25 May 15. Having listened over the past two days to several different views on how we might better be handling the war against ISIL including from General Sir Richard Dannatt and Major Tim Cross I conclude that it is the views of latter that for me personally win the argument hands down.
A couple of days after US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said that the Iraqi military pulling out after they had seemingly been routed in Ramadi showed that ‘they lacked the will to fight Islamic State’ the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi responded by suggesting that not only is Ashton Carter wrong but also that he expects the city of Ramadi to be taken back from Islamic State militants by Iraqi based forces within days. We will have to wait and see.
Speaking in an interview with CNN on Saturday, Ashton Carter had said that although Iraqi forces “vastly outnumbered” those of IS militants they chose to withdraw rather than fight on. While it is true that newsreels showed Iraqi forces seemingly in retreat last week the head of Iraq’s defence and security committee, Hakim al-Zamili said Mr. Carter’s comments were “unrealistic and baseless”. In an interview with Associated Press he went on to criticise the US for failing to provide “good equipment, weapons and aerial support believing that the remarks by Ashton Carter were an attempt to pass the blame for Ramadi failure onto someone else.
How pleasing it was then this morning to hear fellow defence commentator, Major General Tim Cross who was the most senior British officer in the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority following the invasion of Iraq talk take his usual common sense approach to the latest spat between Iraq and the US. I have had the pleasure of knowing Tim Cross for some time now and I respect his opinions over and above many of his former Army contemporaries. Asked who was right, Cross rightly in my view contended that both arguments probably were, in other words what this boiled down to was six of one and half a dozen of the other. He also agreed that while air attacks on IS are effective there is a need to extend the small number of specialist boots on the ground.
Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, Tim Cross asserted that “It’s interesting that Secretary [Ashton Carter] used the [will to fight] expression because we use that expression in the British army”. “Our argument” he said “is that it’s about a moral cohesion in your army. it’s about the motivation to achieve what it is you’re setting out to achieve, it’s about effective leadership and it is this will to fight that I think is fundamentally at the heart of the issue with the Iraqi military”.
Cross went on to suggest that “there’s no cohesion, there’s no strong leadership, they’re really struggling and I don’t think there’s any doubt about that”. Moving on he recounted that “Churchill said back at the beginning of the 20th century, you can destroy an army very quickly, and effectively – we did that when we disbanded the Iraqi military back in 2003 – but that it can take a generation to build a strong capable military that is going to win this sort of campaign” adding that “ we don’t like it from a moral point of view in the ethical sense, but at the heart of Isis is a very strong cohesion, good strong leadership and a determination to succeed. And that’s why they’re doing so well. They’ve won the psychological battle.”
All of which is as far as I am concerned a very good summary of where we are today in the battles for Iraq, Syria and as Cross sensibly reminded today, other vulnerable countries such as Jordan.
Asked about the latest protestations from General Sir Richard Dannatt yesterday that it was time for the British Government to send in troops to fight ISIL forces Major Cross said that he thought “collectively I do think that we need to sit down and begin to try and tease out the issue and decide how we are going to take it forward and, yes, putting in more people like forward air controllers, possibly some attack helicopters and maybe special forces would help”. But sensibly he added “but that will not solve the will-power issue, the ability of the Iraqi military to hold Sunni and Shia communities together, to fight coherently and to begin to seriously push back ISIL.
Writing in the Mail on Sunday yesterday the Dannatt viewpoint calls for an immediate public and political debate to begin so that arguments for and against sending in British troops can be aired is fraught with so many difficulties that it stands no chance of success. Dannatt says that “military history tells us that while air strikes can change the terms of battle, they cannot bring a decision” adding that “people live on the ground, in towns, villages and houses and that it is on the ground where” he says “that the evil problem that is ISIL must be solved”. True but then he goes on to say that all “Britain has done is “fiddle while a modern Rome burns”. Such remarks are both fair but at the same time unreasonable. Dannatt knows full well that any attempt to do more in either Iraq or Syria requires the US to lead. That is not going to occur as long as President Obama is resident in the White House.
Dannatt goes on to say in his article that “we have now reached a point when we must think the previously unthinkable and consider that British troops, acting as part of an international coalition, may be required to mount a ground campaign in Iraq and Syria”. Had we the resources to do this today I might be prepared to think differently but lacking capacity, resilience, ambition and with no real defence narrative to speak of I beg to differ on the way forward approach.
General Dannatt protests that he was “no gung-ho General” who says just send in the boys and don’t worry about the body bags. He believes ISIL was [is] a lethal and uncompromising enemy and one that the UK could no longer afford to rule out sending boots on the ground. He suggested sending 5,000 troops with attack helicopters, artillery, mortars, reconnaissance and surveillance assets.
While I fully recognise the dangers to which Dannatt alludes in his article I cannot believe his approach for a solution is right. Without full support and political acquiescence from the US there is no possibility of action by the UK or other allied forces other than to increase the level of supply and air support and to perhaps increase the number of specialist forces on the ground already.
I dislike the situation just as much as you probably do but without sufficient resources Britain is in no position to do that much more than it already is. It would be foolhardy at this early juncture of the new parliamentary session to ask members of the House of Commons to vote on sending troops on the ground and as no political party mentioned the possibility in their respective manifesto’s the issue is just not one to be contemplated unless British national interests are directly threatened.
I might also ask where was the voice of Lord Dannatt to be heard between 2006 and 2008 when he was Chief of the General Staff protesting perhaps that even back then before SDSR 2010 took a further axe to UK defence that cuts had already gone too far? To be fair Lord Dannatt did work hard during his time as CGS to build a perception to the British public of why our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan was so important but he could have been far more outspoken on issues that related to shortage of large helicopter back up in theatre and that endangered the lives of troops.
In the sad world when our defence chiefs are silenced and prevented from providing views that might conflict with those of their political masters we are fortunate that some of their predecessors can and do speak out on ‘our’ behalf. In a report that I believe is shortly to be published by the UK National Defence Association former military chiefs, led by Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, will warn that Britain risks being at the mercy of Vladimir Putin and IS unless Britain guarantees a minimum level of spending on defence. This is not the first time such words have been said and it won’t be the last either. We need to keep on banging the drum until someone gets the message.
The Report, entitled ‘National Security – A Challenge for the Prime Minister’ will apparently warn that Mr. Cameron must ‘repair the damage to the UK’s defence and security and stop freeloading off the US by committing to the NATO target that all member states signed up to last year, that of working toward spending 2% of GDP on defence. Britain, the report will emphasise, ‘must be ready for war today and cannot wait until a crisis is imminent to spend more on defence’.
These are all very worthy point and one that I myself have made time and time again. I may disagree about the 2% of GDP on defence preferring 7% of national expenditure to be committed to defence but I share all the other sentiments.
I also agree with the UK National Defence Association suggestion that one of the many things that we are lacking is the ability of our military chiefs to be able to give their personal views openly and in public, a view that I myself have in the past expressed a great many times. My own reasoning is on the basis that at the very least the public can be reassured that the adequacy of the defence spending proposition, which is after all a political choice just as it is in the foremost category of national interest, survival and projection of the nation, is there for good reason and decided on the true merits of the case.
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