Defeating IS: why Cameron needs to get back to work

And why the PM must accept that destroying the Sunni fanatics will necessitate 'boots on the ground'

Robert Fox
(Image credit: KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images)

Two of America's most senior defence officials, Gen Martin Dempsey and Chuck Hagel, have stated clearly that the Islamic State must be defeated if America and its allies are not to remain at constant risk of terrorist attack. So what happens now?

Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared at a Pentagon press conference: “This is an organisation that has an apocalyptic end-of-day strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated.” Hagel, the US Defence Secretary, called IS “as sophisticated and well funded as any group we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group.”

The two men are now expected to present President Obama with a comprehensive plan whose strategic goal is to restrict - then if possible destroy - IS on both sides of the Syrian/Iraqi border. Critically, Dempsey said he didn't think the fight could be waged with US air strikes alone – describing the air tactics as "just a small part" of what they will need to do.

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So, the campaign will require time, complex manoeuvres with allies, diplomacy with the Assad regime in Syria and Russia, and garnering as much support across the region, particularly among Sunni tribes in Iraq, whose communities have also been victims of IS atrocities.

To what extent will this involve Britain, given David Cameron’s aversion to any plan involving "boots on the ground"?

Gen Lord Dannatt, former head of the British Army and a one-time advisor to Cameron, says that because the execution of American journalist James Foley was almost certainly carried out by a UK citizen, Britain is bound to be involved.

Like Gen Dempsey, Dannatt is also clear that if IS is to be defeated, it will have to be attacked at its bases in Syria. “Above or below the counter,” he told the BBC this morning, “we have to talk to the Assad regime in Syria.”

Dannatt also suggested that the prime minister has been less than forthright about what to do next because he doesn’t yet have a "clear plan".

Here indeed is the problem: David Cameron has shown a poor grasp of the strategic realities of the Middle East, and appears to be averse to the demands of serious planning involving the use of force.

He is too sensitive to what he perceives to be the demands of the media agenda in the aftermath of a decade of Tony Blair’s adventurism, and his own humiliating performance before Parliament in the Syria debate a year ago.

This has led to the vivid impression of a prime minister who is led by public opinion, and lacking the ability to lead it.

The British involvement in IS has been underlined by a report in the past 24 hours in the New York Times suggesting that there are anywhere between 3,000 and 5,000 foreign jihadis in the field for IS in Iraq and Syria. Of these the largest single national group comes from Britain – now thought to number more than 1,000 at a conservative estimate.

Lord Carlile, the Lib Dem peer who until recently was charged with oversight of anti-terrorist legislation, suggested this morning that Cameron’s administration had been parsimonious with adequate funding for the CONTEST strategy in tackling recruitment to violent Islamist extremism in the UK, in the face of repeated calls from Home Secretary Theresa May for more money.

So, the prime minister has to come up with a plan, and this cannot wait until Parliament resumes on 1 September. He has to state clearly what the UK’s aims are in tackling IS, and how it will operate in concert with its allies in the region as well as with Europe and the US.

There is some urgency because it is believed that around 50 other hostages are being held by IS and its affiliates, kidnap and ransom being a main revenue source for the organisation. Like the American journalist James Foley, they could face execution at any moment.

There is a huge deficiency in the political and media lexicon in addressing such issues. Politicians - Cameron and Obama included, I fear - and media commentators simply don’t understand the difference between tactics, operations and strategy (a fancy term for policy).

Take the much-parroted media call against "mission creep". Any military commander must have the ability to react quickly to changing circumstances on the ground. If he, or she, is to be directed on tactics, deployments, engagements and schemes of manoeuvre by Parliament or by current affairs programmes like Today, it will be a disaster.

The argument against "boots on the ground" is equally fallacious. What are fully trained and prepared military "boots" for, if not to be put "on the ground"?

In the present theatre of operations in Iraq and Syria, not to put boots on the ground, in the form of forward intelligence and signals surveillance, ground reconnaissance in all its modern forms (including Special Forces), and forward aircraft controllers, is completely irresponsible.

The campaign to rid the world of IS won't be a matter of big battalions – that we have learnt, if we have learnt anything, from recent bitter experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. But assistance will have to be given to local forces, to the Kurdish pesh merga forces, to Sunni tribes and to the remnants of Iraq government forces. This means getting advisors and trainers down on the ground.

A British general, Lt Gen Sir Graeme Lamb, was particularly adept at galvanising Sunni tribes in the 'Anbar Awakening’ against the al-Qaeda-in-Iraq terrorists, the godfathers of Isis (now IS), eight years ago. I wonder if he has received a call from Downing Street?

One of the first things needed in drawing up a plan of operations is to establish the IS centre of gravity.

Centre of gravity is an expression despised by some strategic thinkers, but it’s useful in this case. It can be a place, a deep sanctuary, a command or formation, a person, or an idea. In opting for the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in World War II, Roosevelt and Churchill determined that the enemy centre of gravity was Berlin and the person of Adolf Hitler.

The centre of gravity for IS is its main bases on the ground, which lie in Syria and Iraq, and its peculiar ideology of rage and hate, promoted by its information and social media network. Martin Dempsey, Chuck Hagel and Richard Dannatt seem to be arguing for a plan aimed at the destruction of both.

The plan will involve covert and overt arrangements with allies, and former foes such as Syria and Iran. It will be as much social and economic, as kinetic. Certainly it will involve consultation - if not approval - by Congress and the House of Commons. But this should not permit a veto on tactics and manoeuvre by either legislature.

Not so far down the line now, the UK must draw up its own version of the US War Powers Act.

It’s a difficult but not impossible agenda. And it needs planning, now. Meanwhile David Cameron remains on holiday.

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