It’s a funny old war, this one — and the discussion of it is even stranger. As Australia joins the latest Western campaign in Iraq, where’s the debate about what’s supposed to happen?

Consider a few obvious questions.

On the weekend, a cabal of military experts told The Australian defeating the Islamic State would require a “substantial ground campaign”. Does Prime Minister Tony Abbott agree? Does Opposition Leader Bill Shorten? Is that what Australia is really signing up for?

Meanwhile, Australian scribe Greg Sheridan thinks the “long campaign ahead” might involve combat in Syria. Is this true? If so, which side of the Syrian civil war does Australia back?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says US President Barack Obama is already co-ordinating attacks with Syria (something Obama denies). More importantly, the non-IS rebel groups in Syria — the people the White House ostensibly backs — widely oppose the American air strikes.

The Atlantic says the Americans are “backing away from the goal of toppling Assad”, who is, of course, probably the worst dictator in the region. What’s the Australian attitude?

What about the Kurds? Where does Australia stand there? Bernard Keane has already noted that Australian-supplied weapons may be ending up with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is, um, a designated terrorist group. What’s Australian policy if, as many commentators expect, the Kurdish groups strengthened by the intervention declare their independence?

Let’s note that Turkey has just joined the anti-IS coalition — but, as Newsweek notes, its “reason for joining the war may be as much to suppress Kurdish separatists as to destroy ISIS”.

“It’s not merely that Australians aren’t being given the answers. It’s also that no one much seems to be asking the questions.”

What’s Abbott’s position?

What about within Iraq? We have already seen the militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demonstrating against the US returning to Iraq. Al-Sadr opposes IS, but his backers, including one of Iraq’s Deputy Prime Ministers Bahaa al-Araji, see the Americans as a bigger enemy — indeed, they call IS an American creation. How will Australia relate to this hostility from one of the most powerful groupings in the country?

On a related note, what’s the Abbott attitude to Iran, far and away the biggest winner from America’s Iraq policy since 2003? The White House seems to be allying with the Islamic state in Tehran against IS in Iraq and Syria. Is this Australian policy, too?

Most fundamentally, what happens if and when IS is pushed back? No doubt airstrikes can, as advertised, degrade the military capabilities of the Islamic State … and then what? Given the fundamentally antagonistic forces being set into motion, how does the mission end?

It’s not merely that Australians aren’t being given the answers. It’s also that no one much seems to be asking the questions. On the contrary, pundits — particularly liberal pundits — seem endlessly preoccupied with empty symbolism.

Think about the string of op-eds proposing different terms to call the Islamic State, as if that makes the slightest difference to anything. Or the way that there’s been far more discussion about the UAE’s female fighter pilot (“Maj. Mariam Al Mansouri may be ISIS’ worst nightmare”) than, say, debates on the Kurdish question. In 2010, the Australian Federal Police conducted anti-terror raids raids against Kurdish organisations across Australia on the basis that they supported the banned PKK, a group that Newsweek now calls an “important asset in the allied fight against ISIS”.

Is the fundamental incoherence of all this not of some significance, as we send young men and women out to kill and be killed?

Of course, symbolic rejections of the Islamic State’s barbarism make us feel good about ourselves, while arguing through the consequences of the strange alliances now taking shape has the opposite effect.

Peter Fray

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