In talking to the US public about the threat from ISIS yesterday, President Obama acknowledged that 'after so much war, many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure.'
Yet the mass shooting in San Bernadino should make even President Obama focus on the link between tactics and strategy. President Obama's words reflect a depressing view of the West's ability to win wars, but that pessimism does not reflect recent history, and it does not mean that military force can't be used effectively against ISIS, if only the right tactics are applied.
In the popular view of the Gulf War or first Iraq War (1990-91), the second Iraq War (2003-2011), in Afghanistan over 12 years and in the third Iraq War (2014-), the results are perceived as anything but wins. But it can be argued that the West's coalitions won the first and second Iraq Wars, with the Afghan war still in progress, and the third Iraq war being at best a stalemate. Winning is defined as achieving the aim of the war — if you have a strategy and achieve it, you have won.
The most popular complaint about recent conflicts is that the act of intervening makes the wars unwinnable. The invasion and regime change were illegal, goes the mantra, the West should not intervene in such cases, therefore nothing good can follow. If this view is taken, the consequences of not intervening must also be considered, and that is a much harder question. It is much easier to say that the invasion of Iraq was wrong, therefore every action that followed was wrong. The act of invading predetermined ultimate defeat, it is argued, and the rise of ISIS is the consequence. This would be laughable if it was limited to Q&A or The Verdict, but such confusion shapes reactions to contemporary problems. It is as simplistic as saying that we did not win the First World War because the Second World War occurred.
But it is not only confusion over recent history that is causing problems in determining strategy in the US or among US allies. There is a strong view among all US allies that they should do as little as they can get away with in terms of supporting such intervention. Under this minimalist approach, non-US military contributions have been at comparatively small levels and surrounded by restrictions. The result is that the US has carried the burden in lives and treasure, and although regrettably it rarely if ever says so, Washington knows that its allies are willing to 'fight to the last US soldier'. They are prepared to make a contribution but have no intention of investing in the outcome of the war. They are contributing, but not committed.
Sadly, after two Iraq wars and Afghanistan, the US is applying a similarly ineffective minimalist strategy to this third Iraq War. The consequences are emboldened Islamic extremists, the suffering of local populations, uncontrolled migration, domestic terrorism and radicalisation of vulnerable groups.
There is no military-only solution to the ISIS problem and no one with a modicum of experience has ever claimed there is. But although there is no need for the kind of massive boots-on -the-ground deployment that characterised the second Iraq War and the Afghan War, there is an overwhelming need for effective tactics to assist locals to win their wars. [fold]
Prime Minister Turnbull has rightly told us that he is not going to change the nature or level of our current military deployments. This is appropriate for the moment because there are strong indications that the US is in the process of changing many of the sub-optimal tactics it is using in Iraq.
Those involved know what is needed: first, the air campaign needs to be made more effective by using appropriate rules of engagement and by placing air controllers into Iraqi ground units; and second, the training of Iraqi ground units needs to be extended to advisers who accompany the Iraqis into battle, as we did successfully in Afghanistan. These are simple, straightforward measures with no need for large numbers of foreign troops. Both of these techniques appear recently to have been put into practice in some areas of Iraq and Syria by the US and the UK, but they have not been applied universally.
If Australia is asked for help once the US decides to apply such tactics widely, let's hope Australia focuses on the outcome of this war instead of on the inputs. The Prime Minister reminds us that Australia's contribution is the second-biggest for the delivery of training to Iraqi units, but the true military output is not size or even the training delivered. The output of our involvement is the Iraqi army's ability to fight and win.
Australia should be trying to influence the US to make its tactics on the ground match the strategy the White House announced last December. If this can be achieved, we may reduce the suffering of the Iraqi people, help the Syrian people by showing that ISIS can be defeated, lessen the radicalisation of our youth by denying ISIS material for its triumphant videos, and lessen domestic terrorism by killing those who may come home to kill us.
Last year alone, 32,658 people were killed by terrorism, compared to 18,111 in 2013. Along with its allies, Australia should be trying to win this war, not just participate. Any other approach is morally questionable.
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