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Applying the right lessons to Iraq

Applying the right lessons to Iraq

The Australian Government's announcement that 300 additional troops will be sent to Iraq to help train the Iraqi Army has brought forth the usual public commentators, myself included. My view is that all those who see ISIS as evil should be prepared to commit military and other resources to oppose it.

Why should we help? Firstly, it is as much a moral obligation to assist the Iraqi Government to regain sovereignty over areas currently held by ISIS as it was to provide humanitarian assistance on Mount Sinjar. Moreover, given ISIS links to terrorism and recruiting, it is in Australia's interests to contribute to its defeat. However, although our assistance to Iraq might be underdone at the moment, it should not at this stage include ground combat units, and definitely not of the previous magnitude as during the Iraq War. However, this should never be ruled out.

Over the last week, in media commentary and speeches, I have stressed that the distinct difference between this conflict and previous wars in Iraq is that, this time, the West is more directly in strategic competition with Iran. And at the moment, as the old saying goes, Iran is playing three-dimensional chess while the West plays checkers. Iran's speed and effectiveness in supporting the Iraqis on the battlefield, and its willingness to mentor Iraqis in battle, may mean Iran will win the peace no matter who wins the war.

Tom Switzer, here and here, says Tony Abbott has 'learnt nothing and forgotten nothing since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.' Tom reminds us that we have tried to train the Iraqi military before, and claims that we failed because the Iraqi Army broke before the ISIS onslaught in mid-2014. Tom also tells us that our involvement is exactly what ISIS wants in order to increase its recruitment and the radicalisation of our young. In other words, we are repeating old errors and falling into a trap.

The learning of lessons from conflict really is the central issue here, so let me offer a view of recent events to contrast with Tom's. [fold]

It is 11 years since the invasion and nine years since my involvement ended, perhaps too soon for formal analysis. But the Middle East does not wait, and what you learn will always depend on where you stand. For instance, had then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld listened in 2002-03 to military advice on the troop levels needed for an effective occupation, we might have achieved in two years what it took eight years and two troop surges to achieve.

By 2011, when the final Coalition troops left, US and Iraqi forces had achieved a relatively high level of stability and the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq. Tom should note that, at the time, a common line being argued was that al Qaeda had baited a trap for the US in Iraq. If that was a trap, it only ended up trapping al Qaeda in Iraq. 

Before it left, the US had produced an Iraqi military that was adequate to the task of containing the remaining threat, but the Army was never given the chance to mature. The first Maliki Government, while the US was present and had influence, showed promise of governing across sectarian lines. Maliki allowed the Iraqi Army to be developed and led with some degree of military logic and success. However, the second Maliki Government, especially after the US left in 2011, proved disastrous for the Army and for Iraq.

What happened after 2011 to create the situation we now face?

First, the Arab Spring led us into the depths of the Syrian civil war, which in turn helped produced ISIS. It is drawing a very long bow to blame that on the US invasion of Iraq. An equally valid argument could be that if the US had not invaded Iraq, today it would look much more like Syria.

Second, President Obama did not insist on leaving behind a residual force, contrary to all military advice and for which he was roundly criticised, even by Hillary Clinton. Had there been a residual US force, ISIS may not have invaded. And even if it did, the Iraqi Army probably would not have folded. It is interesting that President Obama has now agreed to leave such a residual force in Afghanistan, and his Administration is even hinting at extending it. 

Third, the second Maliki Government proved to be sectarian, corrupt and incompetent. Maliki replaced Army commanders with sectarian cronies who stole the pay of the military in Mosul, made soldiers buy their ammunition, failed to fund Army training and equipment and destroyed soldiers' morale and trust. No wonder the Army failed against ISIS (the soldiers told us that the Maliki-installed commanders led the rout).

I agree with Tom that lessons are there to be learned, but let's learn the right ones.

Prime Minister Abadi must regain the trust of his people and his military, and we are seeing some positive signs of that playing out in Tikrit, in the attitude of some Sunnis, and in the composition of the Army. Of course, the role of the Shia militias is deeply worrying, but Iraq has never been neat. 

I suspect we do not yet have the mix of support to the Iraqis right, and I urge a calm reading of these most sensible views by a soldier who should know.

ISIS can be defeated militarily in Iraq, given what we are doing at the moment and what we could do if necessary. And once Iraqi sovereignty is re-established, who knows what might be possible for the Syrian people. But a solution to the Syria problem is far past the bounds of feasible planning until we have achieved the operational aim of restoring Iraqi sovereignty.

I am prepared to acknowledge that the invasion of Iraq may not have been a strategically brilliant move. But it occurred and the occupation followed. After 11 years and 100,000-plus lives lost in Iraq, I wonder: if we had concluded the war in a shorter period, or even concluded it more effectively, would ISIS even have arisen? As I said here, there is nothing more stupid than getting yourself into the wrong war and then bungling it. Our current tepid response runs the risk of seeing Iranian control and influence from the northern Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean shore. 

Photo courtesy of the Australian Defence Image Library.

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