By Tom Switzer
The new US-led mission in Iraq sounds like a noble cause. After all, the jihadists who claim to be an Islamic State personify evil, and the world would be a much better place without them.
That may explain why more than 60 per cent of Australians, according to the latest Newspoll, support the new campaign. In 2003, by contrast, a clear majority opposed the invasion of Iraq.
But one thing that has not changed about wars is that they always have unintended consequences. The “liberation” of Iraq, for instance, was embarked upon for the best of motives but it led to years of horror and civil war, not to mention Iran’s strengthened position in the region.
There has been much breezy confidence that this mission will be painless and relatively easy. But the task of degrading and destroying these barbarians — to “follow them to the gates of hell”, as US Vice-President Joe Biden has put it — is more complicated than many hawks appear to realise.
Above all else, the US-led coalition needs formidable regional ground forces to couple with its air power as well as the prospect of a political solution. We have neither.
Start with the former. The jihadists are not conveniently parking all their equipment in a nice depot for the US-led coalition to bomb; they can disperse or camouflage their trucks with heavy machineguns. Even if our intensive bombing campaign identifies them easily, they may melt away, much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. That air campaign was seen as wildly successful in 2001, but look at Afghanistan today.
This suggests we are not going to win with air power alone. We also need powerful regional ground forces. The Iraqi army is no substitute for US ground troops.
Then there is the political aspect. War is an extension of politics. This is where we need to win over the Sunnis but are likely to exacerbate the situation. That means no political settlement, and hence no solution to the problem.
We think a military attack is a justified response to both the mayhem that the Islamic State is inflicting across the region and the creation of a potential haven for a new generation of jihadists. Many Sunni Iraqis think differently. For them, a US-led bombing mission may reaffirm the potent narrative that Washington tolerates, even facilitates, a violent Shia offensive; and when non-Sunni groups are threatened, it is the Americans who act on behalf of the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
If the Sunnis feel their loss in the post-Saddam Hussein era remains absolute, and the US airstrikes confirm their fears that Washington is in cahoots with the Shia-led government, they may decide their only recourse is to tolerate or even support the Islamic State. Think about it: how were Sunni militant groups able to make relatively easy inroads into Sunni towns such as Fallujah, Tikrit and Mosul?
Simply put, Sunnis are more afraid of the Shia-led government than of the Sunni militia. They are fed up with being victimised and suffering repression and rampant corruption at Baghdad’s hands.
To the extent that such attitudes prevail, the new US military campaign will damage, perhaps irreparably, any prospects of a genuinely inclusive government in the post-Maliki era.
The war could once again reveal the very real limits of US power, but in the process boost anti-Americanism among Sunni Arabs and recruit new numbers of young disillusioned Sunnis to the jihadi cause.
Has anyone thought through the implications of further isolating and marginalising the broad cross-section of Sunni Arabs in Iraq? Instead of draining the jihadist swamp, could the airstrikes replenish it? And what if the airstrikes unite the disparate Sunni militia? Although the Islamic State is certainly the most brutal and best organised terrorist group, it also happens to be one of many Sunni militant groups in this part of the region.
According to Jessica Mathews, president of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Sunni insurgency that has risen up against the Iranian-backed Shia-led government includes a plethora of jihadi groups, not to mention the tribes of central Iraq, which have a long history of resistance to any outside authority.
Mathews goes on to say that within the forces that have proved so powerful in recent months are groups with very real differences, even mutual hatred. And although they are fighting on the same side today, they won’t be together for long. A US-led bombing campaign, however, could cement their bonds.
What if the US and its Western allies find themselves on the same side as Syria and Iran, a terrorist-sponsoring Shia power that wants to dominate the region? How would long-term US regional Sunni allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, respond?
Finally, keep in mind the more Washington weighs in to this morass, the less incentive the locals have to improve their conventional forces and work together to combat jihadists. That ultimately means the US-led coalition will have to do more and more in Iraq.
Eradicating evil is a long, tough slog that is fraught with the danger of unintended consequences.
This article was originaly published in The Australian