Islamic State (otherwise known as Isis) is undoubtedly among the strongest and most well-resourced terrorist organisation the West has ever faced. There is also no doubt that this blood-thirsty guerilla army has to be confronted and defeated, ideologically and militarily. But an effective strategy against IS requires that we strike the enemy in an effective way and at the right time. The current plan to defeat IS is driven more to satisfy media and public opinion than rational calculation.
Today, as British MPs debate whether to join in air-strikes against IS, they should be note that the US-led plan is weak and already showing cracks. I’m not opposed to all British intervention abroad, having supported military action to remove the Taliban in Afghanistan, Gaddafi in Libya and Assad in Syria. But if Britain joins in, we will end up endorsing an ill-conceived approach that could strengthen IS and increase our security threat at home.
I wrote earlier that a US-led attack against a self-appointed Muslim Caliphate would be a propaganda boon for IS. What’s worse is that the fledgling American campaign against IS is facing the very hurdles they are being warned about. Rather than endorse this strategy British MPs should be encouraging a rethink in Washington. Here are two big reasons why.
The current campaign is ineffective
British MPs must start with the obvious question: “will air strikes help achieve our aims?” The evidence isn’t encouraging. Six weeks into the bombing campaign, the United States hasn’t even managed to stem IS expansion (except in Kurdish areas), let alone push them back. IS has made territorial gains in Iraq and against the Kurds in Syria. Last week, its militants routed an Iraqi army base and left mayhem in their wake.
Some airstrikes against IS may be better than none. But there is evidence that they are backfiring too. There are verified reports that the recent blitz killed or wounded over a dozen Iraqi civilians. The Iraqi army too stated this week that US strikes had killed 73 of their soldiers. If dead bodies keep piling up then anger against the West will grow and push locals into the arms of IS.
There is also the growing danger that we alienate even moderate opinion. Newspaper commentators across the Arab world are deeply sceptical, and popular anti-IS clerics have started to condemn the bombing campaign. Rather than regarding airstrikes as a relief from the threat of IS, many Arabs regard them with deep suspicion. The Kurds and the Iraqi government may be thankful but there is limited acknowledgement from the rest of the Arab world.
The US-led campaign effectively amounts to: “let’s drop some bombs now and think about a proper strategy later”. This is mainly why Turkey, which needs to be a key partner, is reluctant to join in. This expensive US-led air campaign is already showing itself to be ineffective. Can it be sustained for several years? Can we afford to sustain it for several years?
The campaign is strengthening IS
Worse, IS has recruited more than 6,000 new fighters since America started air strikes against it. At this rate it will surpass the US army in size in a few years time.
The reasons for the burst in IS recruitment should be obvious: we are playing directly into their narrative. IS are portraying this as an American war (aided by ‘Arab puppets’) against Sunni Muslims and some are starting to buy it. The civilian casualties will help their propaganda.
The air strikes are also pushing other jihadi groups into supporting IS. The beheading of the French man last week is likely to have been precipitated by a previously little-known group seeking to prove itself to IS.
So what should we do?
Islamic State’s greatest strength – the establishment of a Caliphate – is also its greatest weakness (credit: Mehdi Hasan). IS draws power from the belief that it cannot be defeated by “apostate” forces. Hence, serious setbacks to its territorial gains would be a huge psychological blow too.
In other words, it can only be defeated on the ground with a well-trained and well-armed force, albeit led by Sunni Muslims. But getting an effective force together in Iraq (ie. re-training Iraqi soldiers) will take time. The same applies to Syria. If we continue ineffective airstrikes in the meantime, we risk more civilians deaths and further alienating Muslim opinion. We need to hold our nerve, encourage Arab allies to take a leading role and strike IS from the air at the right time, with precision and strength.
On the evidence of similar previous campaigns, the campaign that British MPs are being asked to join will almost certainly be ineffective, carry on for years and cost us billions of pounds. It will undoubtedly raise the security threat here and lead to a further crackdown of our civil liberties. The Labour party suffered a fallout from the last Iraq war because of a loss of trust: Britons felt they had been lied to and misled about the nature of the conflict. MPs are in danger of making the same mistake again.