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UK lacks strategy to battle Islamic State, must step up efforts, say MPs

Report describes an uncoordinated UK effort to date, questions whether focus should be on containing, not eliminating militant group
Iraqi and British soldiers conduct a joint exercise in Basra in 2007 when the UK government played a larger role in the country (AFP)

The UK must step up its efforts to fight the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, according to a searing report by the House of Commons defence committee which questions whether the UK has a clear strategy – or a strategy at all.

Among the report’s recommendations are that the UK provide training and support for the Iraqi security forces, increase monitoring and engagement with Iraqis on the ground and “radically increase” diplomatic and defence engagement with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The report also wonders if, given the division and weakness of the Iraqi state, whether containing and suppressing the IS group is a “more realistic goal than total elimination”.

Some analysts say the report reflects a country burned by the past decade's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter one of the longest campaigns in British military history, and finding its diplomatic feet after parliament rejected military action against Syrian president Bashar Assad's government in August 2013. 

War weariness

Others say that along with a climate of war weariness, the challenges are indicative of broader problems in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has lost more than a quarter of its budget during the five-year coalition government.

"This is a problem about diplomacy in a structural sense. It's not about Iraq," said Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at Royal United Services Institute. "It's not just do you have a presence, but what do you do with it?" 

The 55-page cross-party report, a result of interviews with Middle East and military experts and top UK military leaders, describes an uncoordinated UK effort to date, often seemingly in the shadows of the US coalition leadership.

When asked what the mission is in Iraq, the report said, the UK service chiefs said one of the reasons they could not describe or define the mission “was that it was not their mission to define.”

“I think the trouble is you are not really addressing [questions] to the people who are going to be able to answer [them]. It seems to me it is fundamentally a question for somebody from the Foreign Office to answer. Or even from Downing Street,” said the Chief of the General Staff Sir Nicholas Carter.

The report notes that despite the UK’s historic experience and knowledge of Iraq, second only to the US, other countries, including Italy, Australia and Spain, have committed troops to train Iraqi forces in a remote desert base while the UK has not.

IS brings UK back into Iraq

In September 2014, the House of Commons voted to begin military operations in Iraq. At the time, Prime Minister David Cameron said: “The question before the House today is how we keep the British people safe by the threat posed by ISIL and, in particular, what role our armed forces should play in the international coalition to dismantle and ultimate destroy what President Obama has rightly called this network of death.”

He continued, “Is there a clear comprehensive plan? Yes. It starts at home with tough, uncompromising action to prevent attacks and hunt down those who are planning them . . . we must take action at home, but we must have a comprehensive strategy to defeat these jihadists abroad.”

The government voted 524 to 43 to join the US-led coalition. Since then, the UK actions have “remained strikingly modest”, the report said.

They have included carrying out, on average, less than one airstrike in Iraq per day, “presumably” providing Special Forces support, supplying 40 heavy machine-guns as well as non-lethal equipment to Kurds and offering 48 trainers, though it is unclear where the trainers are based, nor whom they are training.

'Feeding jihadist narrative'

During a visit of the commitee's leaders to Baghdad six months after Islamic State’s capture of Mosul, the entire UK military presence in Iraq, outside of Kurdish regions “amounted to three individuals”.

"We must clearly acknowledge the previous failures in Iraq and reform our approach," Rory Stewart, chair of the committee that released the report, told the Guardian. "But the does not mean lurching to nothing."

Nick Witney, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and former chief executive at the European Defense Agency, said on Thursday that the UK would be "hard pressed to find a stupider policy".

"This sort of casual air campaign just feeds the jihadist narrative of a West that is determined to kill Muslims and generally act against the Islamic world," Witney said. 

"If we were doing some good on the ground, fine, that's the risk you take. But since the effect on the ground is, if anything, counter-productive, then its irresponsible."

Neighbours 'must find political solution'

Among alternatives to prolonged airstrikes, the onus should fall on Iraq and its neighbours to find political solutions, Witney said. The new Iraqi government, he said, should establish national unity; Iran should reign in Shia militias fighting in Iraq; Turkey should do more to secure its borders.

"And, of course," he added, "no one has a sensible policy about Syria and [Bashar] Assad."

Joshi, the senior research fellow at Royal United Services Institute, said the challenges outlined in the report highlight a UK diplomacy issue, one not unique to Iraq.

In the spring of 2014, as the report makes clear and Joshi underlined, Iraq was a low priority for UK intelligence: "There was no defence section in Kurdistan, no DFID office in Iraq, and the political section of the British Embassy in Baghdad consisted of three relatively junior employees on comparatively short-term deployments."

The question should not be, he said, why didn't the UK flood Iraq with intelligence officers, but did the UK "have enough of a deep, institutional understanding that would take us beyond any crisis?"

Joshi questioned whether the process of allocating diplomatic personnel was broken, leading to "thin" coverage in Iraq. "If you aren't going to Fallujah and Ramadi regularly, you are going to miss out ... You can't live in Baghdad and think you understand Anbar."

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