WITHOUT A GROUND FORCE THE WAR AGAINST ISIS WILL BE A FARCE
Air power alone will not make a difference in Iraq. Barack Obama, and his allies, have the worst strategic understanding possible of what they claim is an existential threat.
ISIS continue their attempts to take the Syrian border town of Kobani, held by Kurdish fighters. Turkey has been promising aid to Barack Obama’s coalition but does nothing. Australian super hornet fighter jets successfully complete their first mission, on some reports not having dropped a bomb. Iraq and Syria become more confusing as each day passes.
The Australian government is eager to support Obama. The US is going to use airpower alone, with no boots on the ground. So will Australia- but from the beginning, that was false. The SAS will be going to battle with the Iraqi army elements they are advising. On some accounts, Iraqi government approval for that has already arrived, on other accounts it has not. Confusion!
The major proponents of this war are in part saying it is humanitarian, and in part saying it will go on for many years. Is that because they don’t know how to end it? Can they end it? What will the Middle East look like during, and presumably after, the conflict? Or do they have no idea at all of what is going to happen? Does anyone know what they are doing?
Committing a country to war is by any measure a serious move. To do so without having a known strategy, without having an end point, is the utmost foolishness. It is a betrayal of the responsibility that a government should have to its own citizens, and to its armed services, who are asked to carry this particular burden.
The US has a long history of believing that they can achieve military and political objectives by air power alone. From Vietnam onwards, that judgment has been proved false.
After three weeks in the original Afghanistan war, the then Secretary of state, Donald Rumsfeld, said the US air force was running out of targets to hit. Yet a dozen years later, the war continues. Without control of the ground, air power can inflict massive damage- especially on civilians- but it cannot achieve a stable political outcome. If American ground forces are not going to be used, and if adequate Arab forces are not available, failure is guaranteed.
In Syria, the farce is perhaps even greater. A year ago, the West was talking of arming the rebels against President Bashar-Al-Assad. That never happened in an effective way; western nations came to realize they did not know who the rebels were and what they represented. Now we do know: the most effective rebels, the most brutal rebels, have morphed into ISIS, an ideological armed force that practices terror against Christians, Shia and Sunni alike- anyone who has not signed up to the extremism of ISIS itself. Of course, there is a cover story both for Iraq and for Syria. The new Iraqi government will achieve unity between Shias and Sunnis and that will enable an effective fighting force to be established against ISIS. Has the Iraqi government yet taken any steps to overcome the intense bitterness between Shia and Sunni? The chance that the unity could be brokered between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, in relation to Iraq, is remote. In other words, Obama made a commitment to war and to victory with the most important element in his armory- an effective ground force- simply non existent.
Now the strategy in Syria is to train and arm the good rebels who have not been effective, who have had no unified command, and build them into a force that can beat ISIS- and then presumably turn around and beat Assad. Surely this is a non sense.
Tony Abbott has said ISIS represents an existential threat to the world. That literally means that ISIS threatens Australia’s survival and America’s survival. Does Saudi Arabia, does Jordan, does Turkey, do the Emirates, other states in the Middle East regard ISIS as an existential threat to them? If they do, where is the practical support for Obama’s coalition?
We were told that more than 30 states have promised support. Australia, Britain and France are reported to be providing air power, and Australia has also put SAS troops on the ground. A lonely force, indeed. Do we really understand anything beyond the horror and brutality of ISIS?
Why are the Arab states not prepared to act against this existential threat to the world, which is presumably also an existential threat to them, since ISIS is gaining power in the heart of their world? Will they be in greater danger if they participate in Obama’s coalition, or if they stay out? They too must know that without troops on the ground, the war against ISIS cannot be won.
The siege of Kobani demonstrates the ineffectiveness of air power without troops on the ground. Already ISIS’s tactics are changing – they are moving into populated areas, so that if air power is used, civilians will be killed. They move on foot and they move quietly. They move in ways in which they cannot be found. They know how to avoid providing an easy target from the air. ISIS is sophisticated in its tactics. At every step, in their most terrible campaign, ISIS have out fought their enemy and out thought the United States.
Do we think our public is so stupid, so unaware, that they cannot understand the farce in the middle of this tragedy? This is a war. The commander-in-chief of what is meant to be the greatest democracy in the world has gone to war with the worst strategic understanding of any commander-in-chief in history. And, we are following him eagerly, appearing to spoil for a fight.
Writer: Malcolm Fraser