There are growing calls for Australian combat boots on the ground in Iraq. This is not surprising. The Islamic State is a far more dangerous enemy than Saddam Hussein ever was. And even though the Islamic world really holds the responsibility for dealing with this problem, it has proven remarkably ineffective at best, or, at worst, complicit in the the rise of this enemy.
Yet it appears that we have not yet learned anything from the last efforts in Iraq and in Afghanistan. That’s because we are dithering and have no clear concept of what the strategic goals are or should be. This means that we are at the most dangerous time in the whole affair: the decisions made now will dictate whether success is likely, or if we are to endure the deja vu of disaster.
The fact is that the time for the decisive reaction to save Christians, Yazidis and other minorities from large-scale slaughter has passed. For the most part, the West sat and watched that happen. And while there is no doubt that the continued existence of the Islamic State will see further atrocities overseas and an ongoing call to jihad here in Australia, any military action is now more complicated. That’s because we are no longer faced with the mere prospect of preventing the rise of the Islamic State. Instead, we are increasingly looking at a Middle East that closely resembles post-fall Humpty.
The eggs in this omelette have already been broken. And we must acknowledge that Coalition efforts have played a large part in the breaking of them.
Firstly, we destroyed the relatively benign status quo by removing dictatorial power structures.
Lesson one is that if we want a Middle East that by and large manages itself in a somewhat orderely fashion, we have to live with the Husseins, Mubaraks and al Assads. These guys might be brutal thugs. But they kept order, kept the crazies in check and at least the Christian minorities could live relatively freely. However, Western governments are still acting as if Assad is the baddest guy in Syria.
Secondly, we declared victory and promptly left a power vacuum in the region which proudly claims to be the home of the most dangerous ideology the world has ever known. Yes, Islam is so violent and fractured that its most enduring theme is a continual state of civil war. And now we look set do it all over again.
Lesson two is that if we are going to go in, we have to stay the course. And that will take generations. Anything else will simply create the conditions for the next Islamic State to rise and thrive.
Thirdly, after we left we then sent in a bunch of guns and money. It is no coincidence that the Islamic State burst into Iraq just a few months after the United States decided it was a great idea to arm the Syrian rebels. And this madness continues.
Lesson three is that the less evil groups in the Middle East can’t be trusted and the better ones can’t be counted upon to win. That means unless we win the wars ourselves, they won’t be won and any help we provide will generally be used against us.
Complicating all of this is the fact that the arbitrary boundaries in the Middle East are breaking up. Borders are increasingly meaningless, as are the states that flickered into life last century and are now dying. We are seeing the explosion of traditional Sunni/Shia conflict. The prospect of a nuclear powered Iran and its growing power in Iraq is making the Sunni world nervous. Consequently, over time the Islamic State, despite its potential to undermine existing Sunni power structures in places like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, will likely come to be seen more as an ally than an enemy for most of the Islamic world. Add into the mix the fact that the Kurds are using this mess to carve out their own ethnic nation in the middle of it all and you can see that we face a diabolical disaster if we continue to sit on our hands.
So what does this all mean for us?
It means that we can’t do nothing. It also means that whatever actions we take have to respect the lessons of the past.
Whatever goals Western governments decide to pursue, they must be clear and military efforts must be directed solely to achieving them. We cannot afford to replay the last Iraq war. The war I fought in was confusing and aimless. If you asked 100 different soldiers why we were there, you’d have got 100 different answers.
Unfortunately, no one really seems to know what the goal of the current and very limited military mission in Iraq is. And we’ve only been back for a short period. It does not bode well for the future.
So what can be achieved?
Well, despite all the problems, the answer is a lot – if the actions taken are sensible.
At a minimum, it is possible to adopt a strategy that ensures a bad situation does not get worse; that this violence does not spread to Australia and other Western nations. In fact, this is not just possible, but a duty.
To achieve this, Western governments must prevent any further expansion of Islam into our nations and engage in military efforts that have one purpose only: destroying threat groups that seek to use the Middle East as a base to launch terrorist attacks against the West. Essentially, this option consists of building a ‘wall’ around Islam and containing it while the civil war rages inside. It is the minimum we must do, but in many ways it is probably more attractive than engaging in a boots-on-the-ground military campaign with no useful aim or strategy. Our military efforts would not be focused on saving Iraq or supporting any particular group, but on smashing the leadership and capabilities of our greatest threats when they appear. It won’t be pretty, but at least we can keep ourselves relatively safe.
Option one does not break the lessons we should have learnt over the past decade. But it does not address them either. That means it comes with a downside.
This strategy necessarily means accepting the continued existence of the Islamic State. It means containing our enemies rather than defeating them. It means waiting for, and enduring, attacks on home soil from the enemy within for the foreseeable future. And, as containment strategies often fail, it means accepting that at some point in the future it may no longer be viable. If that situation does arise, then all that will have been achieved is a delay that has allowed an enemy to grow stronger. But if it is done properly, at least the internal Islamic threat could be countered.
In fact, regardless of whatever external military strategy is chosen, it is imperative that Western governments take action to secure the home front. Unfortunately, current efforts and a refusal to understand Islam means that efforts to date have been woeful.
Option two is the best long-term strategy that we have: waging war on the Islamic State ourselves. No one else has the will or capability to do it. We should destroy it, its leadership, its capabilities, its claim to a caliphate and seize and hold its land. There is a moral justification to do this, both in terms of countering a threat to ourselves and to meet our duties to protect and assist those facing truly brutal oppression.
However, for this plan to succeed it must respect the lessons of the past. More than anything, it will take time, coupled with the will to confront Islam. It must centre on a strategy of complete conquest and a long term goal to de-Islamify and civilise the region. If either of these factors are lacking, this plan cannot succeed and failure will only result in a worsened situation. This strategy should not be pursued lightly.
It will also require Western nations to be prepared to conquer other parts of the Middle East because there is a strong possibility that, when push comes to shove, the Islamic world will side with the jihadis.
Of course, this strategy would be bloody and expensive and there is very little popular will for it, although it can be done successfully. Recent history has proven that it is possible to turn a society of suicidal lunatics into a prosperous nation in just a few decades. Anyone who doesn’t believe me should look at post-war Japan.
Nothing short of the deIslamification of the Middle East will stop Islamic violence there and against us. But given that this lofty goal is unlikely to prove popular with Western leaders, the next best option would be to adopt a strategy that identifies the ‘friendly’ thugs and puts them in power. Essentially, this would involve our military going back to Iraq to resurrect Saddam Hussein or to replace him with a clone. It would mean forgetting about Arab Springs and democracy and backing a new dictator. It would not be nice, but it would mean the end of the Islamic State and probably the rise of a new nation: Kurdistan.
However, option three would still require long-term fighting boots on the ground. Failure to do so would violate our lessons and only see more of the same: power vacuums, the arming of jihadis and ongoing violence. So, if we have to put boots on the ground anyway, it might as well be on our terms. Which takes us back to option two and conquest.
Furthermore, growing a bunch of Arab dictators is probably even more unpalatable than a general conquest. It is a heresy against our religious fervour for democracy.
Unfortunately, the minds of our military advisers and politicians have been addled by political correctness. Consequently, no Western leader is likely to consider any of the options that stand some chance of success. Instead, they believe in the futile notion that it is possible to pick and choose ‘moderate’ Islamic groups and to back them into power through popular vote while supporting them with time-limited Western military power.
In other words, none of the rhetoric or actions of Western leaders or generals to date suggests that anything has changed in Iraq this time around. We are travelling down a path already well trodden. It’s the option to fail. It ends in more of a power vacuum and in a place where Western prestige, power and importance is left trampled at the feet of increasingly well-armed and well-trained puritanical Islamic armies.
Unless Western nations completely shift their approach from current efforts, any military efforts in Iraq will always be rendered pointless because of one fact: at some point, as soon as possible, governments will want to declare ‘success’ and bring the boys back home. It means that everything done on the ground before the ‘successful’ withdrawal is fake. Those who remain in Iraq will know that everything of importance will occur after Western armies once again leave. As such, if any Australian combat boots do hit the ground in Iraq, they are likely to be engaged in a futile military effort to herd temporarily sedated fighting tigers from one arbitrary and counter-productive effort to the next.
And most importantly of all, anything that is done will reinforce the Islamic grip. For instance, we are already fighting for a democratic government that has voted to allow men to divorce nine year old girls. These are supposedly the good guys in Iraq.
As such, even before the Islamic State captured Mosul and al Anbar proviunce, the Islamists were already in power. And about the only thing that is clear about our strategy for Iraq is that we are intent on placing our hopes for the future with these guys.
It won’t work. All it will do is worsen the tragedies and after new years of military failure and it will also further sap the Western will to fight. And that is not a good thing because the world is headed into a dangerous place. When we get there, it’s likely that the West’s ability to rouse itself to defend what is truly important will have dissipated in Iraq.