As the thirteen member (including New Zealand) Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State meets in Paris to plot the eventual demise of the movement known as Daesh, the campaign to drive Daesh out of Mosul, its northern Iraq stronghold is gathering pace. According to western media, this is but a formality. Mosul cannot stand forever, they report, and the only questions are when it will fall, and what unspeakable atrocities will Daesh have been discovered to have perpetrated on the local citizenry in the meantime. It all seems very logical and straightforward.
But there is another aspect to this which is not receiving nearly the same amount of attention. Put simply, what happens next? The fall of Mosul, whenever it occurs, will not be the fall of Daesh. As with all guerrilla movements ever, it will simply regroup somewhere else, and start its campaign all over again. Meanwhile, the Coalition will be engaged in extensive ongoing peacekeeping in and around Mosul, as well as significant post-event reconstruction. Already, New Zealand’s deployment of 140 Defence training personnel has been extended until at least 2018. The same will be occurring amongst all the other members of the Coalition, and with no guarantee that there will not be pressure to extend the 2018 deadline.
Since World War I, the West has shown an unerring ability to get involved in the Middle East with constant disastrous consequences. Despite the persistent external pervasive military presence over the years by the Americans, the British, the French and others, let alone all the covert operations from all sides, the entire region has remained a consistently unstable powder keg, as the various powers seek to play out their geopolitical ambitions on the distant soil of others. It is no coincidence that the consequences have led to artificially drawn national boundaries from Egypt east to Turkey and beyond, ensuring the powers’ ongoing involvement to prop up the range of artificially created states that have emerged.
It was oil that sparked the interest of the western powers in the region over a century ago. Ever since, it has been a dominant feature, from Rommel’s Afrikakorps campaign in 1942, through to the toppling of the Mossadeq regime in 1953 and the propping up of the Shan of Iran until the late 1970s, the burning of the Kuwaiti oilfields during the 1990 Iraqi invasion, and the constant blind eye turned to the perennial civil rights abuses of the Saudi Arabian regime. Protecting oil interests and the infrastructure that surrounds them has been the one consistent thread of western policy towards the Middle East. When the regional distrust of foreign intervention is added to the swirl of traditional cultures and religious differences the mix becomes a very volatile one indeed. In such circumstances, the emergence of groups like Daesh becomes understandable, even if their practices and conduct are utterly intolerable by our standards.
The focus on the elimination of Daesh is understandable and justified, but it is also very short-term and narrow in its focus. Its defeat – whenever it may occur at some point in the future – will not be the end of the struggle. While the overall situation remains as it is, where the West feels free to intervene in the region, as and when it sees fit, resentment and bitterness will remain amongst affected local people. The rise of fundamentalism will become that much more explainable.
The real challenge, therefore, for the nations of the Coalition is the far bigger one of respecting sovereignty and enabling the countries of the region to develop their own viable systems of governance and economic development. It will mean working with and alongside them to achieve their national objectives, and supporting them to do so. Sadly, the experience of the last hundred years strongly suggests this will be a forlorn hope. The last thing the western powers favour is surrendering their position in the Middle East. So groups like Daesh seem destined to continue.
New Zealand’s challenge is to determine its future role. To date, our focus has been on peacekeeping and reconstruction activity, which is laudable. We should continue with that approach, without fear or favour to any particular side, but instead focusing always on the humanitarian aspect. However, our position is in danger of being blurred by our participation in groups like the Global Coalition where the interests are far more political. We are being drawn inextricably into its web, with there being suggestions already that our current deployed personnel are involved in more military activity that we have admitted. Our respected and noble role as peacekeepers runs the risk of being compromised, which we cannot afford.
During the invasion of Iraq in 2003 New Zealand won plaudits for not joining the so called Coalition of the Willing, saying that as a believer in a rules-based international system it preferred to be working to a United Nations mandate. It is time once more to recommit to that approach.