Commit ground troops in war against IS


Con Coughlin

BACK in 2003, during the military campaign to overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, coalition commanders had 160,000 highly trained American and British troops at their disposal, as well as smaller contingents of Australians and Poles. The invasion of Iraq is now widely regarded as a political disaster of catastrophic proportions, not least because of the controversy surrounding the coalition’s failure to find Saddam’s stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and the highly effective anti-war propaganda effort mounted by groups such as Jeremy Corbyn’s Stop the War Coalition.
Consequently, people tend to overlook the fact that the military campaign per se – or Operation Iraqi Freedom as the Pentagon dubbed it – was a brilliant success, managing to achieve its primary objective of overthrowing Saddam’s regime within the space of just 21 days while incurring minimum casualties. Much of the military equipment used to depose Saddam can now be seen in action on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq’s second city, where the Iraqi government has just launched its long-awaited campaign to reclaim it from IS. US-made Abrams tanks and artillery pieces are pounding IS positions in preparation for the ground offensive to dislodge an estimated 5,000 IS fighters from their strongholds in the city centre.
The big difference, though, between the coalition’s successful Iraq campaign in 2003 and today’s planned offensive against Mosul is that, this time, the fighting on the ground will mainly be conducted by local troops, rather than forces deployed by Western countries. British and American troops may have fought with bravery and distinction during the recent conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but the eventual unpopularity of these conflicts in the eyes of public on both sides of Atlantic means that very few of today’s politicians are prepared to consider deploying ground forces overseas.
Thus, so far as the campaign to defeat IS is concerned, Western involvement will be limited to providing air support, with RAF Typhoon and Tornado fighters making a significant contribution to the coalition’s assault on IS positions, as are Reaper drones. Elite special forces units have been embedded with both Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, as well as conventional Iraqi army units. Meanwhile an estimated 10,000 American and British military advisors have been instrumental to developing Iraq’s armed forces into an effective fighting machine after the humiliating rout they suffered two years ago when IS first stormed into Iraq, and the majority of Iraqi troops simply abandoned their weapons and fled.
It remains to be seen how effective these newly constituted Iraqi forces will be in tackling a determined and resourceful enemy like IS. But the fact that it will be Iraqi, not Western, troops doing the lion’s share of the fighting represents a significant change in our approach to fighting IS militants, one that could have a profound bearing on how we tackle other security challenges, such as targeting IS in Syria and establishing political stability in Libya.
But while the current political trend is to outsource the grunt work of military operations to regional allies like the Kurds and the Iraqis, ministers need to understand the price they pay is that they have less control over delivering the final outcome. From day one back in 2003, coalition commanders worked directly to their political masters in London and Washington and understood fully that it was their duty to achieve their government’s stated objectives. Our attempts to work with proxies in countries like Libya and Syria, by contrast, have been less successful, not least because our so-called allies have been more interested in pursuing their own agendas. In Libya, many of the anti-Gaddafi militias we supported morphed into anti-Western Islamist factions, while in Syria Western-backed groups are more interested in fighting each other than Assad.
And it is entirely feasible we could experience similar difficulties once the fighting for Mosul is over – for example, the Kurds make no secret of their desire to use land captured from IS to create their own state. So we need to be clear. The fact that any form of military intervention by the West is now seen as political suicide comes at a heavy price. It means we have no other option than to work with proxies and simply hope they share the same goals about tackling our enemies.
— Courtesy: The Telegraph