Australian troops in Iraq have been dealing with roadside bombs, significantly raising the risk they face, as a Fairfax Media analysis shows they are shouldering a heavier burden in the fight against the Islamic State than other comparable countries.
Defence has said that Australian special forces are already working closely with the Iraqis including tackling so-called improvised explosive devices – a more hands-on role than they were previously thought to be carrying out.
Such devices, known as IEDs, were the scourge of western forces in the previous Iraq campaign and the Afghanistan war. Fifteen of 41 Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan died from IED blasts.
“Working with their Iraqi Special Operations counterparts, the SOTG (special operations task group) has qualified more than 100 Iraqi Security Force soldiers in counter-terrorist operations, dealt with IEDs in support of ISF and conducted electronic warfare operations,” a Defence spokeswoman said.
The commandos have also “helped to co-ordinate … air strikes and close air support operations during more than 75 advise-and-assist tasks in partnership with the ISF”, the spokeswoman said.
While the government was last year considering sending additional troops for a longer term training role – following discussions between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Tony Abbott during a meeting in Beijing – it is now understood to believe Australia is currently doing its fair share.
A detailed analysis of international action in the fight against Islamic State militants reveals that key countries have not sent forces commensurate with their resources and in many cases have not yet met their pledges.
Australia’s contribution of 200 special forces plus 400 personnel working on the air campaign comes from a small standing force of about 59,000 troops.
But Britain and European countries are yet to send any substantial troop numbers for building up the Iraqi forces on the ground – which is regarded as essential to ensuring the Iraqis can retake the larges swathes of territory captured by the militants.
There is understood to be irritation across the coalition – including in Australia – that the British have not contributed more. The country’s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon last year pledged to send ground troops numbering in the “low hundreds” – from a standing force of 160,000 – but this has not yet happened.
British newspaper reports at the weekend suggested the number was being watered down to 100 or fewer amid speculation the government is worried about a political backlash in an election year.
Canada’s contribution to the air campaign is similar to Australia’s but they have sent only a few dozen special forces soldiers to train Kurdish fighters in the north.
France, Germany and Norway have also pledged ground troops to advise and train the Iraqis, but none has yet materialised. France however has about 3000 troops in North Africa hunting al-Qaeda-affiliated militants and is also involved in the air campaign in Iraq.
Fairfax Media has been told the 1500 international ground troops that the Pentagon was expecting late last year – above the 3000 the US has committed – are nowhere close to being found.
A spokeswoman for Defence Minister Kevin Andrews said Australia was “proud to partner with other countries in order to rid the world of the Daesh death cult” but “individual contributions are a matter for each country”.
But the lack of serious contributions by key countries raises questions about whether the difficult phase of the campaign – helping the Iraqis take back territory – can be achieved.
Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said it would be difficult to defeat Islamic State with the current resources.
“This is not a problem you can solve with a couple of thousand trainers … We’re probably going to be in a stalemate for most of this year.”
He said the IED threat would likely grow, particularly as the Iraqis try to go on the offensive, taking them into territory that Islamic State would litter with hidden bombs.
“I think we’re going to see a lot more IEDs actually … There is no clear distinction between the front line and rear lines in Iraq anymore.
“What that means is that our guys are actually in a pretty high threat even if they’re not doing combat operations. But they’re well-equipped to deal with it. They know how to handle themselves.”
He said allied countries were wary about getting further involved because they were unconvinced that the Obama administration was fully committed, nor that the government in Baghdad was in a good enough shape to take on Islamic State.