While Twitter Raged About Woolworths' Social Media Campaign, Australian Troops Left For Another War


Another 300 Australian soldiers were ordered to Iraq this week.

The deployment, first announced in March, was formally signed off on by the Cabinet on Tuesday. The troops from the Army’s 7th Brigade in Brisbane will be in Iraq by mid-May.

The Australian force will be joined by 100 troops from New Zealand. According to the Prime Minister’s Office, “the mission of the Australian and New Zealand trainers will be to help the Iraqi Government to prepare sufficient forces to maintain the momentum of the counter-attack against ISIL, or Daesh, and regain control of its territory.”

A century after Gallipoli, ANZAC forces are again deploying to the Middle East. “The decision to commit ADF personnel to this important mission is not one that has been taken lightly,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott maintained. “But it is firmly in Australia’s national interest. The Daesh death cult is reaching out to Australians, as the terrorist incidents here late last year demonstrated.”

Let’s leave aside the entirely questionable strategic logic of combating the radicalisation of Australians by committing infantry half a world away. Let’s also leave aside the utter failure of the other training missions Australian forces have been involved with over the last decade and a half, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

No, the really depressing thing about the commitment of yet more Australian troops to a land war in Asia is the total lack of interest shown by nearly everyone in this week’s announcement.

So routine are Australian troop deployments to foreign shores nowadays, hardly anyone seems to have noticed. It’s a sobering commentary on the increasingly normal “tempo of operations” that the departure of more than 300 young Australians to a foreign war slid by with barely a mention by most of the media.

Contrast the reaction to Woolworths’ ill-fated “Fresh in Our Memories” social media campaign, which rather foolishly allowed internet users to make ANZAC-themed memes.

Social media exploded with indignation, with Woolworths forced to pull the offending site within hours. The big retailer even received a phone call from the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Senator Michael Ronaldson, who demanded to know why Woolworths had been using the sacred acronym without ministerial approval (the use of the word “ANZAC”, you see, is protected by Commonwealth law).

And yet few of those so outraged over the misuse of the ANZACs in the Woollies campaign seem to have drawn the connection to the latest military intervention by Australian and New Zealand forces.

Perhaps we’ve simply become inured to it, so common have Australian deployments to the Middle East become.

Australian troops were first deployed in Afghanistan in October 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 tragedy in New York. Operation Slipper, as it was known, went on to become Australia’s longest war. It stretched for 13 and half years and eventually involved more than 33,000 Australian personnel. 41 Australians were killed, and 261 more wounded, often seriously. Untold numbers of Aghans have died. 

And what have we got to show for it? A decade and a half since the Taliban government of Mullah Omar was toppled, the war grinds on. The Taliban have renewed the insurgency in recent months. 2014 was the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since 2008, according to a recent assessment by the Institute for the Study of War's Lauren McNally and Paul Bucala. 

Australia’s commitment in Afghanistan centred around training Afghan national forces in the southern Uruzgan province. But Uruzgan remains a battleground. In March, the Taliban killed Matihullah Khan, the chief of police for Uruzgan, in a suicide attack in Kabul.

According to this report from the Long War Journal’s Bill Roggio, Khan had become a target because of the power he and his uncle Jan Mohammad had amassed in Uruzgan. “Jan Mohammad and his nephew Maitullah were influential power brokers in Uruzgan who exploited tribal rivalries to gain power,” Roggio wrote in March. “While they fought the Taliban, their actions also drove their rivals into the ranks of the Taliban.”

Australian forces worked closely with Maitullah while they were deployed to Uruzgan, despite frequent reports of his questionable methods, including torture. At one stage, Australia even flew six of his lieutenants to Sydney to train with our special forces. Australia also paid the wages of many of the troops in his private militia, in a hush-hush arrangement with the Afghan Interior Ministry. 

But now Australia has left, and Maitullah is dead. On any analysis, Australia’s mission in Uruzgan is in ruins. If our goal was to establish security in Uruzgan, we have manifestly failed.

Australia also played a key role as an ally supporting US forces in Iraq. Again, the focus of the mission for many years was to train the Iraqi Army. Hundreds of billions were spent. Vast arsenals of arms and munitions were also provided. And yet the Iraqi Army dramatically collapsed last year in battle against the rag tag forces of the Islamic State. The Iraq government is yet again asking for foreign help to fight its many enemies. Most fair-minded observers would conclude that the western mission to train Iraqi security forces has failed.

Australia only finished Operation Catalyst, it’s Iraq occupation mission, in 2009, and we maintained security forces around our embassy after that. Now we’re back bombing Islamic State forces and training the unreliable Iraqi Army, again.

Tony Abbott puts the timeframe on this deployment at two years. Does anyone believe it will end then? Surely there will be a new crisis. There always is. Australia has become an imperial constabulary, ever available to intervene in the affairs of nations at the behest of the United States. 

There have never been any consequences for Australia’s political leaders for the failure of our wars in the Middle East. Politicians turn up to the funerals of dead soldiers, even as they commit their units to apparently endless war. The missions keep creeping, the slaughter continues.

When will it end?

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.