Chris Kenny, in The Weekend Australian, 21 June 2014, where the title is “The diabolical struggle all modern nations face at home and abroad” … with the editorial alteration highlighting the self-serving certitude that the “international community” resides within the Atlantic States of the north
EVERYONE has an opinion on Iraq, but no one has a solution. And in the end only the Iraqi people can own a solution, although after all the meddling the West ought to help. Yet the same rationale that drove the Iraq war from 2003 (and less obliquely the Afghanistan war from 2001) provides the West’s self-interest in finding a settlement now — that mortal danger can be exported abroad from a failed or terrorist state. This is part of the reason the scheduled exit of international troops from Afghanistan is such a worry, why Syria is so troubling, and why we should focus more intently on Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria and a host of other countries where extremists are determined to thwart progress.
If we were without heart or empathy, we might be able to ignore the slaughter of innocents in these countries. But, as 9/11 and a series of other attacks have taught us, from Bali to Boston, Madrid to Moscow and Lagos to London, the extremists will hurt us and our interests so long as they have a base from which to operate.
We cannot wish away the diabolical challenge of Islamic extremist terrorism. Yet the terrorism mixes in a cocktail of transnational, political and sectarian aspirations so that it is difficult to separate cause from effect and solution from aggravation.
So the legitimate grievances of Iraq’s once-powerful Sunni minority can give succour to Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham operatives who have a more nihilist vision than simply reclaiming power from a Shi’ite-dominated government. And the ambitious tentacles of Tehran’s Shia rulers stretch to Baghdad and Damascus, offering resistance to ISIS, but perhaps no end to bloody rivalry.
In Riyadh and the Gulf states, too, the money of the Sunnis takes sides. That these enmities stretch back centuries is obvious. Yet we now find they belong to all of us. Modern travel, technology and migration mean we cannot isolate ourselves from these struggles. Australia’s initial lesson in this reality was 99 years ago in a little-known episode near Broken Hill.
With World War I under way, two men from what is now Pakistan took it upon themselves to attack civilians on a train. Leaving notes ascribing their actions to their faith and loyalties in the war, the Muslim immigrants killed four people and injured more than seven others. Almost a century on, 9/11 taught the US and the rest of the Western world that extremism could not be stopped at our borders.
We know Australians have trained with extremists in Kashmir, Afghanistan and Yemen. We know the Bali bombers trained in Afghanistan. And we live with the uncomfortable reality that 150 Australians have been fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Whatever the range of motivations, including sectarian rights and self-determination, we know a frightening array of extremist tactics and objectives runs through these conflicts. We have had terrorist plots thwarted in Australia. We also need to ensure a harmonious relationship between our Muslim communities and the broader population. Just as we don’t want the atrocities of far-flung lands to hurt us, we need to preserve our multicultural harmony. So we face a diabolical struggle at home and abroad.
Just as Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” proved sadly optimistic, many were too quick to deride Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” thesis. We now need to be mindful of cultural fault lines because they are transported globally in an instant.
We are rightly wary of cultural imperialism and sensitive to post-colonial resentments. But we misunderstand the ideology of extremist Islamist terrorism if we think it will disappear if we leave it alone.
The simplistic critique of the current Iraq situation focuses on unintended consequences from an erroneous war. This is a political point directed at George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard more than a realistic assessment of the current dilemma.
This week, Paul Kelly and Tom Switzer in The Australian, and Anthony Bubalo at the Lowy Institute, have written with great insight and nuance about the difficult but necessary contemporary choices — without excusing the decisions or strategies of 2003.
That is a separate argument — and while Switzer argues Saddam Hussein could have been contained indefinitely, we don’t have a true counterfactual, we don’t know what would have transpired if Saddam had seen off the UN inspectors and the US threat. What counts is how to prevent a descent into further horror, and this challenges the best strategic minds.
My own perspective is inextricably linked to my experiences from 2002 to 2007 working for Alexander Downer as foreign minister. The briefings, decision-making, arguments and visits to Iraq and Afghanistan from that period are a reminder that none of the sectarian tensions, transnational pressures or extremist agendas were, shall we say, unknown unknowns.
The Americans, Australians, British and Iraqis were well aware of these difficulties. This underscores the inescapable reality that the strategies to deal with them have failed so far. Whether it was the de-Ba’athification, failed political power-sharing, slowness in implementing the military surge against the insurgents, disengagement by the UN, failure to negotiate an ongoing international security presence or a combination of all of the above, Iraq deserved better.
Then the inability of the international community to prevent the internal disintegration of Syria has created a training ground and base for Sunni aspirations and extremist plots.
Having made the calls on Afghanistan and Iraq, right or wrong, it seems incongruous the West, let alone the US, would walk away and expect the competing interests in these regions to sort themselves out without support. US bases remain in Japan, South Korea, Germany and Italy — it stayed not to occupy, provoke or colonise, but to secure the peace.
The current situation is not analogous, of course, but the point is that having made the momentous decision to intervene, sacrificing blood and treasure, the international community has been too war-weary, too eager to walk away.
In mid-2003, when I first visited post-Saddam Iraq, we travelled with chemical suits for fear of residual gas attacks, but saw children happily climbing on the tanks of their American liberators in the suburbs.
The optimism and excitement about a new future was palpable, even as factions were jockeying for influence. By late 2005, returning after the first successful elections, it was the threat from insurgents and the resultant heavy security and bunkering down of the administration that was palpable. Yet Iraqis proudly showed the ink on their fingers, having braved insurgents’ threats and voted.
With the right security support and acceptable political settlements, Iraq can succeed — whatever the mistakes of the past.