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How to defeat Isis, by a retired British commander

Russia and Nato should work in ­cooperation, not competition. But bombing alone will not be enough

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

Like most British soldiers of my generation, I fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Few would now justify the reasons for invading Iraq; most of us who fought there at first recognised the amateurish nature of the strategy and its lack of realistic political objectives. But in 2007, under General Petraeus, the coalition adopted a new strategy that was underpinned by coherent policy. This stemmed from the recognition that unless common cause was found with moderate Sunnis, a workable Iraqi polity could never be established.

The rapid improvements that flowed from this change were impressive but disgracefully shortlived. The US departure from Iraq in 2010 allowed the Shi’ite Nuri Al Maliki a free rein to threaten Sunni interests and explains the Iraqi half of today’s tragedy in the Middle East.

In the other half, the West has shown similar strategic illiteracy in Syria. Efforts to excite opposition to Assad were unsupported by even the remotest understanding of what might follow. Just as with Saddam and Gaddafi, no credible alternative to Assad waits in the wings.

Part of this stems from the crisis of confidence experienced by both the US and UK as a result of Iraq and Afghanistan. The prevailing judgment is that all interventions are ill-advised, especially those involving boots on the ground. The best the West can do is to bomb from a safe distance and make half-hearted efforts to raise local militias. Bombing and drone strikes have their place if properly targeted, but no aircraft has ever held ground. Without western forces, local militias will continue to be highly unreliable.

Some have criticised David Cameron for a lack of strategic thinking: his campaign in Libya had no plan to follow Gaddafi; his lost vote in the House of Commons on Syria showed lack of forethought.

These criticisms are not without substance. But there is a different side to the Prime Minister. Unlike some politicians, he has courage: he was, at some personal risk, prepared to get on the ground in Helmand when visiting recently liberated areas.

Cameron could have what it takes to be a strong leader in a time of crisis. But there were several reasons it was hard for him to do the right thing. He could not be certain of a majority in Commons. Cuts to the army now make it hard to deploy a coherent force at scale. Until there is a change of policy, Obama is unlikely to provide the lead that he should. And Cameron has shown no appetite to have the sort of relationship that Churchill had with his military chiefs, preferring instead the advice of his intelligence agencies. Agency heads can give you the intelligence, but they are unqualified to determine the solutions.


But as Paris shows, events change perceptions and perceptions change policy. What, then, would a coherent strategy look like for Iraq and Syria? The counter-terrorist view of the world holds that the problem cannot be defeated; it can only be contained. Britain will now increase expenditure on the agencies and special forces; Europe will try to tighten its borders with consequences for freedom of trade and movement; measures to track and detain suspects will become increasingly authoritarian. In short, the West risks turning Europe into a giant version of Israel, in which a paranoid population turns in on itself in fear of the outside world.

But terrorism is not the cause of the problem; it is merely a symptom. The solution lies in creating a polity that recognises Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Alawite, Turkish and Christian interests. In place of Sykes-Picot, which carved up the Middle East after the first world war, this means accepting a re-drawn region in which Assad (or his successor) has a place in a rump Alawite state, and in which a new Sunni polity is created. In such an arrangement, Sunnis would not feel threatened by Assad, and the pressure to find refuge in Europe would subside. Moderate Sunnis would also quickly find common cause against Isis and return their society to its civilised roots.

A military strategy could look as follows: Russia and Nato should work in co-operation, not competition (notwithstanding recent tensions with Turkey), to degrade Isis through the use of air and special forces. In fact, pragmatic measures to avoid shooting at each other are already emerging. But bombing on its own will not be enough. A coherent Nato command-and-control structure should be deployed. Nato’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps should command a significant ground force, consisting of US, UK and French divisions. In parallel, a powerful training mission should be created to allow a coherent exit strategy in which Nato forces would rapidly reduce in numbers and be replaced by Sunni Arab forces.

With political objectives aligned, the Russians should sit outside the formal Nato command structure. Some recoil at the idea of working with Putin. Let no one forget Churchill’s pre-war hatred for the Soviet Union. And yet as soon as Hitler invaded Russia, Churchill was quick to make common cause with Stalin. This same realism should inform our relationship with Putin.

While our government has announced new money, it is hard to tell whether Cameron really understands the damage done to the present army. It seems unlikely that he knows how many troops are fit to fight, how many tanks have spares and whether there are sufficient logistic stockpiles to sustain even a short campaign. Measures should be taken to restore the UK’s only operational division to its proper fighting strength now, rather than wait for jam tomorrow.

Soon the House of Commons will have another chance to vote on Syria. This time, as before, the government seems to believe that military action can create the conditions for a political solution, but without any sense of what that political solution really is. The best that can be offered is to bomb and see what happens. We owe it to the innocent victims of this conflict, whether in Syria, Iraq, Paris, or wherever the violence next occurs, to do better. The House of Commons should therefore ask itself the following questions:

— What is the political objective and is it realistic?

— Can a grand coalition of the willing be created under US leadership which can coalesce around the same political objective?

— If a grand coalition cannot be created (without for instance Russia and Iran), how would this affect the strategy?

— What military resources will be needed to achieve the objective?

— If, for political reasons, the right military means are judged unacceptable (notably ground forces), then would doing nothing be better than doing something?

— After the political objective has been achieved, are we willing to show strategic patience and stay the course?

If the government can produce sensible answers to these questions, then its strategy should be supported. But if not, the House of Commons would be wise to wait.

The author is a recently retired British commander. His current job requires him to remain anonymous.


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