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.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”