In the next few days, at the request of the United States, Australia will be delivering arms and ammunition to the Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State in Northern Iraq.
Intelligence agencies have said about 60 Australians are involved with the Islamic State. So it’s within the realms of possibility that a weapon our government hands to the Peshmerga could end up being fired at one of our citizens. Furthermore, Australia’s political leaders are leaving open the possibility of aiding the Peshmerga with airstrikes (if the US asks us to), which (yes, hypothetically) could result in Australians being killed by the Royal Australian Air Force.
These military steps enjoy support from both major parties, with opposition leader Bill Shorten stating, “national security is, and always will be, above politics.” There is a lack of controversy around Australia’s decision to get involved in this war, an uncomplicated moral righteousness regarding seemingly contentious issues, and there’s something fascinating about that.
Leader of the Greens, Christine Milne, has voiced her dissent, but it had more to do with questions of policy and strategic gains than moral qualms, “There is no doubt that the Islamic State is brutal… But it was exactly the same as in Syria when they used chemical weapons against their own people; slaughter like this is taking place in the Congo; it happened in Rwanda; it happens around the world. The question is what is Australia’s engagement, how is it in our national interest, what is the objective of going into Iraq again?”
Her questions go to what kind of democracy we want. Should military action be subject to a parliamentary vote?
The only other dissenting voice was that of the Iraqi ambassador to Australia. He is fine with Australia delivering the weapons, but wants the consignment to pass through the central government in Baghdad. As it stands, we’re bypassing the Iraqi central government and arming the Peshmerga directly – probably because, as explained by an expert, the Iraq army is “torn by ethnic and sectarian tensions”.
There is also a widespread belief, echoed by shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek that the “the Peshmerga and others, have been really the only effective fighting force stopping IS”. (Interesting side note: Peshmerga is literally translated as “those who confront death”.)
Returning to the question of this war’s effect on our national security: The Abbott government is yet to introduce the divisive second tranche of legislation that will allow foreign fighters to be jailed upon their return to Australia. So the most obvious way in which Australia’s support in the war against the Islamic State will benefit our national security (in a short-term sense) is if the Australians within the IS ranks are killed. The return of foreign fighters: that’s the threat from this conflict most people fear.
The US, the UK and many other countries who have foreign fighters inside IS face similar questions. However, outside of the threat they pose, do we care that these men are citizens of our Western countries? Should we?
The Islamic State has engaged in heinous crimes, from abductions to mass killings, and it shows no sign of relenting. Many empathise with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s opinion that they are, “evil incarnate”. Certainly those captured and found guilty of taking part in such crimes should be punished. But is every member of the Islamic State, including those from our country, guilty of an atrocity? Is their association with the guilty enough to render them guilty?
It wasn’t so long ago that an Australian who had left the country to aid an extremist Islamic group was applauded at the Sydney Writer’s Festival. David Hicks had written an autobiography about his time in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and was addressing an audience of nine hundred listeners. He made the point that people should be worried about the way governments treat those citizens it considers enemies, such as Julian Assange. Hicks’ plight, his legally fraught jail term and claims of torture, received sympathy, even though his decisions in 2001 resemble those of the Australians currently fighting for the Islamic State.
I bring this up not to say that we should feel sympathy for these Australians but to say that, given time, something uncontroversial can become a lot more complicated.
Follow Girard on Twitter: @GirardDorney