A two-way street

18 Mar 2005

IT HAS NOW been two years since the US invasion of Iraq that brought about the downfall of Saddam Hussein and his regime. Not surprisingly, its wider strategic effects still are being felt today, both politically at a global and regional level and militarily on the ground in Iraq - all of which will continue to have a considerable impact on Australia.

On the broader political level much has been made of the charm offensive being headed by US President George W. Bush and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in their attempts to mend relations with European allies.

But given that this is a US Administration that doesn’t admit to making mistakes - let alone believing it has done so - it all seems to be more of a change in public relations strategy than any real change in policy.

With respect to the wider Middle East region, a number of commentators have interpreted recent political developments in that area - especially in Lebanon - as proving the invasion of Iraq was justified, in that it ushered in a wave of democratic sentiment across the region.

Ignoring the fact that Lebanon never figured at all in any US strategic thinking before the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, the same commentators were deathly silent when 500,000 supporters of Hezbollah took to the streets of Beirut to support the Syrian military presence. It seems that according to these commentators democracy is only evident when it supports the aims and policies of the US government.

So before we get too cocky about what’s currently happening we need to remember that democracy is a two-way street. The fact remains that spreading democracy throughout the Middle East, while a worthy cause, will not automatically make that region a safer place. It could deliver exactly the opposite result, especially if and when al Qaeda and its fellow travellers realise that a democratic Middle East represents far more of an opportunity for them than it does a threat.

Some two years after the fall of Saddam, Iraqis certainly are closer to getting their own fully sovereign and somewhat representative government, but are even further away from peace, security and stability. The next nine months are going to be fairly critical. A referendum on a draft constitution is expected mid-October and elections for a new government based on that constitution are expected mid December.

The key to containing the insurgency is to bring the Sunni population back into the political process. The key for the insurgents isn’t necessarily to disrupt that entire election process, all they need to do is ensure the Sunnis - who remain the lifeblood of the insurgency - remain disenfranchised from the future of Iraq. So the next nine months may yet prove to be the most violent in Iraq’s recent history.

The big question for Australia in all of this is whether we’ll be expected to supply even more troops to help stabilise Iraq and secure its future. We certainly have the capability to deploy at least a battalion group of some 1200 personnel in Iraq (which means doubling our presence in Iraq) without jeopardising our ability to respond to unforeseen contingencies in our own immediate region. A deployment of this size certainly would be more in tune with the government’s rhetoric about how important the future of Iraq is to Australia’s security.

But whether we do boost our troop numbers ultimately depends on the security situation on the ground in Iraq. Recent events in Iraq would seem to prove that what’s ‘relatively benign’ one day can become a war zone the next. So if the security environment in the Al Muthanna province deteriorates the Australian government seriously will have to consider bolstering our existing troops with extra personnel and capability, just as the Dutch had to do before us.

The other issue that affects our troop numbers is the military presence and commitment of other coalition allies. The Italians have been careful to tie their recently announced troop withdrawal to the ability of Iraqi forces to take over security responsibilities in their area. So in theory they shouldn’t need other coalition troops to fill the gap; rather, the Italians eventually will be replaced by Iraqi security forces.

The problem is the only way really to judge the abilities of Iraqi troops to do so is when the security situation does deteriorate. But when that happens the Italians may already have left which means it will be left to the coalition countries remaining in Iraq to fill the gap.

Aldo Borgu is a military analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The views expressed here are his own. This article first appeared in the Courier Mail.


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