The Limits to Fighting the Islamic State

CANBERRA – There is a long history of misconceived and over-reaching foreign military intervention in the Middle East, and it is to be hoped that US President Barack Obama’s decision to wage war against the Islamic State will not prove to be another. No terrorist group more richly deserves to be destroyed outright than these marauding, genocidal jihadists. But as the US-led mission is currently conceived and described, it is not clear whether its objectives are achievable at acceptable costs in terms of time, money, and lives.

The basic problem is that the Islamic State’s territorial gains are being approached from three completely different perspectives, demanding three different types of operational responses. There is the humanitarian mission to protect civilian populations in Iraq and Syria from mass-atrocity crimes. There is the need to protect other states’ citizens from Islamic State terrorism. And there is the desire to restore states’ integrity and stability in the region.

Obama’s rhetoric, and that of his most enthusiastic partner so far, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott, has wobbled between the first two objectives and hinted at the third, creating hopes and expectations that all three will be effectively pursued. But only the humanitarian mission has any realistic chance of being delivered through the four-part strategy now on the table: air strikes against Islamic State forces; training, intelligence, and equipment for Iraqi and Kurdish military forces and Syria’s non-extremist opposition; intensified international counterterrorism efforts; and humanitarian assistance to displaced civilians.

It is obvious that Western-led military operations cannot by themselves re-establish the territorial integrity of Iraq or Syria, or restore wider regional stability. Military intervention may help to hold the line against Iraq’s further disintegration and the spread of the Islamic State cancer into countries like Jordan. But if 150,000 US troops could not stabilize Iraq in the absence of an inclusive and competent government, the limited measures on offer now simply will not suffice. And we should know by now that any Western military intervention with overtly political, rather than clearly humanitarian, objectives runs a real risk of inflaming sectarian sentiment.