06 Feb 15. I must say that I was more than a little surprised by the House of Commons Defence Select Committee 7th Report (The situation in Iraq and Syria and the response to al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al Iraq al Sham [DAESH]) that was published yesterday and in which the Committee (HCDC) suggested that the UK should expand current UK operations, extend the number of air strikes, expand work with the Peshmerga, increase the number of special forces and formulate a strategy for training Iraqi forces as if there was absolutely no reason why we should not do that.
My initial thought was that I had perhaps mistaken this particular report for one to have actually come from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee but that was not the case. Was this a direct challenge to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee I asked myself or more likely, was the HCDC possibly badly advised?
It is not that I am in disagreement with some of what the HCDC report concluded. The point for me though is that while the HCDC is entitled to question all aspects of defence policy, procedure, application and to criticise or praise government accordingly I am really not sure that HCDC has a remit to move outside of matters defence and defence diplomacy covering issues that in my view are about foreign policy and strategy. Of course, I do realise that the HCDC chair was until last year a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
HCDC concluded in this latest report that the role of UK forces in Iraq was “strikingly modest” and said that this should be stepped up. It told us that the UK has been responsible for only 6% of coalition air strikes so far and that it believes there is good reason why Britain should increase its activity in Iraq. Members of HCDC had I understand travelled to Iraq in December 2014 and they may not be aware that over the past month Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 jets have been flying missions both day and night. Mission success does not always mean that precision weapon capability always has to be used.
I may also be entitled to wonder whether the HCDC bothered to consider why Britain has taken a more limited approach into its engagement in Iraq so far and as far as I can see it did not. While past and present UK engagement strategy is well discussed and the challenges well laid out in making the judgements it has it seems to me that the report has skirted over far too many defence and logistics issues.
Unusually this report from HCDC lays out the DAESH campaign in detail. We are told about the Iraqi Security Forces and Government, Shia Malitia, Kurdish Forces, The National Guard, the Iraqi Prime Minister and State, the measure of sectarian conflict and DAESH. I am of course well aware that the HCDC chairman, Rory Stewart who is the Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border has an abundance of specialist knowledge in Arab affairs and he is to be commended for that. Unsurprisingly one will find in this well laid out foreign policy document that Mr Stewart and his committee believes that diplomatic involvement with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran should also be significantly increased and also a belief that there was considerable scope to extend the use of special forces operations. But nowhere can one any possible understanding of reason why the British Government has potentially held back the extent of involvement that Mr Stewart might wish to see the UK playing out in the battle against IS.
With no appetite to place western combat troops on the ground in Syria I would suggest that part of reason why the UK has been reluctant to go further into the battle against is quite simply that it knows this would not garner public support. I would go so far as to suggest that the If the British Government was to rightly decide the necessity of increasing our involvement Labour and the Liberal-Democrats would use this to their own advantage claiming that Government policy was a mistake. Of course I agree with Mr Stewart when he says that it would be a real pity if Britain lurched from ‘engagement’ to ‘isolation’ but I am far from sure that Britain throwing more air and special-forces capability at the problem is necessarily the right answer.
There are other more unpleasant issues that go against our further involvement too. Affordability is one such reason why we have taken a more cautious stance to our involvement. Another may be that having made large scale use of complex weapons in Afghanistan, Libya and now once again in Iraq I do wonder whether the inventory of weapons has kept pace with their use. These are questions that I might have expected Mr Stewart and his committee to ask but in listening to him being interviewed in reverential style on BBC Radio yesterday morning he implied that he did not know the reason why the UK was holding back. If it believes there is a genuine concern isn’t that what the HSDC is supposed to have found out?
The bottom line is that UK force capability is already stretched to a serious point. Yesterday the Government announced that it would send 1,000 troops to a high readiness force and deploy four Royal Air Force Typhoon jets to an air policing role in the Baltic States in order to boost collective security. It is right that we should do this in support of our NATO allies and it is also right that we play our part in the battle against IS. But we do also have to accept that with defence capability and resources now so stretched that there are now serious limits to what we can actually do.
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