Tony Abbott was asked on Monday whether, if the United States increased its troop numbers in the fight against Islamic State (IS), Australia would consider boosting its commitment.
Abbott replied that, as always, Australia stood ready to work with its partners and allies – the US, Iraq and other countries – “to do what we can to help”, while pointing out that it was already making “quite a substantial contribution”.
That contribution currently amounts to some 900 personnel – 400 in the air support task force, 300 just-arrived trainers of the Iraqis, and a couple of hundred special forces who’ve been in Iraq in an advising and assisting role (these latter will be reduced this year). This is far more than any other country except the US.
There is no suggestion of upping the commitment at the moment. But there’s little doubt that if the US did ask (couched as the Iraqis inviting) Abbott would always want to say yes. That’s how he is.
One wonders whether, in a decade, we’ll look back at the conflict against IS as being no more successful than the Iraq war and (after the initial attack) the long Afghanistan war.
As it deepens, the complications and difficulties become more obvious – just highlighted by the recent fall of Ramadi.
Abbott, who casts the conflict in terms of a crusade against evil, simplifies and sloganises it.
In the wake of Ramadi’s fall US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said that “what apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force and yet they failed to fight, they withdrew from the site, and that says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves.”
When it was put to him on Monday that the fall of Ramadi might indicate we were training an army that didn’t want to fight, Abbott said the serious setback in Ramadi emphasised how necessary the task was. “So if anything this should cause us to be more committed, not less committed.”
He also found a silver lining in relation to the defeat. The element of the Iraqi forces “that most stuck to its post and withdrew from Ramadi as a formed unit as opposed to a disorganised group” was one that had been advised by the Australians.
As for the view of David Kilcullen, formerly an adviser to the US, UK and Australian governments, NATO and the International Security Assistance Force, who maintains it’s a mistake not to accept that IS is operating like a state, Abbott said: “I refuse to use that terminology, because I think that dignifies a death cult.”
The Prime Minister went onto a rather bizarre comparison. “If some entity was to start killing people and call itself ‘the true Vatican’ I would not use that terminology, and similarly I am not going to use that term that they seek for themselves.”
Kilcullen argues in his recent Quarterly Essay that “the Islamic State is, or is on the verge of becoming, what it claims to be: a state”.
He acknowledges the desire of leaders to deny IS the legitimacy of statehood by using other language but finds it meets the generally agreed criteria for statehood. These are that a state must control a territory; the territory must be inhabited by a fixed population; the population must owe allegiance to a government; and the government must be capable of entering into relations with other states.
If IS is a “revolutionary, totalitarian, aggressively expansionist” state it is no longer an insurgency nor a transnational terrorist movement in the al-Qaeda sense (while using terror as a tactic), Kilcullen writes.
Defining IS as a state has implications for the strategy to combat it. “This is a straight-up conventional fight against a state-like entity, and the goal should be to utterly annihilate ISIS as a state,” Kilcullen says.
The implication, he writes, is “a larger, more intense, conventional war against ISIS than the one currently being contemplated (though emphatically not an occupation or a counterinsurgency campaign)”.
Beyond the propaganda value of the “death cult” term, maybe it is not so surprising that Abbott does not want to contemplate, at least publicly, the consequences of treating Islamic State as a state, given what Kilcullen advocates.
Kilcullen says the longer the West refuses to recognise we are already in a full-on conventional war with IS, “the worse things will become”. His strategy would involve “a moderately larger number” of ground troops, with Western troops being able to fight offensively.
The recent developments in the conflict inevitably raise fundamental questions: about the best way for the US and its allies to conduct the fight; about whether the Iraqi forces can ever be trained into an effective force; about the implications of the dangerously complex regional and religious situations; and about the uncertain course of future politics in Baghdad.
But the Abbott government will not be open about such questions - difficult anyway when there are Australian troops deployed and debate carries the implication of doubt - and the opposition is sticking to bipartisanship.
Pressed on recent reverses in the conflict against IS, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said on Monday: “It’s early days. This is a fight that will go on for some time.”
How long, and how America’s and Australia’s commitments will evolve, are not issues on which either side of politics wants to engage with the public.
Abbott, who ties the conflict with Islamic State firmly to the domestic threat, prefers to stay on the high moral ground in a war now mired in murkiness.