Boots On The Ground: The former head of the UK armed forces, General David Richards, suspects in his “bones”, that if the Islamic State is to be defeated, then the armed forces of the West will have to stop "dribbling" and start "clouting". In the General’s words: “tanks would have to roll and there’s going to have to be boots on the ground”.
ARE WE AT WAR with the Islamic State – or not? The Prime Minister says “Not”. Our role in the conflict between the Islamic State and its enemies is merely to assist the government of Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Sixteen NZ Defence Force personnel are stationed less than an hour’s drive north of Baghdad at Camp Taji – a former US military base. Their mission: to help train Iraq’s army. A further 100 Kiwi troops have been sent to provide them with protection while they get on with it. That’s all.
This is what General David Richards, former head of the UK’s armed forces, and current member of the House of Lords, calls “dribbling” – the sort of one-handed military activity soldiers are required to engage in when their political masters would rather not have them wage war with both hands.
Lord Richards has warned UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, that, when it comes to defeating the Islamic State, “dribbling” will not be enough. What’s needed against the highly motivated and exceptionally well-led soldiers of the self-proclaimed Caliphate is “clouting”.
“Properly brought together with proper leadership and proper command and control it is a very doable proposition”, Lord Richards told the BBC’s Andrew Marr. “But I worry that […] if we dribble, which is really rather what we are doing at the moment, it is simply firing up the problem rather than dealing with it.”
The former head of the UK armed forces told Marr that he suspected, in his “bones”, that if IS to be defeated, then its army will have to “clouted” by his country’s soldiers – on the front lines. In the general’s words: “tanks would have to roll and there’s going to have to be boots on the ground”.
But the UK could not possibly do this alone. After 14 years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the UK’s defence force is bruised, battered and in urgent need of repair and replenishment. Lord Richards knows full-well that what he is really calling for is the assembly of another great Western invasion force; comparable in strength to Operation Desert Storm, and guided by similar, strictly limited, objectives.
The mission of Operation Desert Storm was to drive the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait. The core mission of this new Western force would be the utter destruction of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. To render the defeat of IS permanent, however, it would, almost certainly, be necessary to accomplish the complete pacification of Syria and the disarmament of the Iranian-backed Shite militias operating in Iraq.
The elimination of the murderous regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and the disarmament of his many enemies, would lift a huge burden from the shoulders of Syria’s neighbours. Millions of refugees, driven across borders by civil war and religious extremism, would be free to return, and the arduous task of reconstructing their ancient homeland could, finally, begin.
An effort of such magnitude on the part of the West – especially the USA and the UK – is the only truly effective means of bringing the multiple tragedies of the last quarter-century in the Middle East to an honourable resolution.
The barbarity of IS is an affront, not just to the peoples of the Islamic world but to all humanity. And, in their heart of hearts, the USA and the UK both know its poisonous creed could only have been distilled from the seething cauldron of hatred and resentment which their 2003 invasion of Iraq created. “You break it, you own it”, quipped US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, back in 2003. Well, between them, the USA and the UK smashed Iraq into a thousand pieces, and now they must make her whole again.
Do the peoples of the West have the stomach for another great military effort in the Middle East. Many would say “No.” But they should fix their eyes on the tens-of-thousands, desperate and despairing, who daily make their way toward Europe’s borders. If the West does not bring peace to the Middle East, then the Middle East will bring chaos to the West. Lord Richards knows the efficacy of forward defence, that is why he is urging his prime minister to stop dribbling and start clouting.
Would it be asking too much of our own defence force, and prime minister, to do the same?
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 July 2015.