By Tom Switzer
Tony Abbott’s announcement to deploy 300 Australian army instructors to Iraq by the middle of this year reminds one of Talleyrand’s observations of the Bourbon monarchs: he has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing since the invasion in 2003.
As much as it pains me to say this, the prime minister and other western interventionists — including (of all people) Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek — are showing the same contempt for the lessons of history.
At first glance, the new mission — to help train the Iraqi army to recapture the Sunni strongholds, such as Mosul, from Sunni insurgents — sounds like a noble cause. It is part of a US-led coalition effort to defeat the Islamic State (Isis) terrorists, who every sane person recognises as brutal barbarians. But the mission hardly serves the national interest of Australia or New Zealand, or for that matter the US; and it is bound to make a bad situation worse.
This is decidedly a minority view among Australians, not least conservatives. Let me explain.
For one thing, we’ve been there, done that. From 2003 to 2008, Australia helped the US government create and train an Iraqi army to the cost of US$25bn. This was, remember, the very same Iraqi army that disintegrated as soon as it faced Isis in north-west Iraq last June. The reason for that debacle had less to do with the might of the Sunni jihadists and more to do with the simmering sectarianism that has afflicted this arbitrarily created state for more than a decade.
The Iraqi army, you see, is predominantly Shia and loyal to the Iranian-backed Shia-run regime in Iraq and to the southern parts of the country where the majority of Shia live. The Sunnis, on the other hand, reside primarily in the north-west regions of Iraq. In towns such as Mosul and Fallujah, the local Sunnis tolerate the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadists for an obvious reason: they are more afraid of the Shia militia aligned with Baghdad and Tehran.
In other words, what is unfolding across Iraq, and indeed potentially the broader region, is a Shia–Sunni dispute. By intervening (again), we are taking sides with Shia Muslims against Sunni Muslims in a sectarian conflict.
True, a large-scale Iranian-backed Shia militia offensive in majority Sunni regions remains the best hope of defeating the Islamic State jihadists. But remember Iraqi Sunnis view the Shia militia as an alien occupation army that would more than likely commit plenty of atrocities of their own. If the Isis fanatics are indeed defeated, the likely winner would be Iran, a terrorist-sponsoring Shia power that wants to dominate the region.
Second, those videos of carefully choreographed beheadings of western and Japanese hostages are designed to lure us into Iraq. They understandably shock our sensitivities. But in our outrage we are taking the terrorists’ bait.
“The biggest proponent of an American invasion,” says Graeme Wood in a widely read article in the Atlantic, “is the Islamic State itself.”
In the calculations of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the US-led mission creep helps drive recruitment numbers, as well as give legitimacy to the perceived grievances of so many Sunnis in Iraq and elsewhere.
“The group is recruiting Sunni tribesman and foreign fighters faster than the coalition airstrikes can deplete its forces,” writes Hussein Ibish in the New York Times.
Make no mistake: by intervening, we are helping radicalise young marginalised Sunnis in western nations and inadvertently encouraging them to join the jihadist cause, either at home or in the Middle East. We are also reaffirming the potent Sunni narrative in the post-Saddam Hussein era that the West is in cahoots with the Shia-run regime in Baghdad.
To the extent that such attitudes prevail, and Sunnis feel their loss of power and influence is absolute under a Shia-run regime in Baghdad, many will continue to tolerate or even join Sunni jihadists. So much for a genuinely inclusive Iraqi government in the post-Maliki era.
Finally, Abbott’s decision to escalate our mission represents another U-turn in his Middle East odyssey. After the 9/11 attacks and the Bali bombing in October 2002, Abbott embraced American neoconservatism. He gave strong support to Washington’s decision to topple the Baathist regime and attempt to transform Iraq into a viable state and flourishing democracy.
Over time, however, Abbott came to recognise that the costs in blood, treasure and credibility were hardly commensurate with the western investments in Iraq. I know this, because he conceded this very point to me on more than a few occasions.
But he also aired his new found realism in public. On the eve of the 2013 federal election, when Kevin Rudd was desperately trying to turn the Syrian civil war somehow to his advantage, Abbott cast himself as the straight-talking sceptic of western involvement in Middle East quagmires.
Speaking with Barrie Cassidy on the ABC’s Insiders in September 2013, he said the civil war “between two unsavoury sides” was “not goodies versus baddies; it’s baddies versus baddies.” The following night, he told Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 730 programme:
We’ve got to be very careful dealing in a powder keg like the Middle East that we don’t take action, well-intentioned action, which could end up making a bad situation worse.
Alas, those days are over. The old, old Abbott — the muscular, assertive, neocon with a big stick — has returned.
To reiterate: the US-led coalition spent nearly a decade using military power and vast sums of money to try to pacify the very Sunni insurgents who have morphed into a plethora of Sunni jihadist groups (including the so-called Islamic State terrorists) in Iraq. That mission was an unmitigated disaster.
The idea that air power — with some special forces and army instructors to train the grossly incompetent local army — can help regain Sunni strongholds from Sunni jihadists is fanciful. We should keep out of this mess and let the rival Sunni and Shia groups settle their differences and reach a settlement on their own terms. Our experience in Iraq shows western powers are incapable of creating a durable peace.
This article was originally published at The Guardian