Australia’s long-running mission in Iraq seems about to end, not by a choice of the Australian government to disengage at the natural conclusion of a job well done but by a decision of the Iraqi Parliament to expel US forces and their allies, including Australia.
Outraged at the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani by a UAV missile strike last week, the Iraqi government acted speedily, with acting Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi calling an emergency session of the Parliament.
Shia MPs in the fractious Parliament voted overwhelmingly for the 5,000 US troops in Iraq, plus their allies, to go.
It doesn’t automatically follow that this will occur. No deadline was set for withdrawal. US President Donald Trump threatened to sanction Iraq “like they’ve never been sanctioned before” if it actually went through with the expulsion.
Discounting the Trumpian rhetoric, Iraq knows all about sanctions. In the 1990s, international sanctions championed by the US following the Kuwait war brought the country to its knees.
Iran, now the subject of intensive US sanctions, also know what this is like.
Once before, Iraq booted US and ally forces from the country. That was in 2011, though by that stage the drawdown was well under way and the ultimate cause was the Iraqi refusal to consent to a new status of forces agreement.
At that time, the worst of the insurgency was over and Iraqi security forces were mostly managing. The Shia-dominated government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki was ascendant, friendly with Iran and keen to see the end of foreign engagement in his country.
The US and others urged him to consolidate the gains made in improving the security force capability by at least maintaining a foreign military presence to continue training and mentoring. That was not to be.
Al-Maliki’s pro-Shia chauvinism created the circumstances for what was to come. As Islamic State ventured forth from Syria in 2014, the Iraqi Army should have stopped them in their tracks but it proved utterly hollow, large in manpower but lacking in competent leadership.
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It speedily collapsed and there were times when Baghdad appeared at threat.
So, the US and allies including Australia returned. Prudently, the Iraqis ruled out participation of foreign combat forces, as it was their fight in their territory.
But they had no problem with using Western air power, including that of Australia.
Australia contributed an air task group, comprising F/A-18F Super Hornets and later F/A-18 Classic Hornets, a KC-30A tanker and a E-7A Wedgetail, operating from the Al-Minhad Air Base (AMAB) in the United Arab Emirates and flying over Iraq and later Syria.
The final strike mission was flown in January 2018 and the combat aircraft returned home. The KC-30A and Wedgetail have continued to support coalition operations.
Most affected by Iraq’s decision would be Task Group Taji, comprising around 300 Australians and 100 New Zealanders who provide training to the Iraqi Army at the vast Taji military base, just north of Baghdad.
This deployed in April 2015 and is now in its 10th rotation. Initially the aim was to train Iraq battalions in infantry skills for the fight to retake the city of Mosul.
That started out with the basics, zeroing their M16A2 rifles and convincing the Iraqi soldiery that the way to kill IS was with single aimed shots rather than through spray and pray.
That advanced to small unit tactics, building clearance and combat first aid. That training was apparently much appreciated in the bloody fight for Mosul.
With Mosul recaptured, the training evolved to more specific areas, including lifting the capability of Iraqi para-military police to occupy and retain territory recovered from IS.
Of all the Australians in Iraq, those closest to the action were members of the Special Operations Task group which provided training and mentoring to the Counter-terrorism Service, Iraq’s best soldiers.
That comprised around 80 personnel and like much to do with special forces, not much is known of their activities, though Defence has insisted they were not engaging in the fighting.
So, as many as 400 Australian and 100 New Zealand personnel would be affected by any decision to withdraw.
In practical terms, that would not be too difficult. Taji has an airstrip and the RAAF the capability to conduct the evacuation that could stage through AMAB.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne has urged the Iraqi government to allow Australian and international partners to continue their vital work.
"We understand the resolution passed by Iraq’s Parliament is non-binding, absent formal approval by the government in Baghdad," she said.
However, now might be an appropriate time to end the mission. Its work is done and rising tensions between the US and Iran could place Australian and New Zealand personnel too close to any conflict.
On Wednesday, Iran launched rocket attacks on two air bases used by US forces, Erbil in northern Iraq and al-Assad in western Iraq. That’s nowhere near Taji and Australian and New Zealand personnel are safe, for now.
Indeed, one line of thought is that Iraq’s move to expel US and other foreign forces was intended to ensure it did not become the battleground in fighting between the US and Iran.
The national security committee of cabinet was to meet on Thursday morning to consider any additional protective measures as well as a possible withdrawal.