When al-Qaeda in Iraq planned the 2007 campaign to disrupt control of Baghdad, two unusual targets topped its execution lists: garbagemen and bakers. Assassinate enough garbage workers, they reasoned, and noxious growing piles of rubbish in the streets would persuade Baghdad’s residents that the Iraqi government was wrecked. Dead bakers mean empty bakeries, denying the semblance of normal life that comes with the ability to buy fresh bread daily. Ruthless measures both, crafted precisely and intelligently to break dominant political allegiances. Causing the civilian population to become outraged would shift power to the terrorist organisation.
Seven years later, the group calling itself the Islamic State (increasingly referred to by the more derogatory name “Daesh”) has added to the playbook for sowing destruction in Iraq by committing mass murders, institutionalising rape, and effectively provoking international condemnation (and copycat incidents) with a series of gruesome filmed executions. Yet when examined closely, the IS, however barbaric, has inherited many of the characteristics and much of the professional development of predecessor organisations such as al-Qaeda in Iraq.
At the top level, insurgent and terrorist groups start to look alike. To understand how their leadership operates it helps to think less of death cults and more of Tony Soprano. While the IS has gained momentum, money, territory, power and a prime-ministerial designation as “pure evil” – it runs business operations like any other organisation.
US counterterrorism strategy, honed in the previous decade, identifies the fundamental business lines that terrorist groups need to survive – and which, if disrupted, can lead to their defeat. They are leadership, havens, intelligence, communications, movement, weapons, personnel, ideology and finances. The IS’s business model is now under assault as military aircraft from a broad coalition of countries conduct strikes through northern Iraq and Syria.
Where, before, the IS was able to parade military vehicles in strength along desert highways, now those same vehicles are being destroyed in place by Arab and Western fighter aircraft. IS command and control centres, from which thousands of fighters are commanded, disciplined, paid and supplied, have been destroyed by precision-guided munitions dropped from aircraft cued thousands of miles away.
Foreign fighters including Australians, who were comfortably ensconced with their families in occupied Syrian mansions, will now be less focused on sniping from the front lines and more focused on finding safety for their children. IS tax collectors, levying payments from Iraqi and Syrian towns, will think twice about each person they meet – lest they betray themselves to intelligence operatives. The risk calculus has changed, too, for those financiers and online propagandists supporting the IS outside of Syria and Iraq.
This counterterrorism campaign, like those of the previous decade, will be costly and challenging but it will have a slow-burn effect. Slow for two reasons. First, human intelligence is the currency of counterterrorism. Without thousands of US and allied troops operating regularly on the ground, human intelligence will be harder to come by. There will simply be fewer opportunities for interaction between coalition intelligence forces and sources with information to give up. In fact, some of the US military’s greatest intelligence coups in Iraq came from chance encounters with routine military patrols. Disrupting the IS is possible; destroying it will be very difficult indeed.
Second, the capability and will of Iraqi security forces is a long way from sufficient for the difficult task of forcing the IS to give up gains it has made in northern Iraq. That includes forcing IS fighters from their nests in Mosul, a city of more than 1.8 million people that the group occupied in June. If fighting is to take place in Mosul, it will make the past urban battles of Falluja look comparatively bloodless.
But first the Iraqi army needs repair; reportedly 60 of Iraq’s 243 army battalions have been unaccounted for since the IS attacked them. Assume Iraqi and Kurdish forces rally around Baghdad’s new government and are revitalised by coalition military support and advice. The best outcome that can be hoped for then is an Iraq returned to the slightly less unstable situation it was before the emergence of the IS in 2013: a just-functioning country with an aggrieved Sunni minority.
This week, Australian military aircraft joined the air campaign over Iraq, and Australian special forces are expected to begin embedding with foreign military ground forces once a bilateral status of forces agreement can be reached. Australia has also agreed to increase its efforts tracking the movements of its own foreign fighters, as well as the financing of the IS, both prudent developments.
Though the domestic threat from the IS has become painfully clearer in recent weeks, and Australians largely accept the need for something to stop them, a tenuous 52 per cent majority supports the deployment of 600 Australian military personnel and their machines to this crisis. There is not only a palpable sense of uncertainty about where this military operation should end, but also why Australia must be engaged, once again, to fight in the Middle East.
To be sure, part of the problem is the lingering sectarian divides of the 2003 Iraq war. But the larger issue is that the government has not yet made a detailed case for why the Australian Defence Force needs to be fighting in the Middle East, nor made explicit what Australian national interests our military is fighting to protect.
Think what you like of former prime minister John Howard’s decision to join the coalition invading Iraq in 2003, but his government then was much better at talking to the Australian public about war than the current one. A week before military action started in 2003, Howard fronted the National Press Club to give a 4500-word speech and answer 15 questions about his decision to take Australia to war. He articulated, in his view, which of Australia’s national interests were engaged in the crisis, and why military force was the necessary response.
Neither Prime Minister Tony Abbott, his government, nor the opposition have matched the gravity of risking Australian military lives with an articulation of the necessity to do so. Abbott has made one 800-word formal statement on Iraq to the parliament in the past month, and largely spoken to the country through the foregrounding of preferred journalists, doorstops and TV interviews.
The case for war is too important to be made on breakfast TV. It requires the space and time to mount a detailed argument that a speech allows. If Australia is to be involved in combat operations, the prime minister must carefully lay out why that is necessary and what national interests he is seeking to protect. To be fair, Australian decisions have been contingent on processes in Washington and other capitals. But then the government deliberately chose to announce its intentions ahead of other countries in the coalition.
Discussion in the parliament has been meagre; this paper aptly described statements made in the Federation Chamber on Iraq last month as a “series of platitudes read into the Hansard”. The opposition, meanwhile, has relied on Gareth Evans’s articulation of the responsibility-to-protect doctrine, deeming this crisis a humanitarian one that satisfies all the legal criteria for action. Yet it, too, has failed to link this to the decision to deploy combat forces, or to Australia’s national interests in the region.
Three cases have been made in the current crisis for why Australia should deploy forces to the Middle East. The first is that Australia has a moral obligation to support like-minded countries through collective action against manifestations of evil. Though simple and heartfelt, this does little to explain Australia’s selective engagement in the region since withdrawal from Iraq in 2008. The second justification is that fighting terrorists in the Middle East is preferable to defending against them in Australia. I have not yet seen a cold-headed rationale for this laid out. The third and most compelling reason is that unrest in the Middle East has a disproportionate impact on global security and stability.
As the 2013 defence white paper lays out, Australia aims “to support the United States in playing a leading role in maintaining global stability in ways consistent with our interests and priorities”. But as my colleague and Middle East expert Rodger Shanahan notes, although Australia has been contributing military forces to the Middle East continuously since 1990, “successive Australian governments have failed to define and articulate either Australia’s strategic interests in the Middle East in general and the Gulf in particular”. That makes managing our alliance contribution in the Middle East largely a reactive task – never a sound basis for strategy or policy.
Much more thinking is required about smart ways in which Australia can meet the responsibilities of the US alliance, while focusing its limited military, diplomatic and intelligence resources on national interests. While we are reacting to unfolding events in this crisis, we must keep a clear-eyed appraisal of our relative influence on US strategy and the relative value of our contributions in the Middle East. And we must remain open to other ways of supporting our ally, perhaps looking to countries such as Singapore to see how it maintains value in its relationship with the US. Just because deploying military force to support the US in the Middle East has been prudent for the past 20 years, doesn’t necessarily mean it will automatically be so for the decades ahead.