Australia has recently joined the U.S. and international effort in battling the Islamic State (IS) militants by transporting arms and munitions to Kurdish forces in Iraq, who are fighting the extremists in the north of the country. These deliveries have taken place in addition to Australia’s humanitarian air drops which are supplying communities with vital supplies who are being threatened by the advance of IS militants.
Australia has committed two Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) aircraft as well as an undisclosed number of special forces soldiers who, at this stage, will most likely provide either a QRF capability or fly on board the RAAF transport planes in the event of an emergency landing. Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, has increased his rhetoric against IS in recent days, labeling the group as nothing more than a “death cult” and comparing them to Nazis and communists. Mr. Abbott has also justified the use of “extreme force” in dealing with the IS threat, which has some questioning the real motives behind the deployment of Australia’s most elite operators to the region.
Despite the Australian Government insisting it has no intention to commit combat troops to Iraq, there are a number of important factors at play here which may see this decision change. Per capita, Australia is now one of the largest sources of foreign fighters to the Syrian conflict. Australia’s national security service, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), has assessed that there are in excess of 150 Australian citizens who have left our shores and joined the ranks of IS.
One of the most shocking photos to be passed around on social media last month was that of a 7-year-old boy who was seen holding up a severed head in Syria. He and his father, Khaled Sharrouf, are both Australian citizens. The image was brutal and graphic and earned the international condemnation of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The Australian Government has long acknowledged the danger that returning fighters will pose to our community, so there is certainly a vested interest in taking the fight to these terrorists on foreign soil. I was fortunate enough to have attended a seminar in 2012 hosted by Labor Senator The Hon. David Feeney who was, at the time, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence. Senator Feeney explicitly stated that the experience gained by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) over the course of Australia’s longest war in Afghanistan was not something the government was going to let simply fade away. His rhetoric of ‘looking for work’ in response to global challenges was clear, and is no doubt echoing through the halls of Parliament House in response to the IS threat.
Australia enjoys a long and proud history of shunning the relative safety of its geographical location and committing its military resources to dealing with global threats. Tony Abbott has taken the appropriate tough stance against IS, and has explicitly stated that our nation will not stand idly by “in the face of preventable genocide.” Whilst the government does not “envisage” committing combat troops to Iraq, none of the discourse has so far categorically denied the fact that it won’t, either. The positioning of our special operations forces in the region under the pretense of protecting RAAF aircraft and crews appears to be the first step in accustoming a war-weary public to the fact that we will most likely be engaged in combat operations to some degree.
The last 12 years of fighting in Afghanistan has provided Australia’s special forces with operational experience centered squarely on fighting a shadowy, elusive, and barbaric enemy. The seasoned veterans that fill the ranks of both the 2nd Commando Regiment and Special Air Service Regiment would have been in Iraq yesterday if the decision was theirs to make.
Rather than questioning Tony Abbott’s motives for sending our most elite soldiers to the region, there should be ubiquitous support for Australia’s response to the Islamic State threat, for the fact that we are in a position to defend the defenseless and that we have an entire community of battle-hardened, accomplished, and vicious operators who are willing to do so.