24 May 2015

The UK and ISIL

Looking back I find that Sir Richard Dannatt (once the general in charge of the British Army and now Lord Dannatt) was in six posts here in 2011, only one the following year and not at all since. Anyone who has the time might find the 2102 post, The Prescience of Mr Powell, of interest. It drew on Jonathan Powell’s account of the problems he and Tony Blair had had with Dannatt, in particular in 2006. The General had given an interview to the Daily Mail “saying that the presence of British forces in Iraq made things worse”.
Then, In the aftermath, we arranged for Tony to have a sandwich lunch with the service chiefs in Jock Stirrup's office at the MoD. Dannatt insisted on talking, and after a few minutes it was quite clear to me that he was unsuited to his job. Tony explained to those present that politicians would not support maintaining a first-division army if they were caused too much political pain by serving generals speaking out against their mission. It was always easier for politicians not to risk soldiers' lives. But I fear he was too subtle for Dannatt, who was divinely convinced of his own rightness.
So I was intrigued by an article by an article by Dannatt in the Mail on Sunday on 24 May 2015, I'm no gung-ho general, says the former Army chief LORD DANNATT - but the debate must start NOW to send in UK ground troops to combat evil of ISIS. Dannatt is appalled like most of us by the imminent destruction of Palmyra:
These majestic ruins represent thousands of years of human civilisation and there is now surely no doubting just how great a threat IS poses to civilisation in the region and beyond. If the problem of the IS caliphate is not resolved in Syria and Iraq, its ambition will spread across the Middle East, across North Africa and potentially into southern Europe and the Balkans – the historic high water mark of Islam in the 14th and 15th Centuries. And although the United States might think it enjoys the security of the Atlantic between itself and where IS wants to expand, it cannot forget the domestic terrorist threat. In light of this terrifying scenario, how much longer can Britain and the US continue to show such a lack of commitment to defeating IS militarily?
Since air strikes and what Dannatt refers to as “indigenous forces” are not defeating IS:
We have now reached a point when we must think the previously unthinkable and consider that British troops, acting as part of an international coalition, may be required to mount a ground campaign in Iraq and Syria.
The reason he thinks this would work is that:
IS has chosen to hold ground, and as such its troops are not classic insurgents but more akin to conventional soldiers. Unlike the Taliban, they're not moving in the shadows or hiding among civilians; tactics which caused huge problems in Afghanistan. Rather, they are operating in fully formed units and using conventional tactics. Therefore, they will present targets and objectives for international military forces to strike.
which is obliging of them, but several questions come to mind. Firstly why, are the air strikes failing if ISIL “are operating in fully formed units” which “present targets … to strike”? Secondly, if international coalition forces do appear, what will stop IS changing its tactics to “moving in the shadows or hiding among civilians … which caused huge problems in Afghanistan”? Thirdly, if the indigenous forces are performing so badly as they were recently at Ramadi, lacking the will to fight ISIL according to the US Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, just how long term a commitment would any outside coalition be taking on? Fourthly, how would such a coalition deal with the mutual antipathy of the Shia and Sunni elements, the former linked to Iran, who constitute the “indigenous forces”? Rather obliviously, Dannatt later proposes:
… we should also be doing far more to support the indigenous forces currently fighting IS, giving them better equipment and information.
Although Dannatt says he is calling for a “public and political debate to begin immediately, so that the arguments for and against the deployment of Western ground forces can be aired”, it’s pretty obvious that his mind is made up:
If we decide to deploy, I think we should be looking at about 5,000 troops, a fully fledged brigade with infantry troops, attack helicopters, artillery, mortars, reconnaissance and surveillance assets.
which would be not that far removed from the size of the UK forces in Iraq in the later phases of Operation Telic and in Afghanistan in the later phases of Operation Herrick. Dannatt is clear that:
As the professional head of the British Army from 2006 to 2009, I will never forget the costs of the Iraq campaign in terms of the loss of UK soldiers, 179 of whom paid the ultimate price for the decision to invade. Likewise in southern Afghanistan, where more than 450 of our finest young men and women died trying to defeat the Taliban. But today we must find the courage of our convictions to put these costly wars behind us and go about defeating IS on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria.
There are some problems to be addressed on the way:
A UN Security Council resolution would be required to authorise such an intervention, with China and Russia persuaded not to veto the move. 
... [President Assad of Syria] should be forced to leave office as part of a deal and be granted sanctuary in another state. 
Regional powers such as Iran must also be consulted, perhaps behind closed doors.
Not to mention our own politicians:
… the incumbent Prime Minister and leaders of the other major parties adopted the mantra [in the run-up to the General Election] that wars are simply too politically toxic to be discussed.
But now:
While Prime Minister David Cameron is rightly not going to be pushed around by a retired general calling for this or that in terms of a ramped up British military involvement in Iraq and Syria, he should at least hear calls for a public debate.
At which point Dannatt ducks out on a modest note:
I am not suggesting that I have all the answers, far from it, but to those who would be wholly opposed to such a deployment, I would say do we really want to do nothing and simply watch what happens? Could the ambition of the IS caliphate get close enough to this country so that we face a far bigger problem later? I don't know. Such a deployment would be costly in terms of blood and treasure, and judgements must be made. The debate should start now.
Lurking in the background are some other problems: the UK government’s need to cut spending and, not unrelated, its forthcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review. An army which isn’t fighting, nor likely to, is in danger of being perceived as an outdoor and sporting activities club with high manpower costs, very expensive hardware and ceremonial uniforms – a likely target for savings measures. On the other hand, wars like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan certainly cost billions of pounds – if only the benefits had been as clear. There are some serious questions, too, as to the US’s appetite for involvements of this kind – if the UK were to put 5000 troops into Iraq/Syria presumably it would be alongside, if no-one else, the US which would be fielding four to five times that level. As to whether the IS caliphate could get close to the UK – first time it was Tours, second Vienna:

And now read these pertinent extracts from Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative party conference last September, posted here. What, if anything, to do? As the Duc de Lévis, 18th century Maréchal de France, pointed out, Gouverner, c'est choisir (To govern is to choose).

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