Update in light of the House of Commons Report
This post first went up on January 22nd. I update it now as Britain’s House of Commons Defence Select Committee has released a report today criticising Britain’s limited military involvement in the fight against Da’ish (also known as Islamic State). Reinforcing the concerns I raised in the post below, the report suggests there is an “unwillingness of any of the Service Chiefs to provide a clear, and articulate statement of the UK’s objectives or strategic plan in Iraq”. It also criticises the “lack of clarity over who owns a policy—and indeed whether such a policy exists”. Link to the report here.
Back to the future
Philip Hammond, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, hosted a summit on January 22nd of 21 of the 60 countries contributing effort to defeat Da’ish, the increasingly used term to better describe the group also known as IS (see here). Coordination of the international campaign is sorely needed. For one thing, Britain’s military involvement is primarily from the air. Given limited political appetite for boots on the ground after the recent campaigns this decision is understandable. But it is also a glaring strategic mistake.
As operations in Afghanistan wound down towards the end of 2014, Britain’s Royal Air Force shifted the focus back to Iraq. Tornado aircraft started interdicting Da’ish in October, with Reaper remotely piloted air systems (RPAS, or drones) commencing operations on November 10th. The tempo did not slow over Christmas and, according to figures released by the British government here, has increased throughout January.
We have been here before. After the first Gulf War in 1991 the imposition over Iraq of the northern and southern No-Fly Zones by America, Britain and France was expected to lead to the fall of Saddam Hussein. They achieved nothing of the sort. A Top Secret document (see here) from December 2001, declassified in 2011, between the office of Sir Richard Dearlove, then Chief of Britain’s overseas spy agency the Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6) and Sir David Manning (then foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair) states: ‘Regimes have compromised with Baghdad (sanctions busting) for gain because they see no prospect of effective action to remove Saddam’.
‘No prospect of effective action’ neatly describes how air power alone cannot dictate events on the ground. Supporters of the current strategy in Iraq see the Kurdish Peshmerga forces as the ground element; capable to a degree the marsh Arabs and others that rose up against Saddam after the 1991 Iraq war never were. They will also point to the current efforts to expand the Iraqi army and reduce their reliance on shia militias (or ‘volunteers’ as Iraq’s Human Rights Minister told me here.) They might be right, but basing a military strategy on such imponderables is a bold step.
There is another, arguably more worrying, lesson from the No-Fly Zones. Committing combat forces is about as serious a decision a state can take. There is no room for getting it wrong, and victory, however weakly defined, is a must. The No-Fly Zones became a strategy in their own right and the longer they endured the higher were the stakes. To withdraw the forces would have been to embolden Saddam and he would have claimed, rightly, to have seen off another attack. But in the absence of a definitive outcome (and with no UN resolution backing the action) the three Western powers had a choice: commit to a costly and never-ending military campaign, or force a conclusion. Starting military action without knowing how to end it is not a strategy and it rarely ends well.
Da’ish are unhindered by the line on the map beyond which Britain has decided it will not act (although other Coalition members take a different view). A strategy with no clear link to an end-state and a fragile relationship with a largely-unknown ground force may succeed. But history suggests it won’t. And when it fails, it fails explosively.