Ghosts of 2003: US, Australia and allies face tough choices in Iraq

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and US Secretary of State John Kerry after the annual Australia-US security talks in Sydney last month. AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

Australia has announced that it will take its place among the US-led coalition of states in military operations against Islamic State in Iraq. Responding to a request from the US President, Australia has already begun arming the Kurdish armed forces (peshmerga) in northern Iraq. It has also signalled its intention to participate in broader military action.

These actions ensure Australia will be part of the fight against what Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott colourfully described as the “death cult” that is Islamic State. But while there are plenty of differences between this intervention and the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, don’t expect this military operation to be any easier.

‘Degrade and destroy’ – but how?

Australia’s looming involvement in the Iraq war comes in spite of uncertainty about the mission itself. Last week, US President Barack Obama tried to explain the goal of the mission:

Our objective is clear and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so it’s no longer a threat – not just to Iraq but also to the region and to the United States.

This week, Obama is set to reveal a “game plan” for achieving that objective, having earlier been criticised for admitting he had no clear strategy to fight Islamic State. Yet Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has appeared to question the feasibility of the objective itself, all but ruling out the prospect of Islamic State’s total eradication.

And whatever game plan Obama develops, the absence of ground troops will limit the capacity of the coalition to achieve its objectives.

Of course, the decision to rule out boots on the ground is no surprise after the hard-won withdrawal of US troops in 2011. And it says much about the political scars in the US, Australia and elsewhere from participating in the 2003 invasion.

ABC News explains the rise of Islamic State.

Australia in Iraq

Predictably, the Abbott government has been keen to differentiate participation in this conflict and the 2003 invasion. Yet there are more than a few similarities.

In justifying renewed intervention in Iraq, Prime Minister Abbott, like his mentor John Howard, has emphasised the barbarous practices of their military targets.

Similar debates to those of 2003 have also emerged about the role of Parliament. The Greens have invoked the 2003 war to point to the need for a decision-making role for Parliament, while the Labor opposition has called for greater consultation. Abbott has responded by emphasising that decision-making powers on intervention rest with Cabinet: the executive branch of government.

There are also some similar international dynamics at play. While the coalition to prosecute the mission builds, the mission itself is presently unclear and almost certain to change. That was the case in the lead-up to the 2003 intervention in Iraq too.

In 2003, the international intervention evolved from invasion to occupation, counter-insurgency and post-conflict reconstruction. Both then and now, we can see Western states wading into complex internal and regional dynamics, where the end results of action are impossible to predict. One of the few ongoing certainties is that airstrikes or arming local forces alone cannot bring lasting peace to either Iraq or Syria.

What’s different now?

However, there are some important differences that make participation this time around more politically palatable.

The Iraqi government’s invitation to the US and its allies to participate in military activities on its soil creates much stronger legal footing.

And the shocking scale and severity of Islamic State violence has created a stronger sense of international legitimacy for intervention than in 2003. While a product of the Islamic State’s brutality, the latter also points to the strengthening of the principle of the “responsibility to protect” over time.

The Abbott government has been clear that Australian participation will not involve troops on the ground at any point, and that Australia’s involvement will not be long-term. Perhaps most importantly from an Australian perspective, unlike in 2003 the Abbott government enjoys the support of the Labor opposition.

But these factors don’t make today’s intervention any easier, even if restricted to arming belligerents.

The dangers ahead

The arms already provided could ultimately fall into the hand of “undesirable” groups such as the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which the Australian government has listed as a terrorist organisation.

An RAAF C-17 Globemaster, one of the aircraft being used in the airlifts of military equipment to Iraq. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

To her credit, Bishop has admitted there is no way to guarantee this won’t happen: Australia can only ensure weapons are handed over to the right people in the first instance.

Yet here there are clear dangers too. Arming the Kurdish peshmerga to fight the Islamic State might serve to “degrade and destroy” that organisation. But even if Islamic State could be eradicated, this strategy also plays into the hands of the Assad regime, fighting Islamic State in Syria. Up to 200,000 people have died as a result of Assad’s desperate attempt to cling to power since 2011, with the regime implicated in the use of chemical weapons and widespread abuses of human rights.

And arming one set of belligerents without addressing the role of key regional players like Saudi Arabia is problematic too. Their citizens have provided important financial and moral support for Islamic State, and the Saudi regime therefore needs to be brought into the fight against them.

Obama’s dilemma

This is a wicked problem for the international community, including Australia, but is a particular dilemma for the US. Barack Obama is faced with a series of bad options in both Iraq and Syria. He is entitled to feel that he has been lumbered with the responsibility of addressing cycles of conflict in Iraq that were all too predictable in 2003.

However, a case could be made that Obama ought to have exerted more pressure on Iraq’s Shiite-dominated al-Maliki government. Its vindictive marginalisation of Sunni populations increased the likelihood of a return to sectarian violence.

Regardless, the current moral and legal authority associated with the fight against Islamic State will almost certainly become muddied as the conflict evolves. That will mean difficult questions about intervening in Syria and how engaged the international community should be in Iraq beyond the current crisis. This intervention may be more legitimate than in 2003 – but that doesn’t make it any easier.

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