Cats, clutter and uncertainty
12 Jan 2015|

Cats, clutter and uncertaintyWedged between the bushfires in South Australia and the announcement of an early election in Queensland has been the Prime Minister’s ‘surprise visit’ to the Middle East. Amongst the media’s indignation at not being permitted to travel to Baghdad with the PM’s party has been some cursory observations about the implications of the PM’s comments regarding Australia’s ongoing commitment to the fight against ISIS.

Any uncertainty around the rationale for Australia’s commitment is a concern and demands clarification—particularly as the government made clear when the ADF deployed to the Middle East in response to ISIS that it was doing so within a US-led strategy. However, as John Blaxland from ANU rightly observes in this John Kerin piece (paywalled), the fight against Islamic State is still a campaign without a strategy. The concern is if we’re waiting for the US administration to point the way, it’ll be a long wait.

In a recent study by RAND, entitled Improving Strategic Competence: lessons from 13 years of war, the following point was made:

The United States has a persisting strategy deficit. Americans are very competent at fighting, but they are much less successful in fighting in such a way that they secure the strategic and, hence, political rewards they seek. The United States continues to have difficulty regarding war and politics as a unity, with war needing to be permeated by political considerations. American public, strategic, and military culture is not friendly to the means and methods necessary for the waging of warfare against irregular enemies.

While the report in this case quotes Colin Gray, the point and its implications for Australian policymakers are stark. It suggests that in the fight against ISIS we have two choices: either we seek to influence the coalition’s thinking toward a regional outcome in the Middle East which has some form of political permanency that can address the causes of the ISIS phenomena, or the government acknowledges that our current commitment is simply a band-aid on a serious and festering sore the real causes of which will never be adequately addressed.

Yes, the progress of ISIS has been slowed—but what next? The ‘what next’ question is the key and recurring question of the West’s recent experience in the Middle East. And it seems likely to remain unanswered regardless of who moves into the White House in early 2017. While commentators focus on the success or otherwise of operational issues in Iraq or continue to warn about the dangers of key state players such as Iran, potential solutions to the broader issues facing the heart of the Middle East are left unresolved. As a consequence the region will continue to offer fertile ground for the next incarnation of an ISIS-like organisation.

There’s no solution currently on the table to address the real prospect of an increasingly unstable Iraq post-ISIS. The recent contribution to The Strategist by the Federal Member for Bass is a good example of the issue—while I for one wouldn’t disagree with the good Member’s warning about Iran, put in the context of a broader solution in the Middle East it seems to fail the realpolitik test. The same can be said for those who seek wholesale change in Syria.

The government’s decision to deploy the current force to fight ISIS was sound—but its continued membership of the coalition in the absence of a broader political strategy risks being seen by voters as disingenuous. If a larger commitment is considered necessary by government, it needs to acknowledge publicly that the US administration doesn’t have a coherent strategy and in its place lay out a political context that justifies a further commitment from Australia.

Alternatively, if the government considers the current ADF deployment to be the extent of our nation’s involvement, so be it. But if that’s the case a solution to ISIS or whatever follows is no longer the reason for the deployment and that equally needs to be acknowledged.

Michael Clifford is a senior fellow at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Brandice Schnabel.