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Gloucestershire-based military expert Sir Richard Shirreff : Strategic priorities mean you sometimes have to talk to bad people

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: August 29, 2014

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Gloucestershire-based military expert Sir Richard Shirreff is a former Allied Rapid Reaction Corps commander in Gloucestershire who went on to be Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe before recently retiring from the Army. Here he offers robust advice to a 'flip-flopping' Government on the crisis in Iraq

The ghastly public beheading of US journalist Jim Foley has put into sharp relief the continued posturing from the UK political leadership.

On the one hand, both Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on successive Sundays have waxed apocalyptic in their graphic descriptions of the grim nature of the Islamic State (IS) threat.

"'Here and abroad we must choke those barbarians on every front!" thunders Hammond.

"This poisonous extremism is a direct threat to Britain," exhorts Cameron. Meanwhile, what the UK is actually doing is hardly going to make IS jihadists quake in their sandals: 80 tonnes of humanitarian relief and acting as an air-freight service for Eastern European government sales of arms and ammunition to Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces cannot, given the gravity of the situation, be seen as a serious response.

And don't be reassured by Hammond's Sir Humphrey speak – "We are scoping what we could supply ourselves" – which means that he is prevaricating and probably doing nothing.

So as Paul Marshall rightly put it in Monday's Times: "We are back in the world of the French politician Alexandre Ledru-Rollin: 'there go the people. I must follow them for I am their leader'."

While Cameron may be scarred by his inept handling of the vote to bomb Syria last year, he needs to put that behind him and move on. Now is the moment for "cometh the hour, cometh the man." Any leader, particularly those who have led soldiers in action, knows that moment when all hell has broken loose and all turn to the leader with that look in their eyes that says: "What the **** do we do now?" It is then that leaders step forward, take command and earn their pay. Cameron is in that place now. Sadly, I fear we will be disappointed. He waxes oratorical on the apocalyptic threat posed by IS but rules out the use of force (can you imagine Churchill demeaning himself with the words: "We should avoid sending armies to fight", while nevertheless wrapping himself in the flag with his clichéd reference to "our brave armed forces."

In doing so he sends an immediate signal to our adversaries as well as to our friends, that Cameron and the UK Government really have lost their nerve (and it won't be lost on President Putin either). He is, as the Americans increasingly think (but are far too polite to say) all talk and no walk. The Economist is right: "The Government flip-flops between belligerence and caution."

And what of strategy? What started as humanitarian airdrops is creeping inexorably, as Defence Minister Michael Fallon has effectively acknowledged, towards a greater commitment. That is probably right if we are serious about the threat posed by IS but at least let's be honest about what we might do from the start. So nest those measures in a credible strategy in which ends, ways and means are integrated in the pursuit of policy.

If the policy is to eradicate IS as a threat, then the strategy might profitably start with building international consensus in those international institutions in which Cameron is so keen to punch above his weight: the UN, Nato and EU.

Next, we should not leave it to the Americans to apply force alone, for fundamental to any multinational operation is the sharing of risk, something in which the UK used to take pride. Then, through these international organisations and the application of the diplomatic finesse on which the UK prides itself, we should, with our international partners, provide the support and assistance needed to the Iraqi government and Kurdish administration so they can take the fight to IS.

Finally, if we are serious about defeating IS, a regional approach is essential because its so-called Caliphate stretches across both Iraq and Syria. And if that means sitting down with unpalatable bedfellows then so be it. Imagine if Churchill had refused to talk to Stalin in 1941 because he was a bad man. Strategic priorities mean you sometimes have to talk to bad people.

And if we do eventually establish a training and capacity building with the Iraqis, let us do it properly, unlike last time we were in Iraq.

This means starting at the bottom and working up as confidence and capability is built. It means taking time and building trust. And this means living, training and, if necessary, fighting together. It does not mean the hands off, wheels off the bike too early approach imposed on the British Army in South East Iraq a decade ago by the over-cautious Chiefs of Staff in Whitehall.

And this, of course, means putting soldiers into Iraq because you can't train and advise unless you are prepared to share the same dangers as the soldiers you are advising.

So please, Messrs Cameron and Hammond, drop this ridiculous mantra of "no combat boots on the ground". If the job is worth doing, it is worth doing properly.

Finally, we have to sympathise with Cameron and Hammond for it was all looking so neat and tidy. The withdrawal of British troops from ISAF's Afghanistan mission, due to be completed by the end of 2014, would have allowed the Tories to go to the country in 2015 with a clean slate as far as foreign military commitments are concerned. At the same time, Accountant Hammond has made much of his resolution of the MoD's overspent budget while cutting the Armed Forces to the bone in doing so (and many would dearly love to see him return to the MoD after the next election to face the consequences of his actions).

What they have both failed to take account of is, in Harold McMillan's words, "events dear boy, events", for the real world has a habit of mucking up the best laid plans. They would do well to remember Trotsky's chilling words: "You may not want war, but war may want you."

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