Tony Abbott hopes war can save his job

March 6, 2015
Kevin Andrews, Tony Abbott and Defence Force Chief Mark Binskin announce the Australia troop deployment to Iraq on March 3.

When Prime Minister Tony Abbott used a March 3 press conference at Parliament House to announce the deployment of 300 more soldiers to Iraq, it was impossible to ignore the political theatre to serve a partisan domestic agenda.

If you missed it in the content of his talk, you couldn't miss the no-less-than eight flags propped up behind him as he spoke.

A combination of relentless attacks on the living standards of ordinary people and Abbott's incompetence has made his government one of the most unpopular in Australian history.

Despite surviving a February 9 leadership spill, media speculation that the Liberal Party will replace him continues. So Abbott has turned to the standard tactic of conservative leaders desperate to raise their domestic political standing: patriotism, racism, scaremongering and war.

Even these tactics are not proving entirely successful for Abbott. Scapegoating refugees proved highly effective for the previous Liberal government of John Howard and was key to Abbott's defeat of the ALP in 2013.

But while Abbott keeps claiming to have “stopped the boats”, his handling of the negative publicity generated by the deteriorating human rights situation in the off-shore Australian refugee gulags — the camps on Manus Island and Nauru — has often backfired.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in his government's public savaging of Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs for having had the temerity to do her job and report on human rights.

The abuses catalogued in the Human Rights Commission report, The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention have generated relatively little outrage given their seriousness.

But the government's response increased perceptions of a totalitarian refusal to tolerate any criticism.

Likewise, the response to Abbott's February 23 press conference announcing new measures to deal with domestic threats to national security — in the mainstream media as well as social media — focused on suggestions he may be trying too hard.

Many commentators cynically noted that he made his February 23 announcement flanked by six Australian flags and used the term “death cult” — his comic book term for the terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS) — seven times.

Undeterred, Abbott used his March 3 press conference to offer even more of the same. This time, he used eight Australian flags and mentioned the “death cult” 16 times.

Coming after New Zealand PM John Key's February 24 announcement that New Zealand would be sending more than 100 troops to Iraq, Abbott shamelessly invoked the Anzac mythology in his press conference.

“I'm very pleased and proud that in this Centenary of ANZAC year that Australia and New Zealand will be contributing to this important mission … and I think there are obviously historical parallels,” he said.


Speaking later the same day in parliament, he displayed an enthusiasm to play armchair warrior that lay somewhere on the spectrum between cynically opportunist and psychotic.

“I obviously can't go out and fight with them,” Abbot said. “But … I try at least to sweat with them. Which is one of the reasons why I've tried so often to have physical training at the very least with the members of our armed forces when I am on their bases.”

The 300 extra soldiers will join 200 special forces and 400 air force personnel already in Iraq. The Australian contingent is part of a US-led military coalition dispatched last year in response to IS's rapid invasion of north-west Iraq from Syria, where it already controlled substantial territory.

Officially, the soldiers are only to be involved in air strikes and in training Iraqi forces, not in ground operations.

ALP leaders predictably supported the latest troop deployments, but made some mutterings about “mission creep”.

The Greens and independent MP Andrew Wilkie opposed the deployment outright. The March 3 Guardian said Wilkie told reporters outside parliament: “We are now reaping what we sowed in 2003 when we helped start a war that has run unabated for 12 years, which created the instability in that country which has allowed the emergence of Islamic State.”

Wilkie's comments get to the heart of why the Australian troop deployment, and the US-led intervention it is part of, will almost certainly fail.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq — justified by proven lies about the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein being involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and possessing weapons of mass destruction — was part of a plan by the US government to solidify US control over the Middle East by imposing puppet governments throughout the region.

The plan failed. The toppling of the Saddam regime — already crippled by the 1991 US-led war and 12 years of sanctions — was easily accomplished. But, imposing a puppet regime proved more difficult.

Threatened by the spectre of a united, nationalist resistance, the US-led occupation forces tried to divide-and-rule, by fomenting a religious sectarian civil war.

Under Saddam, the Shia majority was largely excluded from power. The US-led forces played on Shia resentment and Sunni fears of Shia domination to ensure that armed Iraqi groups fought each other more than they fought the occupation. Occupying forces increasingly acted as arbiters between competing groups.

The result was a human rights catastrophe and the geographical division of Iraq between Shia and Sunni areas. In Baghdad, where neighbourhoods had previously been mixed, the population became segregated, with Shia and Sunni suburbs divided by US-built walls.

The US eventually succeeded in creating a new, but fragile state. But the tactic of relying on a religious civil war had brought to Iraq many forces antagonistic to US interests.

On the one hand, the Shia militias, and the Shia-dominated regime that emerged, were allied to Iran, the US's main regional rival.

On the other hand, the Sunni militias were linked to global Salafi jihadi terrorist networks, including al Qaeda whose hostility to the US had been used to justify in the invasion in the first place.


The IS originated as the al Qaeda franchise in Iraq during the occupation. In 2011, the bulk of US forces withdrew from Iraq, leaving the Iranian-allied regime in charge. Neighbouring Syria collapsed into civil war after an uprising against the Iranian-allied dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.

What was to become the IS moved into Syria and tried to take over the local al Qaeda franchise, the Nusra Front, one of several Sunni-based militia forces fighting Assad. Al Qaeda's global leaders opposed this takeover bid, causing the IS to break from it and project itself as the global leadership of Salafi terrorism.

The extreme violence of the IS, its propaganda that emphasises its own violence and its uncompromising hostility to all other political and military forces largely stems from its need to distinguish itself from other Salafi jihadi forces.

However, the IS does not have a monopoly on ultra-violence. The speed of their invasion of Iraq last year was helped by the fact that the sectarian Shia forces of the Iraqi government brutalised Sunnis.

The incompetent and corrupt Iraqi government forces melted away in the face of numerically smaller IS forces.

The new Western military intervention is not going to change this. Iraqi government forces have made some advances due to the increased supply of weapons and US-led air strikes, but these have been accompanied by massacres of Sunni civilians.

Furthermore, the March 5 New York Times noted that they have been accomplished with growing undisguised cooperation with Iran, which has also sent forces into Iraq to bolster the regime.

The forces of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), in northern Iraq, have often been cited as more reliable than the forces of the Iraqi central government.

However, the KRG forces, known as peshmerga, are only relatively more effective than the Shia-based Iraqi central government forces. When the IS attacked the Yezidi religious minority in the Sinjar region of Iraqi Kurdistan last year, the peshmerga fled. This allowed the IS to massacre hundreds of Yazidi and sell hundreds more into slavery.

The Yazidi were eventually rescued by different Kurdish forces - leftist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) fighters from Turkish Kurdistan and the People's Protection Units (YPG) and Women's Protection Units (YPJ) from Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan). These forces also stopped the IS from taking the KRG capital, Erbil.


Despite these forces having a track record of success against the IS, in Syria as well as Iraq, the West and Iran both support the KRG and criminalise the PKK and its allies as terrorists.

This hostility comes from the PKK and YPG/J's left-wing ideology and promotion of a radical form of grassroots democratic power.

In Sinjar, the PKK and YPG/J helped the local Yazidi community establish their own autonomous democratic structures, including democratically accountable militia. The KRG has condemned this as “PKK interference”.

A March 5 Canberra Times editorial noted that Western intervention and bolstering the Shia sectarian Iraqi state would help legitimise the IS and was not a strategy with any military logic.

The editorial concluded: “The lack of a clear logic, however, invites suggestion that it is yet another attempt by Mr Abbott to bolster his popular standing by playing the khaki card.”

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