Facing IS: At Best Buying Time?


“Despite talk of military action, there was one thing we all agreed on: terrorism is resolved through politics and economics not through arms and intelligence, however important a role these play.” Those are the recollections of Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former Director-General of MI5, of the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. These thoughts are perhaps worth considering now more than ever. Firstly, consider arms and intelligence, and the important role that these play. Military action against the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic State’, (they are ironically neither Islamic, nor a state), has so far proved successful in preventing their advances. US air strikes to assist the Peshmerga were pivotal in preventing IS from taking Erbil, as strikes to assist the Iraqi government were in preventing IS from seizing key Iraqi dams.

That said, at the time of publishing, reports are emerging from Syrian Kurds that air strikes are not actually working. One should take note of the mission creep that is now occurring, with US airstrikes being employed far beyond the scope of the initial objectives stated by President Obama on August 8. Those were specifically to help the fleeing Yazidis, and to protect the Kurdish people and US personnel in Erbil. Proponents would argue that nevertheless, the strikes to date have helped to contain the advance of IS. They have indeed played an important role. However, the idea that this makes them successful is a dangerously narrow way to judge success. In reality, there are a number of significant risks that arise from such strikes, even if they have physically restricted the advance of IS.

Terrorism is resolved through Politics and Economics

Let’s start with the blindingly obvious. Recent history has shown us that even the most advanced weapons technology does not eliminate collateral damage. In a 2013 report entitled “Will I Be Next?”, Amnesty International cites sources claiming that the US launched 330 to 374 drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and September 2013. It says that according to these same sources, between 400 and 900 civilians were killed in these strikes, and at least 600 people were seriously injured. Human Rights Watch released a similar report, noting the civilian casualties arising from drone strikes in Yemen. Beyond the intrinsic harm of such damage, and that cannot be overstated, such casualties are instrumentally counterproductive to the pursuit of the objectives that are used to justify the strikes in the first place. In Pakistan, they have alienated local communities, fostered hatred, and ultimately act as a recruitment tool for the very groups that the strikes claim to target. Similarly, such casualties would foster the same resentment in Iraq, and act as a recruitment tool for IS. Reports have already suggested that IS fighters have moved themselves and their military assets into built up areas, surrounding themselves with the civilian population. We risk feeding into IS’s wider narrative. In the Commons debate on the issue last week, George Galloway warned against Britain and its allies “returning to the scene of their former crimes”.

Whatever one thinks of the rest of his speech, and indeed his wider views, this is undeniably a sentiment that is felt across the region. The Arabs are not unaware of their history. The state of Iraq was only demarcated by the League of Nations in 1920, before being placed under British mandatory control. The Arabs that fought an insurgency against the Ottomans during the First World War were encouraged to do so by the British, and were promised an independent state, free of British interference in return. They were, of course, betrayed, with the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between the British and the French defining the division of the region between the two powers after the war. The post-war order in the Middle East, the nation states that exist, and the power blocs that have since controlled them, can be traced back to the heavy influence of the then colonial powers. Also note the proliferation of Al- Qaeda in Iraq that occurred precisely because of the 2003 invasion. Bombing Iraq again risks making Britain less safe (again). What about the presence of the Gulf states and the Iraqi government in the coalition? Iraqis know that the Gulf states are closely allied to the West, and this further feeds into the IS narrative of overhauling the existing order. As for the Iraqi government, it is unrealistic to expect Iraqi Sunnis to immediately support it after years of marginalisation at its hands. This will take time, and ultimately, it requires politics, the only real solution. That is not to mention the Syrian, Turkish and Iranian dilemmas. Syria has not been included, Turkey is wary of arming the Kurds, and Iran has refused to militarily cooperate. A failure to tackle these dilemmas may present insurmountable challenges to the success of any military action.


Nevertheless, bombing will inevitably continue and escalate, now with UK involvement. But despite what the likes of Senator John McCain will have you believe, the idea that military action will actually defeat IS and solve this problem is pure fantasy. It represents the short-term horizon, acute historical amnesia and complete lack of understanding of the complexities of Middle Eastern politics that have crept into foreign policy. If military action now plays out as planned, and that is a big if, it will only weaken IS for a period of time, and not defeat them. In addition, bombing risks making the problem even worse. Our leaders realise that something needs to be done, but in the absence of a coherent strategy, have reverted to bombing. Our armed forces are being asked to do something that is perhaps counterproductive, presumably to make us feel better. There are, of course, other ways to combat IS. Former British military officer Frank Ledwidge notes that “Nothing would better fit their [IS’s] agenda of recruiting Sunni sentiment and active support than to have western bombers overhead and Shia soldiers in front of them.” He instead suggests “intelligent, effective covert action, and I have no doubt this has begun.” In effect, he proposes UK military action, but not bombing. Ledwidge wants Britain to be involved militarily, but only in a covert manner, thus not feeding into the IS narrative. Perhaps this is wiser, but again, it can only buy time.


It is this said period of time that must be used wisely. In order to truly challenge IS, we must move beyond a reactive, knee-jerk foreign policy that consists overwhelmingly in arms and intelligence, and develop a longer-term view to engage in the political and economic spheres that Baroness Manningham-Buller speaks of. The common denominator of the states where such fundamentalism truly takes hold is poor governance and a broken state and/or society. Indeed, IS were given the opportunity to take hold in Iraq by the incompetence, corruption and sectarianism of Prime Minister Maliki and his government.

So what is the truly effective solution in states such as Iraq? As John Simpson puts it: “It may not be easy, but it is abundantly clear… The only serious answer is to turn them back into real countries once again.” He suggests pressure for good government, carefully targeted aid, counter-terrorism assistance, and military training. This is indeed something that the UK can influence. In 2012, Britain reportedly gave £86.8 million to Somalia, and £200 million to Afghanistan, ranked first and third in Transparency International’s list of the most corrupt nations respectively, and both countries where fundamentalism has taken hold. In a similar spirit, the UK should use its influence to ensure that its considerably close allies in the Gulf clamp down on the private individuals that are funding groups like IS. These are but a few tangible policies that the UK can pursue to take on IS. More specifically to Iraq, a political alternative has to be provided to the areas where IS has taken hold. This involves stopping the marginalisation of the Sunnis that occurred under Maliki. The idea of local Sunni units to police Sunni areas, and Shia units to police Shia areas, all part of a unified national guard, has been tabled. Perhaps that may be a start. More fundamentally, Iraq needs more federalism. It is through such a system that sectarian and tribal grievances can be properly addressed, and the wealth of the nation can be shared. It provides a channel through which local issues can be managed and controlled.

IS must be defeated by intelligent, effective, covert action

Ultimately, one must ask the question of what drives people into such violence. Political institutions that can deal with the root issues will prevent marginalised citizens being attracted to, and forced into violence. Such an approach involves long-term engagement and commitment in Iraq and elsewhere, and that is how we must really do battle. Whether we like it or not, military action will, at the very best, only buy time. More realistically, it may lead to dire consequences, and simply add fuel to the fire. The key is politics to challenge the root causes. There is no doubt that the phenomenon that IS represents must be tackled, and Britain can play a role. But if there is one thing that we can be certain of, one thing that history has repeatedly taught us, it is that the nuanced challenges posed by the Middle East cannot be solved militarily. It is worth summoning Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Westminster, take heed.