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Why the UK needs a new model of preventative intervention

There is no military solution to overcome the conditions in which Islamist extremism thrives.

British soldiers are seen inside a British army Boeing C-17 cargo aircraft en route to Bamako, the capital of Mali. Photograph: Getty Images.

Recent events have vividly and tragically demonstrated the threat of Islamist extremism in north and west Africa. It is right the international community takes action in Mali to stop extremism taking root, but with transition in Afghanistan and the publication of the Iraq inquiry on the horizon it is right we look at the wider implications for UK defence.

In Africa and elsewhere today, there are nations at risk of instability in which we have an interest in ensuring increased prosperity and security. Insecurity is exploited by groups, some linked to al-Qaeda associates, whose complexity is deep-rooted, driven by local grievance as much as global ideology. Common conditions born from state weaknesses – lawlessness, poverty – drive instability, but the circumstances in which extremism emerges are often nation-specific. Many states lack the capacity to tackle extremism alone.

The question for us is how, not whether, we respond to this. UK citizens are put at risk and it is in line with our national interest and values to prevent humanitarian abuse or terrorist activity. A belief that we have responsibility beyond our borders is not, as some would have it, ideological, but an essential response to the world in which we live. The response can be development or diplomacy and, as a last resort, military intervention. Our nation should be haunted by the isolationist reticence of Douglas Hurd over Bosnia and the tragedy we witnessed in Rwanda.

While Iraq and Afghanistan have been painful and rightly controversial we cannot hide from the fact that events and threats overseas may necessitate the use of force in the future. This is something we as a party we will not be immune from in government. But at a time of financial constraint and with the electorate weary and wary of intervention, we must retain consent by making our purpose clear and learning lessons from our recent past, developing more effective policy in light of experience.

A principal flaw of past operations was to misunderstand the complexity of the threat. Al-Qaeda has been presented as a traditional terrorist grouping when it is a loose franchise; as much a worldview as coherent entity. The attacks of 11 September necessitated action, but a search for simplicity led to solutions which paid insufficient regard to local circumstance. It is essential we understand the patchwork of alliances which make up the extremist threat in north and west Africa.

We must also appreciate the interests of indigenous authorities and those with whom we co-operate - it took too long for us to see the training of Afghan forces as a strategic priority and we know that de-Ba’athification left a lethal vacuum in Iraq.

Just as vital is the need to understand the culture and character of a specific country. An almost primitive understanding of Afghan culture and geography undermined international attempts to work with proxies and our political strategy was  insufficiently representative. In Iraq there was a serious deficit in western comprehension of the Sunni-Shia or intra-Shia dynamics.

Mali shows these lessons have not been fully learnt. While necessary, it is a failure in prevention and foresight. Mali has been on the critical list for a long time, yet action has been rushed with shifting objectives. France has been short of capabilities. An internationally-driven political solution is in its infancy at best. The Prime Minister’s talk of a "generational struggle" did not convey the intricacy of instability in the region.

Military intervention can be necessitated by events. Sierra Leone or Kosovo show the change it can bring. But to avoid the kind of heavy-footprint operations we do not want to repeat, a new model of ‘preventative intervention’ is needed.

This would be based on adaptable armed forces, highly-trained and culturally aware. At the invitation of host authorities, engagement with fragile nations would be more proactive with a focus on training and combat-prevention. The principle would be to invest early, making substantial intervention less likely and in the event of escalation success more likely, as well as improving post-conflict planning. Modernising our forces in this way must be a unified NATO effort.

The core component of preventative intervention would be developing risk nations’ ability to defend themselves from militancy, enabling enforcement of rights and values and limiting space for extremism. Partnering must always be case-by-case and on the condition that skills acquiredare not used for internal oppression or external aggression. Military reform in countries of concern should be a condition of our engagement. Afghanistan’s ‘Sandhurst in the sand’ could be replicated elsewhere by the UK and our allies.

ECOWAS, the regional west African grouping, has demonstrated that it has the will but not the means to act. Our long-term focus must be to enable multinational regional institutions to deliver indigenous responses to crises.

Parasitic by nature, extremism thrives when it intersects with state weakness and corruption. Failure to tackle these issues at root could allow our opponents to morph into terror groups with a social movement agenda, similar to Hamas, with potential to gain local traction. Preventative intervention, therefore, must be comprehensive, encompassing diplomatic and developmental efforts.

This model combines past lessons with future needs, applying the unavoidable truth that there is no hard power solution to overcome the conditions in which Islamist extremism thrives, just as there is no exclusive soft power means to defeat it.

Jim Murphy is shadow defence secretary and  Labour MP for East Renfrewshire