Sir Peter Cosgrove was not in Canberra last week to swear in the new leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime-Minister. As far as I am aware there was no official explanation for his absence. But it turned out that he was on a ‘secret’ visit to Iraq to visit the 300 Australian troops at an airbase just outside Baghdad. Secrecy may have been necessary for reasons of security but it also had the advantage of avoiding the questions which the electorate has a right to ask. What are our soldiers doing there now that ISIS had been defeated? Will they be coming home? And If not why not? The Governor-General, though nominally the Commander in Chief, provided little enlightenment in his brief reported comments. One thing is certainly clear. The soldiers are not coming home soon. Indeed Australia is putting pressure on New Zealand to delay the departure of its contingent of 100 troops planned for November this year. Cosgrove himself remarked that no-one would have foreseen in 2003 that Australia would still be in Iraq fifteen years later. There is clearly no end in sight to our Middle-Eastern adventure.
Cosgrove said little about what the Australians had been doing beyond his assessment that they ‘had played a blinder here.’ The overriding purpose, he explained, was to help counter the rise of the ’evil phenomenon ’of ISIS. But with ISIS defeated why stay on? Cosgrove explained that the troops were there to help ‘in whatever form’ and continued:
It’s not for us to say we’ll stay in this form or that form but it is correct to say Australia has set itself to be of assistance in the future……..there would be an ongoing role for Australia, but with the Iraqi government determining what it was.
Governments he concluded ’set the course.’ He was not referring to his government.
This seems to be a quite extraordinary situation. The Commander in Chief of the Australian forces seeking to be told by the Iraqi Government what our soldiers might do next and so providing justification for the garrisoning of a considerable force at notable expense on the far side of the world.
While ISIS remained a serious threat explaining the purpose for the Australian presence presented no difficulty even though the intervention of foreign, English speaking infidels may have been as much hindrance as help. But without an obvious enemy, the question which clearly neither Cosgrove nor the government can answer is whose side are we actually on. We knew who we were against but who were we for? Which of the many contending parties do we favour? Do we have a consistent policy in relation to the great schism between Sunni and Shia? How many Australian leaders and policymakers actually know the difference? It needs little more than a quick look at the options to understand the utter incoherence of Australian policy.
As Cosgrove explained the Australians had played a blinder to help defeat ISIS. So it is reasonable to assume that we are against Sunni fundamentalism. Or at least when it suits us. We immediately confront the problem of our ally Saudi Arabia which is without question the source of much of the funding of Sunni fundamentalism all over the Islamic world and is also its intellectual heartland. But then the Australian troops are there to help Iraq’s Shia dominated government which has close ties with Iran. Is Australia then in implicit alliance with Iran? Well hardly given that it has such hostile relations with the United States. So why support the Iraqi government at all? It hardly needs our attentiveness. Is it a case of seeking to defend the status quo established by the British and French during and just after the First World War with the creation of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq as successor nation states to the Ottoman Empire? That would be a well-grounded political objective. One of the first objectives of ISIS was to undo that Imperial imposition. But while Australia supports the territorial integrity of Iraq it clearly has no such commitment when it comes to Syria where the United States and the Saudis would prefer permanent balkanization. And what of the Kurds? They were the single most effective opponent of ISIS in the ground war. Did we have an implicit alliance of convenience with them? And if not why not? They are far more secular than many other forces in the maelstrom with a commitment to women’s rights which should commend them to Australians. But we still insist that the PKK is a terrorist organization even though its Syrian offshoot is now allied with our ally the United States. If we want our troops to continue to stay in the region why not send them to help train the Kurds? Could we play a blinder there?
Well, probably not but an analysis of why our troops are in Iraq and why they will stay in place for the foreseeable future points to the utter muddle of our policies which left the Governor General with almost nothing meaningful to say. Are we staying put to please the Americans or do we simply want to perpetuate the illusion that we can be a global player? Alternative explanations are even more troubling. In September 2013 Senator David Johnson gave his first interview as Defence Minister in the new Abbott government. He explained that after fourteen years of overseas involvement that the ADF had a ‘strong fighting momentum that should not be lost.’ He wanted the forces to be battle ready for future conflicts in the Middle East because it was important to’ maintain some interest for the troops.’
The other inescapable yet unanswered question is why did we become tied down in the Middle East and in the first place and what thereby have we gained? When will we make a realistic assessment of the point of lives lost and scarred and what by now must amount to billions of dollars expended without demonstrable benefit? But it is even more important to examine the consequences or our response to the terrorist threat we brought down upon ourselves by our military involvement in the conflicts in the Middle East, as John Menadue has pointed out on many occasions. An increasingly authoritarian cage has been clamped down on our democratic customs and institutions from which we may never escape.
Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian who is focused on frontier conflict between Indigenous people and European settlers.