Magazine article The Middle East

Clueless in Iraq and Syria: The US and Britain Have No Strategy for Defeating ISIS: The Traumatic Experience of Britain's Participation in the 2003 Iraq War Led the Government to Have as Little to Do with the Country as Possible

Magazine article The Middle East

Clueless in Iraq and Syria: The US and Britain Have No Strategy for Defeating ISIS: The Traumatic Experience of Britain's Participation in the 2003 Iraq War Led the Government to Have as Little to Do with the Country as Possible

Article excerpt

By the spring of 2014, as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) prepared its great offensive that would capture a third of Iraq, the political section of the British embassy in Baghdad consisted of just three junior diplomats on short-term deployment. The British consulate in Basra, the city that had been the base for UK military operation between 2003 and 2007 and is the centre of Iraq's oil industry, had been closed in 2011.

Amazingly, Iraq was apparently a low priority for British intelligence at a moment when it was becoming obvious that much of the country was being taken over by the world's most violent terrorist movement.

These facts all come from the well-informed report by the House of Commons Defence Committee published last week which should be read by anybody seriously interested in Britain's role in the war now raging in Iraq and Syria.

It turns out that, for all the British Government's bombast about fighting Isis, it has not bothered to develop a political and military policy towards it. This would, in any case, be difficult to do because Government has denied itself the means of knowing what is happening in Iraq. The committee reports that even in December 2014, "despite the UK's long involvement in Iraq, there were no UK personnel on the ground with deep expertise in the tribes, or politics of Iraq, or a deep understanding of the Shia militia, who are doing much of the fighting".

Here, in one of the most dangerous places on earth, Britain has once again become militarily involved--if only to the extent of launching one air strike a day--without knowing what it wants to do. The report says: "The committee was shocked by the inability or unwillingness of any of the service chiefs to provide a clear, and articulate statement of the UK's objectives or strategic plan in Iraq. There was a lack of clarity over who owns the policy--and indeed whether or not such a policy exists."

The service chiefs in question responded to queries about what they thought they were up to in Iraq with some splendid pieces of waffle and mandarin-speak.

Asked who was responsible for determining future British actions, Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford, said: "Well, the answer is that there are probably about 20 different players who own different elements of the comprehensive approach that needs to be applied in Iraq, in Syria and right around the region, because of the multifaceted and multi-natured nature [sic] of the ultimate solution, and all the moving parts that need to go into place."

Such stuff is impossible to parody. Of course, there is a simple and humiliating answer to the question about who determines policy: the US. The report states baldly: "Many questions of the 'mission', or strategy, appear to have been left either in a vacuum between government departments or left to the international coalition (which appears to mean the US). We saw no evidence of the UK Government as a whole seeking to analyse, question, or change the coalition strategy, to which it is committed."

Even supine support for US policy may not bring solutions. Speaking before the US Senate Armed Services Committee in January, retired US General James Mattis said that in the war against Isis, the US has a "strategy-free" stance. At one and the same time it is seeking to weaken and eliminate Isis, but is also trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad whose army is the main military opponent of Isis. The US's supposed aim is to install moderate rebels instead of Isis and Assad, but these barely exist outside a few pockets. …

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