Tuesday, December 16, 2014


NOBODY can be sure exactly how the terrible actions of a deranged lone gunman in Sydney will play out.

The "National Security Cabinet" is meeting as I write this . . . why, I'm not sure.

Image courtesy The Australian 

I'd actually begun writing this column some time ago.

It's not about terror, or Martin Place, at all.

It's really about what we're doing - or rather, not doing - in Iraq.

SAS soldiers - image from Herald Sun

There are certainly no troops fighting against Daesh, at any rate.

I had to rewrite the column to reflect the events in Sydney. It's a pity that those events have meant the impact of the piece will inevitably be diluted . . .


So. Terror has come to Sydney. Violence has a habit of doing that – it spreads like a cancer, mutating and destroying as it swells. Senseless, stupid people believe the bile spread by others and, inspired by hate, lash out until, provoking further hostility until it ends in annihilation.

It’s impossible to understand what emotion could possibly inspire what occurred in Sydney. And that’s exactly why an intellectual response to the violence is so important. What’s so disappointing is that our – Australia’s – actions in the Middle East are actually so irrelevant to what’s occurring that they never have provoked any response – let alone what’s occurred in Sydney.

It’s a hundred days since Tony Abbott declared the Islamic State to be a “death cult” and dispatched – with great fanfare – RAAF aircraft and Special Forces to destroy it.

But what’s happened? Not heard much about how the war’s been going recently? There’s probably a reason for that. Our forces in the Gulf have been ready to do whatever’s required, but that’s irrelevant. Look, rather, at the politics of hype. Instead of extinguishing ISIL we’ve helped it mutate.

Our Superhornet strike aircraft arrived with a bang – literally. They’ve continued operating (although the last mission we’ve been told about was in early November). But they’re still based in another country, three hours flying from the operational area. There are perfectly safe airbases in Southern Iraq, but it seems we’re not welcome. Why? If we’re doing such good work, why should taxpayers be paying a premium just to fly the length of the Persian Gulf simply to arrive over Iraq? Defence says it will provide regular briefings on what our aircraft are doing. The last briefing was on November 25th. The last confirmed air mission on the web-site yesterday was on November 3rd. Defence claims it’s operating “most days over Iraq” but won’t tell us what’s happening.

Baghdad doesn’t seem to want our special forces, either. At first these soldiers couldn’t even enter Iraq. We’d rushed them over after a slew of warnings that Baghdad was about to fall (remember those?) but then they waited in the desert. And waited. It seemed Tony Abbott’s office couldn’t even be bothered to check if the Iraqi’s wanted assistance before we sent troops. Any enthusiasm still appears equivocal. The Iranian Quds Special Forces are busily fighting the battle; we’re not. The Quds are training and fighting and killing alongside increasingly powerful Shia militias and revenge is a terrible thing, as civilians in the Sunni dominated north are discovering. Defence said yesterday that our troops are “largely within the Baghdad diplomatic security centre” . . . in other words, doing nothing.

Without a Status of Forces Agreement the only way to get our boots on the ground was by issuing them all diplomatic passports. It seems the troops are still in limbo. Meanwhile the war is going on without them.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute will today hold an open seminar on the first hundred days of the war. It will be interesting to hear what the real analysts have to say about what’s been going on, because what’s coming from defence isn’t clear at all. That’s not the military’s fault. This was always a political deployment – one that’s finally come back to bite us here at home. What’s happened in Sydney will feed back into the political mix here, of course, and that won’t be good for Labor. But we need to ask why – what brought the terror over here and what are we contributing to fixing the problems in the Middle East.

There’s been quite a lot about the problems in the PM’s office. Much of the current dysfunction’s been attributed to Peta Credlin, but that’s not fair because she’s not the only problem. At a time like this it’s cheap to score political points. But ask yourself, what has Abbott done to reduce the likelihood of terror coming to our shores? Our PM’s international expeditions have been a succession of amateur explorations disasters.

Remember on his early visit to China when, as soon as he got off the plane, Abbott declared we’d nearly found the wreckage of MH 171, the plane that had crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean? Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston had been extremely cautious and warned against such optimism; Abbott brushed any doubt to one side. Unfortunately the black box still hasn’t been discovered, many tens of millions of dollars later. Strike Two.

Then there’s the Ukraine. Abbott wanted to send a battalion to hold the area around MH 17’s crash site and promised to “shirtfront” Putin. Well, turned out he couldn’t do either. He couldn’t match his rhetoric with action and all that big talk turned into so much noise. Strike Three.

Now there’s Iraq. The real point here is that we don’t have a clue what’s actually happening from a military point-of-view. Why not? Possibly because the our forces are so irrelevant to what’s actually happening that the government’s not trumpeting the fact that our soldiers are doing nothing over there while terror’s come over here to stalk our own streets. Strike Four and you’re out.

As of last week Abbott knew he had a problem. That’s why he said he wanted to hit the “reset” button. But that was then. What happened in Sydney yesterday has transformed politics. It’s still too early to understand what’s occurred but what is certain is that today, Australians will feel far more threatened by what’s occurring in the Middle East than they did yesterday. Unfortunately the military activities we’re engaging in appear unlikely to make us any safer than if the troops weren’t there at all. Unfortunately, nobody’s told the terrorists that. Until they do we will continue living with the war over here.

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