Tuesday, October 28, 2014


From close up the airpower in the Middle East is very impressive.

A terrific photo taken by some brilliant RAAF photographers last night

But, as I ask in my Tuesday column for the Canberra Times, is that going to be enough?

Changing dynamic

The Australian pilot speaks quietly. “See that fire down there.” I peer out of the window of the KC-30 air-to-air refuelling aircraft and look at northern Iraq, 20,000 feet below. “The flares coming from the centre of the town were about three times bigger last week. There was some pretty hard fighting going on . . . “

His mission is to refuel the pairs of jets loitering below for hours, waiting for a clean target to attack. Two RAAF Super Hornets have escorted us into the combat zone. Now they’ve topped up and peeled away for an attack. A familiar accent suddenly crackles through the headphone – the Aussie Wedgetail, a Command and Control aircraft, is currently in charge of the airspace over northern Iraq. It’s allocating tasks to the circling fighters; relaying missions from the Combined Air Operations Centre; directing aircraft towards targets.

There’s been little hint of the intense tempo of this raging air battle in the media. Instead, the focus of our reporting is skews inexorably towards the tiny Syrian town of Kobane. Here, surrounded Kurdish militia engage in a sea-sawing street battle with ISIL fighters. Because the contested buildings lie near the Turkish border, within easy range of the zoom lenses of photographers, its place in the conflict has been magnified. Kobane’s become an easy-to-understand symbol of the war. As long as the village holds, it seems to offer hope. Because of this it’s now sucking up both sides resources; it’s been elevated to the status of a victory marker.

Yet this is just one city in a war spreading from the outskirts of Baghdad, across Syria, and on up to the Turkish border. ISIL’s rise was sudden. Technicals – four-wheel drive vehicles mounting heavy machine guns – sped quickly through the countryside, outflanking defending government troops who were ruthlessly shot. The fall of the Iraqi capital began to acquire an air of inevitability.

But we’d mistaken tactical success for strategic strength. ISIL’s hard edge of light, mobile forces spread quickly, like a stain across the map. Now, however, the pace has slowed. Over dinner an Australian lieutenant colonel, who’s served in Iraq, asks me what I think will happen next. I begin pontificating before going quiet. I realise he probably has a much better idea. “So what do you think will happen?” I ask.

“They’ve outrun their resources,” he says. “They’re weaker than we think.” This is the key to the West’s strategy.

Firstly, recognise the small scale of the combat. Those “vital” Kurdish reinforcements for Kobane, the ones slipping in through Turkey this weekend, only totalled about 150 fighters. The world is obsessing over a company-level struggle. Last week a US airstrike had a significant effect killing just 30 ISIL militants. These are not big armies swirling around the desert sands. Only a relatively small number of fanatics are prosecuting the fight and a determined army should be able to stop them. Yet who can blame a soldier for being unwilling to die for a country riven by sectarian, ethnic and political divides? As soon as such forces are outmanoeuvred, they retreat. In a few places they’re holding on but the question remains; who will relieve them? Nobody wants to die. The tide needs to change. Unless something is done to turn the militants around their advance will continue. 

The crux of the fight is now Anbar province, west of Baghdad. Here ISIL is still making gains, inching towards besieging the provincial capital. Airpower alone won’t stop the advance. What it can do, however, is support conventional Iraqi forces by bombing and preventing the terrorists from concentrating. This might just be enough.

If ISIL’s momentum stalls; if the bombing campaign hits some critical targets; if the national army can get its act together, then the fanatics will be turned back. This doesn’t mean they’ll collapse; it’s just one part of the strategy. You can see this by examining the bomb list for last Saturday.

Twenty-two airstrikes. Five buildings destroyed, one building damaged – but what on earth does this mean? ISIL headquarters offices, or oil refineries? One ‘artillery piece’ (what calibre?) destroyed. Nine ‘fighting positions’ and four ‘staging locations’ destroyed. Small and large units were also attacked (presumably, on some occasions, by strafing fire). Is this effective? Is it enough to disrupt ISIL? Possibly. To destroy it? Probably not.

It gives us an insight into coalition strategy though. Slow and methodical, yet without the follow-up strength on the ground to guarantee victory. Jordanian and Saudi planes joined in with the attacks so the allies are holding together, yet there are no forces to exploit this assault from the air. It’s given the army breathing space. Now Shia militia forces (armed and equipped by Iran) are moving into territory that should be being occupied by the Iraqi military. This allows us to speculate about the future.

The national army is seemingly incapable of fighting. Yet nor, seemingly, does Iraq’s Prime Minister want our ‘advisors’ on the ground. In fact, it’s difficult to see what they’d do. It’s not training that Baghdad’s forces need; it’s stiffening. The discipline to stand together and trust to make sure soldiers will stick together under fire. These aren’t attributes that can be imparted by foreigners – the government itself needs to inspire its soldiers.

Of course this fight isn’t the only battlefield. Cutting off its money would cripple ISIS, although the US doesn’t want to destroy infrastructure that Baghdad will need later. Without a vision for the future there’s no reason for Iraq’s soldiers to fight. And we return to the squabbling, myopic, politicians of the capital. The West can’t intervene here: every time we have we’ve sent the country further backwards. Will success on the battlefield be enough to change the dynamic?

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