The complexities of military intervention in Iraq

Waleed Aly’s thoughtful article in The Age today What would success in Iraq look like? raises several potent issues.

Aly argues that Australia is about to become involved in Iraq without a clear set of objectives, particularly around the extent to which ISIS can, and should, be contained. He argues that this particularly difficult problem needs to be dealt with before Australia (and America) begins the inevitable slide into the commitment of ever-increasing numbers of combat troops.

His article is a salutary and thought-provoking warning. Eliminating ISIS is likely to be as easy as cutting the heads off the Hydra. In Greek mythology, the hydra was a serpent like water monster with many heads and when one head was cut off, two more grown its place. The hero Hercules eventually slays the Hydra by cutting off its heads and having his nephew Iolaus cauterising them as he goes.


The task in Iraq is likely to require similar heroic efforts and Aly doubts whether this is actually possible when it comes to eliminating ISIS.

The difficulty with the argument that Aly mounts is that while he is correct about having clear objectives for such a military operation, having these objectives, no matter how clear, does not necessarily ensure that Australia will be able to avoid being entrapped in the quagmire of the regional politics. Another difficulty is that the setting short or medium term military goals ignores the harsh reality that lasting peace in the region is going to be based on a political rather than a military solution.

In his excellent article Intelligence is the key: only fools will rush into Iraq White puts the issue succinctly:

“Anyone proposing a bigger Western intervention in this situation should be reminded that the solution to the problem of Islamic State will only come as an integral part of the establishment, probably in some quite different form, of a new regional political order. There is no serious reason to believe the new government now being assembled in Baghdad will be able to preserve the old Iraq as a part of that new order, and Western military interventions to support it are more likely to delay than hasten the emergence of a sustainable new regional settlement.”

In the first instance of any solution to the problem of ISIS will need to be a solution that is a regional solution and involves, as a minimum, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and probably Syria. That shortlist indicates the immensity of problems involved in a political solution, but nonetheless a political solution will need be found.

Recent commentary has decried the atrocities of ISIS as a return to mediaeval barbarism. But a counter argument has been made that the current crisis in the region is result of the failure of the nation states to provide a stable and working economic and social system that people have a stake in preserving. Clearly, the intervention in Iraq in 2003 and withdrawal of troops did not leave such a system in place. But the argument is that organisations such as ISIS only flourish when there is a vacuum where the stable nationstate should be.

Which brings us to the question: What should the nation states of the region look like? A good starting point would be to recognise that there are 40 million Kurds living in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, all of whom would like to see some form of independence from their political and regional masters. Whether it will be possible to form an independent state from the Kurds to a currently living in Iraq without increasing the tensions between Turkey and the Turkish Kurds or Iran and Iranians Kurds (who may be excluded from such a solution) is a very difficult question. National identity has always been a very strong force in global politics and there’s nothing to suggest that this situation will not continue in the region. The map of the distribution of the Kurds indicates how difficult this problem will be but may be but solving that may provide one of the first building blocks to stability in the region.

The distribution of Kurds is shown in pink.  An answer to the question of Kurdish nationalism will need be part of any solution to the regional crisis in the Middle East

The distribution of Kurds is shown in pink. An answer to the question of Kurdish nationalism will need be part of any solution to the regional crisis in the Middle East

It may therefore be that the long-term solution to the problems created by so-called terrorist groups such as ISIS can in part be solved by the establishment of autonomous, single-ethnicity nation states such as Kurdistan could become. Certainly, supplying arms to the Iraqi Kurds is likely to strengthen the bargaining power, at least of that group, in the demands for independence.

Another part of this particular jigsaw is the relationship between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites in Iraq. Forming an “inclusive government” is likely to have all the success of the famous teaching ravens to fly underwater project. It is almost certainly a pipe dream to expect these two groups to work together within a democratic framework. One possible solution is to endeavour to move towards a system where there are two independent and autonomous nation states whose animosities may be contained at their borders rather than permeating the entire society with centuries-old divisions and animosities.

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