Comment: Operation Mission Creep - is combat just over the horizon in Iraq?

Tony Abbott bids farewell to Australian troops and support staff heading to the United Arab Emirates from RAAF Base Williamtown near Newcastle. (AAP)

Air strikes and humanitarian missions all too often transform into boots on the ground and combat missions - just look at history.

If nothing else, the past few weeks have shown just how easy it is now to go to war.

Back in June, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop told us that she did not “envisage a circumstance where we would be sending in troops”.

Earlier this month when announcing that Australia was willing (more than willing - let’s be honest) to support the USA, the rhetoric was all framed around “humanitarian support”, and the use of force was strictly confined to airstrikes.

Julie Bishop told reporters that “the red line is combat troops on the ground. There is no interest from any country present to commit combat troops.”

The slippage of terms used and personnel sent to Iraq is so great that one wonders if the code name for this campaign is “Operation Mission Creep”.

This week the government announced we were sending 600 military personnel, including SAS, troops to Iraq. Of course, it wasn’t to fight a war – purely to assist the humanitarian effort. On Monday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott stressed that these troops were not “combat troops on the ground”.

But on Tuesday he told reporters that “we intend to engage in operations to disrupt and degrade the ISIL movement and, yes, they will be combat operations and they will be conducted forcefully by Australia and by our allies and partners.”

By Thursday he had interrupted his weeklong stay in Arnhem land to farewell the air force personnel as one would do if they were going off to combat – which of course they are. According to their rules of engagement, Mr Abbott noted that the SAS troops “will be armed and entitled to respond if fired upon.”

The slippage of terms used and personnel sent to Iraq is so great that one wonders if the code name for this campaign is “Operation Mission Creep”.

There is even slippage over whether or not we are at war. Defence Minister David Johnston on ABC’s 730 was at pains to suggest it was a humanitarian mission, and yet seemed flummoxed when asked about US Secretary of State’s John Kerry’s suggestion that the United States is at War with Islamic State.

To be fair to Mr Johnston, the United States (and Mr Kerry himself) is a bit confused about whether or not they are at war, and whether or not combat troops will be deployed.

US President Barack Obama stated this week that “there will be no U.S. ground combat troops back in Iraq”, which rather jarred with the Chairman of the joint Chief of Staff, General Martin Dempsey telling a Congressional hearing that “if we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president.”

So essentially there will be combat troops on the ground not in combat, but likely to engage in combat.

While the Abbott government may be trying to suggest this is not a war, the media certainly didn’t get that memo and they bounded off ahead, with headlines such as “War on Death Cult”, “PM’s Death Cult Strike Force”, “Blow them to Hell” and “Ready for War”.

The war lust from certain sections of the media was fairly odious, especially those for whom it came with a particular stench of religion. And even in the commentary the mission creep is evident.

Greg Sheridan, for example, already has Syria in his sights, comparing it with Cambodia in the Vietnam War in a piece that harked back to the views of discredited war hawks from the 1960s who thought the United States could have won in Vietnam if only it sent more troops and domestic public opinion hadn’t turned against them.

It is worth noting that we have in Tony Abbott, Barack Obama and even David Cameron, three leaders in all three countries for whom the Vietnam War was not a live issue. Abbott was 15 when Australia’s commitment ended, Obama was 12 when the United States left Vietnam, and having been born in 1966, for David Cameron (even granting the UK’s lack of involvement in the war) would not have any memory of the conflict.

For politicians and military leaders of the 1980s and 1990s, Vietnam hung over every military decision – and it served them well. In the 1990 Gulf War, President George Bush pointedly refused to invade Iraq, knowing the USA would get bogged down in a decade long quagmire that would see massive destabilisation of the region – which is exactly what happened after his son George W Bush did invade Iraq.

We can only hope we are not destined to relive history yet again – where the advisors and air strikes slip into ground forces and combat actions and then to combat roles. And where the initial aims and boundaries of the conflict will be forgotten, or more likely adjusted. The adjustment of aims will be even easier given they remain so unclear – humanitarian aid, destroy ISIL, support the Iraqi government, bring stability to the middle east, protect Australia.

Take your pick – just don’t question too closely whether our involvement will actually help protect Australia. 

The hope is that the western involvement can be limited to air strikes as occurred in Libya in 2011, and if this is the case then Obama and Abbott will be well satisfied. But given the fuzzy aims and the little sense of anyone knowing how to define what needs to be achieved for success to have been attained, the smart money would be on this campaign lasting long and the reasons given for staying broadening with each month it lasts.

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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