As Australia dispatches half a squadron of fighter-bombers, a significant special forces contingent, and support elements ahead of likely coalition action against ISIL, most commentary falls into either the ‘bomb the hell out of them’ or ‘only fools rush in’ camps. Neither view is fully satisfying. To explain, we offer four observations on the implications for Australia of President Obama’s four point plan to destroy ISIL.
Obama’s strategy stressed the need for a ‘broad coalition’ to pursue: (1) a systematic campaign of airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria; (2) support for forces fighting ISIL; (3) counter-terrorist measures to prevent attacks; and (4) assistance to those displaced by militants. Over the weekend, Australia received specific requests from the US and Iraq to assist.
It’s hardly surprising that Prime Minister Abbott agreed to help but what does that mean for Australia?
First, with the US a ‘weary titan,’ forced to pivot simultaneously to meet rising Russian and Middle Eastern threats while projecting strength in the Asia-Pacific, we have an alliance interest in helping carry some of the weight. Given the caution inherent in Obama’s don’t-do-stupid-stuff doctrine and warning that ‘just because we have the best hammer doesn’t mean every problem is a nail’, it’s doubtful we need to restrain US adventurism.
Second, whereas our prodding of Russia has been criticised as talking loudly while carrying a small stick, we’ve a direct stake in reducing Middle Eastern instability and some ability to assist. While some experts suggest we’ll need to get used to the idea of a post-Iraq Middle East, a rapid and bloody unravelling and partition could kill thousands and displace millions. It would exacerbate the humanitarian disaster, further stress refugee camps (historically a recruiting ground for extremists), and leave vast swathes of ungoverned—or ISIL-governed—territory. Despite warnings that Australia may be spreading itself too thin or could become distracted from important tasks in our own neighbourhood, our interests don’t stop at our shores. The ADF can and should make a proportionate contribution.
Third, we need to keep in mind what success might look like, and the costs and risks of pursuing it. Lessons from Libya point to both the promise and limits of relying primarily on air power. There, the West faced a mainly uniformed, coherent adversary. While ISIL has some features of a state, it could revert to being a more conventional ideological terrorist group if faced with military might; an idea is much harder to defeat than a state. Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen—Obama’s examples of success—are still alive and kicking. We’re more likely to be able to degrade ISIL than defeat it, especially if we’re looking at success in terms of months rather than decades.
Fourth, we should recognise the tension between a military imperative for boots-on-the-ground and a political imperative to minimise the same. As colleagues have noted, some advisers probably need to accompany the troops they’re mentoring to help them fight effectively. Such advisers could also reduce the likelihood that Shia militias operating alongside troops we’re mentoring will indulge in bloodletting of their own. And they just might give those under ISIL’s rule some confidence they could safely ‘turn on their ferocious allies’ in another ‘awakening’. Additionally, an inclusive Iraqi government is vital to long-term success; our on-the-ground support encourages Baghdad to respond to that concern (PM al-Abadi’s cabinet remains heavily Shia-dominated),
Furthermore, the mission’s already bigger than politicians acknowledge, as the 1,600 American troops committed so far don’t include the contractors and government civilians supporting the mission (during Afghanistan’s 2013 fighting season there were 1.6 contractors for every soldier). The US Defense Department put out a notice in August to gauge interest in ‘security assistance mentors for Iraq’, some of whom will, no doubt, be Aussies.
But the recent change in public sentiment from opposition to support for military action—driven by disgust and fury at the beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid-worker—may erode quickly. Forty-nine per cent of Americans now think it was a mistake sending forces to Afghanistan, despite the searing impact of 9/11. Public appetite for another ‘long war’ is unlikely to match the patience of an ideological ‘death-cult’ in Iraq, or the desperation of those caught up in life-or-death struggles in the ‘baddies-vs-baddies’ cauldron of Syria. Public support could be tested once body bags start coming home and pictures of innocent casualties emerge, given the legacy of doubts about our previous role in Iraq and patchy results of protracted operations in Afghanistan. The government’s doing much to dash expectations that this will be a quick, clean, or straight-forward mission—but it should do even more.
While particular caution is required in foreign policy ventures far from home, and it’s unlikely ISIL can be defeated through military means alone, Australia’s right to join the coalition. Airstrikes and advisers are insufficient, but necessary.