Opinion

Boots on the ground, head in the clouds

Nearly a year ago Daesh fighters herded Yazidi men and women to the top of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, killing hundreds along the way. That series of massacres, along with the capture of Mosul a month earlier, catalysed global attention and tipped Australia’s hand to contribute humanitarian aid, diplomatic heft and military forces to support the Iraqi government. A year later we’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a military campaign that includes an air force contingent, a force training Iraqi infantry soldiers, and a special forces contingent advising and assisting their Iraqi counterparts. With 63 other countries we’ve contributed diplomatic, police and intelligence efforts towards the effort to stop the growth of Daesh (aka ISIL, ISIS or IS).

Our foreign minister judges this to be Australia’s most important national security endeavour since the Cold War. At home, to combat the risk of remote radicalisation and returning foreign fighters, the government has boosted the already ample counterterrorism budget by the better part of a billion dollars. For the past 12 months the “death cult” has daily transfixed the prime minister.

And for all this effort and cogitation how much progress is Australia making against Daesh? It’s painfully hard to tell.

In a speech in Washington last month President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the global coalition against Daesh, former Afghanistan commander General John Allen, outlined five components of the comprehensive campaign against Daesh. First, a military effort to deny its fighters haven and provide support to authorities such as the Iraqi government. Second, a global effort to disrupt the flow of foreign fighters into and home from the Levant. Third, measures to interrupt financial networks associated with Daesh and stop the various groups under that banner from accreting revenue. Fourth, offer humanitarian support to those affected by the conflict and chaos Daesh has wrought. Finally, a co-ordinated campaign to counter the messaging and propaganda of Daesh that has proved so seductive, so effective in bringing the group momentum and fresh recruits.

Reading through speeches and the question time messaging of Australia’s political leaders it’s clear that our own part in the global coalition has focused on two aspects: the military campaign centred on Iraq, and police and intelligence efforts focused on the dangers posed by Australian foreign fighters.

Assessing the effectiveness of Australia’s contribution to the Iraq conflict is a complex endeavour. The Australian Defence Force dutifully reports statistics on the number of sorties conducted by the Royal Australian Air Force’s fighter aircraft, the amount of fuel our air-to-air refuellers have transferred to coalition aircraft, the flight hours of surveillance aircraft, and even the precise number of bombs dropped each month. Our training taskforce in Taji, north of Baghdad, is putting 700 Iraqis through their paces on basic fighting skills every eight weeks.

There’s no shortage of activity – but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Australian Defence Force is meeting its tactical objectives. Of the special forces who are training an Iraqi counterterrorist brigade in Anbar province there have been virtually no reports. Thankfully there have been no reported Australian casualties.

The broader metrics, though, suggest deep problems in the strategic military objectives set to deny Daesh haven and support the capacity of the Iraqi security forces. Daesh has expanded its reach into places such as Ramadi, coming within kilometres of Australians based at the al-Asad airbase near there. It remains entrenched in eastern Syria and has consolidated its hold there. Of the Iraqi security forces, US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter was recently scathing in his assessment of those in Ramadi who “vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they failed to fight”. That’s not to say the entire Iraqi security force is a lost cause – Daesh recently executed several of its own commanders who had fled from Iraqi security forces tenaciously defending the significant Baiji oil refinery. But the sort of optimism that had Washington officials signalling an effort to retake Mosul this year has long gone. Australia looks set to continue training the Iraqis for years to come.

To my mind, Australia’s military contribution to this Iraq campaign remains oversized. We are the second-largest contributor of troops after the United States in the “building partner capacity” mission (translation: training the Iraqi army). We at one point had the second-largest number of special forces personnel in the country under the “advise and assist” mission (translation: more complex and riskier training of the Iraqi army). Our air force component remains relatively larger than that of other coalition partners, such as the Dutch.

The Netherlands provides a useful benchmark against which to weigh the size and shape of Australia’s military contribution: they deploy forces globally, have a roughly similar size and sophistication to Australia’s military, and have a recent history of working with the US in the Middle East. Compared with the Dutch contribution, Australia’s force in this Iraq campaign has a notably larger air force component and a significantly larger special forces component. Two other factors are apparent when comparing the Australian military response with the Dutch: ours assumed a more high-risk mission, and appears to have resulted in a lesser leadership role in strategic decisions of the Global Coalition against Daesh. The size and muscularity of Australia’s contribution in Iraq was largely shaped by the government’s reflexive decision to divert troops returning from Europe (where they had been on standby for MH17 Ukraine contingencies) to Iraq.

But the issue that has dominated the Australian political landscape on Daesh most has been the concern to prevent the return of Australian foreign fighters. To be sure, there are genuine reasons to be concerned. Daesh is running a sort of terrorist university in which advanced military skills are wildly proliferating. Potential Daesh recruits and networks of returned foreign fighters being monitored by authorities here in Australia have shown evidence of using sophisticated anti-surveillance techniques. But despite a year of alarmist political speeches about the threat from the “death cult” diaspora, the overall threat from returned foreign fighters appears to have remained relatively static.

The public debate on returning foreign fighters has a more shrill tone here than in Singapore. Speaking there in April, John Allen outlined the dilemma faced by authorities unlikely to be able to secure the conviction of returning fighters, nor dedicate sufficient resources to monitor them constantly. In his view the ability of returned foreign fighters to pose an “enduring threat to their home countries is likely to depend significantly on how well the reintegration process functions for them and for their families”. Of 57 Daesh fighters returning to Singapore that have been reintegrated, only one has caused a subsequent security problem.

Australia has not even effectively begun a national effort to engage in the battle for ideas against Daesh – the counter-messaging war. An announced $21 million centre for counter-narratives is yet to be actualised. Daesh’s ability to gain media attention is the critical element in its recruitment, financing and overall momentum. As one of its leaders wrote in 2005 while part of al-Qaeda, “more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media”. A decade later that judgement is even more true, with Allen concluding that Daesh’s “ability to define the environment has played a pivotal role”. Ironically, this is the part of Daesh’s grand strategy that our political leaders should be more adept at grasping. After all, pull apart Daesh’s tens of thousands of Twitter accounts, professionally produced snuff films and constant media missives, and at the heart is a political campaign to secure power and influence. Daesh are politicians, too, looking for media attention in a crowded and viciously brutal landscape. In al-Raqqa they cut off heads to cut through.

There is still much confusion about what the phenomenon of Daesh is and how countries such as Australia should respond. There is confusion within Daesh, too: a senior military commander interviewed by The Guardian’s Martin Chulov reflected late last year: “…it got bigger than any of us. This can’t be stopped now. This is out of the control of any man. Not Baghdadi, or anyone else in his circle.”

But Daesh’s strengths are fast becoming its vulnerabilities. A year ago Western intelligence agencies had almost no one operating inside Daesh. Now, amid the flowing thousands of fresh foreign fighters it is clear that Daesh has been penetrated. In May, one of the organisation’s most senior leaders was killed in a US commando raid in eastern Syria, yielding “reams of data on how ISIS operates, communicates and earns its money”. And Daesh’s need to stay continuously connected to the outside world through social media creates vulnerabilities, too. In June, coalition aircraft bombed a Daesh command and control building after
a Daesh fighter accidentally provided the building’s co-ordinates in a boasting selfie he posted to Twitter.

The seemingly unstoppable momentum of Daesh will abate. But for now, as Australia thinks about contributing more to the campaign against it, a hard-headed assessment of what we have actually achieved thus far is very much overdue.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 1, 2015 as "Boots on the ground, head in the clouds". Subscribe here.

James Brown
is the research director of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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