The role of air strikes in Iraq

I am writing on the night sleeper, travelling down to Westminster to vote on air-strikes. Emails and texts are hammering into my Blackberry, for and against, from colleagues, constituents, friends, and journalists. The whole Scotland campaign, which absorbed us until last Friday, now seems months in the past. Parliament has been recalled at 24 hours notice. The party leaders, exhausted from their conferences, or from the UN in New York, are now focused – for the moment at least – on the Middle East.

I saw in Iraq, last month, why air-strikes can be worthwhile. Six days before I reached the frontline, Islamic State/ISIL fighters had exploded into the minority areas, and swarmed across the river, driving armoured Humvees into Kurdish territory. The peshmerga had shot at the armoured vehicles, and then, finding their bullets useless, retreated. Within a day, the Islamic State was only twenty miles from the Kurdish capital of Erbil, and the city-residents were beginning to flee. Beyond were almost four hundred thousand refugees.

But then the US airforce responded. A few days’ earlier, air-strikes would have had little effect on ISIL, because they were living amongst a Sunni population and in the heart of Sunni cities, where they were difficult to identify, and difficult to kill. They had been taxing and running whole quarters for Mosul for almost two years – long before they were formally in control. But in Kurdsitan, ISIL were mounting a full-frontal assault, across miles of open desert. The US air-strikes immediately destroyed their artillery and armoured vehicles, and ISIL were forced to abandon their attack and retreat.

The US action showed, therefore, that air-strikes can prevent the Islamic State from taking Erbil or Baghdad. They can help protect the four hundred thousand refugees, whom I saw living in half-completed buildings, under bridges, in schools, and on patches of dirt in Kurdistan. The Royal Airforce can join these strikes legally (we are not invading – we have been asked for assistance by the Iraqi government), in a broad coalition (we are joined by everyone from Bahrain to Belgium, Saudi Arabia and Australia), without endangering the lives of our troops, and in a way that protects some of the most vulnerable refugees in the world. This is worthwhile.

But President Obama’s objective is ‘to destroy ISIL.’ And that is not possible from the air. ISIL are not a conventional army, reliant on heavy armour, they are an insurgents, living in densely populated areas. So is the answer –as Tony Blair suggests – ‘troops on the ground?’ No, not that that either. We tried troops on the ground, against almost exactly the same people in almost exactly the same place (ISIL were then called Al Qaeda Iraq), only seven years ago. Over a hundred thousand US troops were put on the ground to fight them in the ‘surge’. Over a hundred billion dollars a year was spent. Hundreds of thousands of Sunni tribesmen were armed, paid and trained. At first it seemed to be a success, but within two years of the end of the “surge”, Islamist extremists were again in control of much of Mosul; within three years they had retaken much of Anbar and the Sunni triangle.

Troops on the ground are not the solution for four reasons: we were foreigners, there for a limited time; there was no credible, effective, legitimate government in charge in Baghdad; the insurgents were supported by neighbouring states; and there was no long-term trust from the local population. Those fundamental factors have not changed. To try such ‘boots on the ground’ again, with less resources, and within even less trust from the local population would be suicidal.

The only people able to create and sustain a viable alternative to the Islamic State are the local population. That will only be possible if they can create a durable government, and if other states in the region stop providing financial support, and safe-haven to Islamic state fighters. That in turn will only be possible when Sunni states cease to believe that the Islamist fighters are their allies against Iran.

The key questions are not military but political. How do you bring Turkey to actively support the fight against the Islamic State? How do you convince people in the Gulf to cease financing them? How do you stop Iraq and Syria being simply pawns in a much bigger fight between Iran and its Sunni opponents? What support can you provide for the people living under the Islamic state, to allow them to slowly escape this circle of horror?

Britain and its allies can play a role in resolving some of these issues. It would do so through large teams of diplomats and political officers working in all those countries, to try to find the seeds of a resolution. We could begin to create a much stronger diplomatic, political, and intelligence capacity in the Middle East. We have good Arabists, and we can hire more. The Gulf states would probably be prepared to pay for the whole team. But we would also need far more patience, humility, understanding, self-knowledge, and seriousness than we have yet displayed. We would have to realise that the leading role must be taken not by us but by regional players. That our primary role is to urge, argue, and facilitate. And none of this will come from 30,000 feet in the air.

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