Federal Politics

Eric Abetz questions Turnbull decision on Islamic State contribution, backs Kevin Andrews

Former cabinet minister Eric Abetz has joined former defence minister Kevin Andrews in challenging the Turnbull government's decision to refuse a United States request for increased military efforts in the campaign against Islamic State, saying it's the role of backbenchers to speak their mind.   

Senator Abetz also backed Mr Andrews' view that ground forces are essential to defeat Islamic State, although military experts have questioned the wisdom of any push to deploy Western combat troops. 

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Senator Abetz said Australia has a "responsibility to do as much as we can" in the coalition's efforts to defeat the extremist group.

"If somebody such as President Obama makes a request for an extra commitment, one can assume that it is a genuine request and one that I would have hoped we might have been able to entertain," the former leader of the government in the Senate told Fairfax Media.

Senator Abetz has also defended the right of government backbenchers to speak their mind, agreeing with Mr Andrews that not only are they entitled to do so but it is also their duty.

"That's the role of the backbench, to make these comments. Somebody like Kevin Andrews has a lot of experience in this area and therefore should not be discounted."

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On Thursday morning, Mr Andrews repeated calls to deploy troops to the conflict and suggested he would have responded differently than Defence Minister Marise Payne to the US request, which was made in December to the more than 40 countries in the coalition and did not ask for troop commitments. 

"It's quite clear from the advice I received, and I was aware of what the American military personnel and defence leaders were suggesting, and that was for months they were suggesting that we needed forces on the ground in order to defeat ISIL," he said.

Australia has more than 400 defence personnel in the region, involved in the aerial bombing campaign and training Iraqi soldiers. 

​Senator Abetz said ground forces would be needed, in addition to other efforts, to force Islamic State, also known as ISIS, into retreat and undermine their recruitment propaganda.

"Ultimately ground troops will be needed to clean up the last vestiges of ISIS and the quicker that can be done the better."

"Who provides those troops is another issue but I would like to think that, if called upon, Australia might be able to make a contribution because the evil of ISIS is a worldwide evil and can strike anywhere, anytime."

Retired major-general John Cantwell, a former Australian commander in the Middle East, said the call to increase military commitment was "off the mark".

"I certainly don't think a ground campaign that would involve Australian troops in a combat role would help," General Cantwell said.

He said the US strategy for defeating Islamic State was still "unformed", but airstrikes to gradually roll back the terrorists and restrict their movement had some success and Australia's current contribution was about right.

Mr Andrews, who, like Senator Abetz, was sacked from the frontbench in September after Tony Abbott was deposed by Malcolm Turnbull, said that he'd been told "for months" last year as defence minister that the American military believed ground forces were needed to defeat Islamic State.

But throughout last year, the Obama administration was also locked in vigorous debates over the wisdom of deploying Western troops.

Mr Turnbull said after meeting Obama in November the US President told him 50,000 marines could be deployed to Syria and Iraq to retake Islamic State strongholds but the problem remained of "what happens after that, when will they come home?"

US Studies Centre military expert James Brown said a deployment of a large number of Western troops in Syria and Iraq would catalyse support for Islamic State and take pressure off neighbouring countries to contribute forces.

"I don't think there is as much pressure on Australia to contribute more, as some would say," Mr Brown said.

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