Why the UK needs a new model of preventative intervention

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

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

Jim Murphy is the former Labour MP for East Renfrewshire and leader of Scottish Labour 2014-15.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.