Gehan Gunasekara: Fighting Isis not black and white - it's spattered red

There is a danger of escalation should the current proxy conflict spill into conflict between the great powers involved, writes Gehan Gunasekara. Photo / AP
There is a danger of escalation should the current proxy conflict spill into conflict between the great powers involved, writes Gehan Gunasekara. Photo / AP

In an article in the Herald Paul Buchanan makes the case for New Zealand to respond positively to United States requests to deploy our special forces, the SAS, in Iraq. The request was, of course, predictable and anticipated at the time our government made the decision to send troops to help train Iraqi forces. Below are some of the reasons why we should not join the now fashionable rush to fight Isis.

Buchanan makes a number of salient points why New Zealand's SAS can make a worthwhile contribution but they are, for the most part, technical reasons that ignore the underlying geopolitical realities in the region. Similar reasons were advanced during the Vietnam War for technical military and civilian aid which proved fruitless due to the lack of legitimacy on the part of the regime it was sought to prop up.

For example, Buchanan argues there is a leadership deficit within the Iraqi forces which the SAS can fill by acting as leadership advisers on the battlefield. Readers may wish to ponder why this deficit exists in the first place. It will be recalled that, following its illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the United States in its infinite wisdom disbanded the entire Iraqi army, including its officers. It has been reported that the stiff resistance offered by Isis to recent advances by the Iraqi government forces is at least partly due to the advice and training as well as leadership provided by some of these very officers to the Islamic cause.

It is also worthwhile, in this context, to ask how bad things must be for former senior officers in Saddam's secular Baathist regime to make common cause with the likes of medievalist Isis. This brings us to the crux of the problem. The removal and destabilisation of secular regimes in Iraq, Syria and Libya - however unpalatable they may have been from the standpoint of current Western notions concerning human rights - have opened the hapless citizens of these countries to unimaginable horrors and far worse predicaments where their human rights are concerned.

In Syria, for instance, the only truly secular force opposing Isis is the Syrian Arab Army of the Assad regime. Its commanders include Christian officers. There is a Humpty Dumpty aspect to this. Once such regimes fall all the Kings men and all the King's horses cannot simply put the whole tapestry back together. The conflict in the region is not black and white; it is instead complex with traditional rivalries between Sunni and Shia and control of resources and other strategic interests thrown in.

Buchanan argues the participation of 59 other countries - including Iran and Russia - in the fight against Isis legitimises our own involvement. Each of these countries is there to pursue its own selfish objectives under the excuse of fighting Isis. It is not obvious why New Zealand should support some of these great power objectives and not others. A similar situation prevailed in Europe prior to the outbreak of World War I. It should be noted, also, that a similarly large number of countries participated in the "coalition of the willing" in the 2003 invasion.

Finally, there is a danger that this conflict will draw us ever deeper into a quagmire. There is a danger of escalation should the current proxy conflict spill into conflict between the great powers involved themselves. If we are in the supposed Western "team" we are also subject to whoever is captaining it. Consider, for example, a scenario where Donald Trump becomes United States President and provokes open conflict with Russia or Iran in the region. If we are already committed it may be too late to withdraw - the old adage applies of "in for a penny in for a pound".

Gehan Gunasekara is an associate professor at the University of Auckland Business School.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


Have your say

1200 characters left

By and large our readers' comments are respectful and courteous. We're sure you'll fit in well.
View commenting guidelines.

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 25 Oct 2016 10:14:00 Processing Time: 470ms