Iraq crisis: Get the politics right, then the plan for the military might work

Bombing Isis jihadis provides a ‘sugar-rush’, but the Government has been silent on what it knows is needed

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The Independent Online

The bombs that we are now allowed to drop from our planes, and the Tomahawk missiles that we fire from our submarines, will kill people and destroy equipment that are believed to be critical to the paramilitary strength of Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq, as well as its war economy and government system.

As ever, the targets will be chosen by the professionals, people who, having examined the available intelligence and the risks involved, are completely sure of the logic that underpins the time-critical case for the killing and destruction. As observers, we may be dazzled by the technology, and impressed by the complicated military language used to explain what they are doing and why. As citizens of a democracy we will appreciate that Parliament has debated this issue, and as part of a multicultural society we will be relieved that our Islamic religious leaders are also against the Isis enemy, and standing behind this action.

For all the post-2003 expressions of caution, initially it may seem simple enough: journalists will count the planes out and back, in time-honoured and dramatic fashion; politicians will praise the courage of “our boys and girls” and defence staff will use PowerPoint to show us how clever they have been. All of this will help to impress the faithful and the needy, and silence the critics during party-conference season and US mid-term elections. By taking military action our leaders will look decisive and powerful at a time that is useful to them, and for a while we will feel in control.

Similarly, the occupation of a huge part of southern Iraq by too few British forces in 2003 looked bold but sustainable. The establishment by the Parachute Regiment of isolated platoon houses in Helmand looked brave and decisive in 2006. The removal of the Gaddafi regime in Libya looked timely and well received on the ground. So, too, will this air campaign look realistic, impressive and right, for a while. In the short term, we will absorb the inevitable deaths of the remaining hostages, by calling them casualties of war, even though we cannot give them an RAF Lyneham funeral.

Forgetting austerity, we will ignore the financial cost of each bomb and stoically tolerate any counter-terrorist threat alert and operations as part of the price of defending yourself, assuming that Isis will be defeated soon, and that we can go back to normal soon.

But to those of us that know Iraq, terrorists and extremism, and have fought organisations such as Isis within that country, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the situation does not look as positive, or the plan as robust, as that presented on Friday in Parliament. Projected by the theatre of Parliament, the deployment of six RAF bombers has taken on a military and political significance out of all proportion to their real military value. They provide us and our leaders, desperate to do something, with a military sugar rush, to be followed inevitably in six months’ time with the “war-downer” reality that things are not going as we wish them to, and that the long-term costs of our involvement are escalating, in ways that will need to be explained, or hidden, during a general election.

I take no pleasure in saying this. Most of my adult life has been spent in the service of trying to do my slight bit in the national interest, and, emphatically, something does need to be done. I’m just not sure doing it this way is enough. Indeed, it risks looking fearful and half-cocked.

Burdened with a sideshow of domestic political intrigue, Friday’s debate lacked any meaningful reference to the political solution that must be considered in Iraq if these bombs are to mean anything. Bombing that is not geared to an Iraqi political purpose will only create propaganda opportunities for Isis, as it seeks to legitimise its hold over western Iraq. Six months of bombing raids will certainly hurt it militarily, forcing its overextended and lightly armed forces to give up some ground, but will be certain to strengthen it politically if fighting is all that the Iraqis see. If Baghdad does not offer the Iraqi Sunnis a future that is significantly better than the one proposed by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, there can be no “Sunni uprising” against Isis, and ultimately no chance of IS being ejected from the area. As with all wars fought among a people in a country that is not our own, as in Helmand and Basra, we must get the politics right first, and the fighting has the chance of working. Get it wrong and we fail.

As for the fighting, we have heard of the intention of the coalition to help the Iraqi military to prepare for the tough offensives against Isis in the blood-stained cities of Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah, but have been given no detail. Bombing alone will not break the will of Isis to hold its ground in Iraq, and it must be joined on the ground by the Iraqi military if it is to be decisive. What, then, of this essential task?

At the latter stages of our last mission to Iraq, we spent a great deal of time emphasising the development of the Iraqi military as the path to our own exit. Now, as then, it is never enough to send them guns. Rather we must do all we can to build this institution up again by training to the point that it can play its vital and legitimate role in this campaign. Obvious to all, of course, so why the silence? If it is all “too difficult” and the “no boots on the ground” mantra prices out the option of military and liaison training teams, then we need to be clear about the limitations of the effort proposed yesterday.

Bombing and killing Isis and Iraqis without a political solution for the Iraqi Sunni is to risk strategic failure – to risk making the Iraqi Sunni see Baghdad as oppressors and not liberators. Bombing without an effective Iraqi army is to risk operational stalemate on the ground and a fixing of the front lines, both of which appear to define the course that we have set ourselves. I hope that I am wrong, but I fear that as appealing as the Government’s vote may be to some audiences at home at party conference time, Isis will more pleased than frightened by the message that was sent yesterday.

Richard Williams is a former commanding officer of the SAS and served in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan