Clear blueprint for peace and a strong UN mandate are essential if we’re to accept Iraq’s plea for military help.

Iraq has many longstanding friends, but few of them are willing to defend it. It is for this reason their foreign minister flew to Australia and New Zealand with an invitation to join a war.

The enemy to be fought is beyond reproach. The only fruits of the 21st century they desire are the weaponry and the social media through which they can portray their cruelty. There is no crime of war, nor crime against humanity that they have not committed. The murder and mayhem they desire and cause is not restricted to Iraq and Syria. If the United States did not intervene when it did, the Middle East would now be one large sectarian war.

It may yet become such a conflict as all of the regional powers are sitting on the sidelines, betting on proxies via the provision of men, money and weapons. This is an unprecedented mess in which the failure of the international community, two civil wars and the Arab Spring have combined since 2003 to claim nearly 400,000 lives and create about four million refugees.

Estimates of the size of the Islamic State (Isis) range between 31,000 and 200,000 fighters. The flow of volunteers is not diminishing. Although the tide of Isis-occupied territory appears halted in Iraq, it continues to spread in Syria. Into this ocean, a total of 10,000 coalition soldiers and supporting private contractors have been given the task to retrain the Iraqi army. This army has had about US$25 billion ($33.3 billion) spent on it since 2004. The only thing it lacks is spirit, which more often than not is best delivered by having military trainers embedded with them. By comparison, when New Zealand got involved in Afghanistan, it was as part of a United Nations effort that involved more than 100,000 soldiers and unlimited air-power. Even then, it took 13 years of conflict and cost the lives of 4000 soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians to bring the fragile stability that exists today.

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Any coalition soldiers in Iraq will be vulnerable. If captured, their chances for survival are slim and their deaths may be streamed over the internet. There is no magical wire to hide behind that guarantees that the suicide bombers, assassins and gunmen will not get through. These problems will multiply when the Iraqi and Coalition forces go from the defence to the offence and start trying to recapture areas in which there are hundreds of thousands of people, not all of whom are unsympathetic to Isis.

As this unfolds we will need to ask ourselves about our complicity in this situation. We will need more of a justification than an extreme enemy like Isis. We also need to be thinking about the values of the Iraq we will be defending. If considerations of democracy, human rights, the protection of minorities and fighting against corruption are not at the forefront of the new Iraqi government, then it is not at all certain what we are trying to achieve. We need to have a goal of what peace looks like. To do this, we must be prepared to accept that national boundaries may need to be redrawn. These questions will become even more complicated as we are forced to recognise the Syrian side of this equation, as it will be impossible to solve one of these problems without solving the other.

Most of all, we must do everything in our power to make this an internationally backed mission from the United Nations with strong regional support. Without this mandate, we will be challenged in terms of the size and diversity of our military forces, time commitment, the values of the mission and the chances for a meaningful peace. More than that, we may lose.

None of what I have written above is to suggest we should not be involved in helping to fight Isis, although doubling our humanitarian assistance and helping build social institutions in Iraq would probably go much further than weapons training. But if we do get involved, we need to be honest about the risks and think critically about what peace should look like. These considerations need to be weighed against the need to hang tight with our good friends who have already walked into this quagmire.

Alexander Gillespie is a law professor at the University of Waikato and author of The Causes of War.
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