I'm just concluding a research trip to the Middle East, where the security situation is the most confusing I have ever seen it. I couldn't help but read two articles in the Australian press recently, and a post on The Interpreter, advocating that Australian troops accompany Iraqi units into battle. This strikes me as ill-advised for many reasons, and the arguments made both flawed and simplistic. Just to highlight a few points and raise a few questions:
Force protection and enablers
It is nice to think that we can just re-assign the troops we have in Iraq or perhaps even send in others. Jim Molan said that 10 to 30 ADF personnel per Iraqi battalion should be about right. Peter Jennings argued that if there had been 50 or so Aussies and Yanks then Ramadi might have been held.
What neither has talked about is the force protection overheads that we demand for our soldiers on the battlefield today. Indirect fire support and a means to control and coordinate its use, protected mobility, aero-medical evacuation, intelligence and logistic support are all base-level requirements that quickly make what might appear to be a small contribution pretty big. Jim Molan said on The Interpreter that the US worked effectively with nine advisers per 500-man battalion, but he neglected to mention that the US had more than 150,000 troops in Iraq at the time.
Why should we risk our troops for the Iraqi government?
Defeating ISIS militarily is necessary but is really just treating the symptoms rather than the disease. The causes of the disease include issues of identity, a poor state education system based on rote learning and not tied to any labour market requirements, feelings of disenfranchisement at several levels, and more. Addressing these causes requires a legislature which thinks in terms of the national interest rather than the individual, sectarian, tribal or party good.
The inability of the Iraqi parliament to vote on the National Guard Bill before it broke for the summer vacation tells you a lot about Iraq's politicians. Stumping up Australian soldiers to risk their lives when the Iraqi political system refuses to reform or look beyond narrow self-interest simply tells the Iraqis that they can continue to ignore fundamental issues of political legitimacy without penalty.
How do ADF advisers work with Shi'a militias?
Although the advocates of getting Australian troops more involved in the Iraq fighting have cited Afghanistan and Vietnam as good examples of where this model has been tried before, neither has mentioned the fact that Iraq is totally different.
Usually in counterinsurgencies, there is a 'malign influence' on the border working against the coalition's military aims. In Iraq however, there is a 'malign influence' on the border (Iran) which not only supports the coalition's aims but is actively involved in the fighting, as well as training and advising Shi'a militias which have proven among the most effective combat troops available to the Iraqi Government. What is the Australian Government's position about sending our troops to operate alongside, and potentially in support of, these militias? If Canberra tried to stipulate that ADF troops would only support operations that didn't involve Shi'a militias, what would that mean? If the Iraqi Government pressed the point, the Australian Government would have to either withdraw the ADF or create a fantasy in which they could claim that the ADF worked parallel to, but didn't engage with, the Shi'a militias.
We have temporary interests and everyone knows it
Iran has permanent interests in Iraq and the familial and religious links between the two countries is centuries old. Tehran doesn't seek a disaggregated Iraq, as one commentator argued. Indeed, the opposite is true, and its support for the Baghdad government reflects this. The Iranians have been careful to limit their physical footprint, understanding that to overplay their hand risks an Arab backlash. Its advisers do accompany the militia groups, and they do die on the battlefield. The groups they accompany share a unique religious bond with them that justifies such sacrifice as part of their centuries-old obligation to fight oppression. Moreover, geographic realities mean that Iranians support action against what they see as a potential existential threat on their border.
By contrast, ADF members don't share any linguistic, cultural or religious links with the soldiers they will be asked to accompany. The Australian public doesn't see ISIS as an existential threat and most Australians still couldn't point to Iraq on a map. This shouldn't necessarily preclude deploying ADF members to the country (we do it often enough), but it should dictate how we employ them, particularly when regional states with direct interests in the country don't deploy troops.
Peter Jennings and Jim Molan may well be better off asking why the UAE doesn't provide an advise-and-assist capability, particularly given the UAE, like us, has experience of doing so in Afghanistan. Why doesn't Jordan, with a capable military and Iraq on its border, stump up? To say that the Iraqis would have stayed and fought if only Aussies or Yanks had been there smacks of cultural arrogance. Of course people will point out that help from Sunni Arab countries such as Jordan and the UAE may be unacceptable to the Iraqi Government, or that neither country would want to exacerbate internal tensions by supporting a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. But pressure and a strong message from Western states that regional security is a more regional responsibility than it used to be is long overdue.
The one thing my latest trip to the Middle East has highlighted is the fact that there is a new security paradigm in which regional states are expected to shoulder more of the burden. Regional states are upset at this prospect. They also worry about the interconnected nature of many of the conflicts, and the uncertain second-order effects that actions on the ground will have. Defeating ISIS in Iraq, for example, may well strengthen Iran's allies in Syria, as thousands of experienced Shi'a militia will then be free to be redeployed to strengthen a faltering Syrian Army.
Little is straightforward in the region these days, and the last thing we should be doing is involving our soldiers in ground combat in Iraq.