victory in 2001. In the 2004 election, the Iraq and Afghanistan involvements—with only one Australian military death in Afghanistan at that point—were still a relative plus for Howard when weighed against the scepticism of the Labor leader, Mark Latham, about the US.

By the 2007 election, though, Iraq weighed on the Howard government and was part of Rudd’s effort to define Howard as yesterday’s man. Issues of war and peace were central to those three elections of 2001, 2004 and 2007.

As he took office in December 2007, Rudd announced that Australia’s 550 troops serving in Iraq would be withdrawn by the middle of 2008.

Following Rudd’s timetable, Australia departed, leaving a fragile Iraqi government and sectarian conflict.

Writing about trends in the Middle East in 2013, Lydia Khalil described a region ‘at best in flux and at worst in turmoil’, pointing to:

  • a marked uptick in sectarianism and sectarian violence
  • a crisis within political Islam and a widening rift between secular and Islamist political forces
  • the gradual disengagement and declining influence of the US in the Middle East.

By the middle of 2014, Islamic State controlled significant territory in Syria and Iraq, and thousands of young men and women were flocking to be part of its proclaimed ‘caliphate’. IS had consolidated its grip on much of Syria and mounted military operations in Iraq, capturing the country’s second largest city, Mosul. A quarter of the Iraqi Army had collapsed and IS forces had reached a position 60 kilometres north of Baghdad.

In October 2014, Australia was one of the first to join the US coalition to ‘degrade’ IS, committing planes for airstrikes and troops to train Iraqi security forces. In the same month, a former chief of the Australian Army, Peter Leahy, published an ASPI paper on the long war of the 21st century:

Australia is involved in the early stages of a conflict that may last for the rest of the century and potentially beyond. Terrorism is but a symptom of a broader conflict in which the fundamental threat is from radical Islamists who are intent on establishing Islam as the foundation of a new world order. It’s a conflict between radical Islamists and modern secular, mostly Western, states. The likely duration of the conflict is due to the intrinsic and widespread appeal of the underlying ideology, the youth of those currently involved, their fervour and the inability of those under attack to either realise or accept the true nature of the threat. While the violence, so far, is mostly confined to Islamic lands, some of the radicals are engaged in a direct war against Western secular nations.

When Einat Wilf looked out across the century, the conflict she saw was within Islam. The story of the Middle East for decades to come would be the battle for the hegemony of Sunni Islam, she wrote, especially in the Arab world, and of the efforts by non-Sunni Muslims and non-Muslims to ensure that no dominant Sunni power was capable of uniting the Sunni Arab world:

Ultimately, Australia and other Western countries have to come to terms with their limited role in shaping the outcomes of the battle for hegemony in the Arab Middle East. This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be done, but those outside the region must clinically and dispassionately consider their interests in the region and what they can reasonably expect to achieve.

By the end of 2017, the military defeat of IS by the Iraqi Security Forces was at hand. An Australian Army major, Andrew Maher, wrote of tactical success in the Iraq war but strategic ambiguity. IS, he said, might be abandoning its territorially based identity for a virtual caliphate:

In the process of liberating Mosul, coalition airpower delivered more than 5,075 weapons in support of ISF over the month of August 2017 alone. That’s an average of one aerially delivered weapon every 10 minutes. A total of 98,532 weapons have been delivered in Operation Inherent Resolve, in Syria and Iraq. For a force estimated to consist of around 30,000 fighters in 2015, that is both frighteningly inefficient and has devastated Iraq’s Sunni and Turkomen populations. The current short-term focus on the military defeat of IS belies the reality that Iraq will retain fragile governance, making it vulnerable to violent extremism.

Maher judged that the combination of battle damage, disaffected youth and the potential for sectarian and political misrepresentation suggested that the seeds had been sown for the next war in Iraq.

Isaac Kfir pointed to Iran’s efforts to make Iraq a client state. In the early 2000s, he wrote, Tehran preferred that both Iraq and Afghanistan should remain in a state of manageable chaos that kept the Americans occupied and unable to focus on Iran: ‘Now the regime wants a pro-Tehran government in Baghdad. That would give Iran a safe western border, allow it to influence oil prices (Iraq has the world’s fifth-largest proven oil reserves with 140 billion barrels), and enable Tehran to continue to challenge Saudi dominance in the region.’

In 2021, Amin Saikal judged that Iraq was still at a crossroads between stability and instability, security and insecurity, peace and conflict:

The US toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, but in the process also dismantled the administrative and security structures which were pivotal to holding the mosaic that was Iraq together as a functioning state. It ultimately failed to empower the Iraqi people to rebuild their lives and country and engaged in processes geared to benefit Washington’s ideological and geopolitical preferences rather than to endow Iraq with the appropriate foundations for stability and security in a very difficult neighbourhood.

The result was political, social and sectarian fragmentation, and transformation of the country from a strong state with suppressed societies to a weak state with strong societies. This opened the space for a plethora of not only domestic clusters but also outside forces to engage in power struggles to shape Iraq’s future.

Drawn from the book on the institute’s first 20 years: An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001–2021.