Alphen, Netherlands. 20 June. When I first started working on the derelict garden I had just bought some six years ago I discovered lurking under the chaos the most pernicious of weeds. The Dutch call it Sevenblad, in English it is known as Ground Elder. My first approach was to try and remove it root and incredibly long-branch. Having cleared away overgrowth of jungle-like proportions I began patiently pulling up great underground pipelines (not Russian) of weed. Sometimes the branches extended for metres/yards and soon my garden resembled the map of the London Underground. I could even identify King’s Cross/St Pancras! However, I soon realised that my root and branch approach would only work if I destroyed the garden, which hardly seemed the point.
There was a time when I simply did not know what to do. In my nightmares the beast was running amok and I had visions of it consuming everything. Then I discovered an amazing treatment that attacks the dreaded weed when it surfaces and prevents it from spreading. It worked! Suddenly everything that I had wanted to grow began to grow. Well, almost everything because I am a seriously crap gardener.
The West’s response to the violent advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq strikes me as the strategic equivalent of my clueless moment between the root and branch and the surgical treatment of my spreading Ground Elder. It is as though having failed to eradicate extremism root and branch in either Afghanistan or Iraq any considered action is doomed to fail. This is even though British Prime Minister Cameron said on Wednesday that ISIL poses a real if limited threat. Such policy paralysis reflects a loss of strategic nerve. strategic imagination and a lack of a coherent and well-considered strategy rather than the absence of options.
Sound strategy is normally divided into short, medium and long-term actions themselves based on certain principled questions: What is the threat? Who is the threat? What strengths and weaknesses does the threat possess? What courses of action are available?
What is the threat? ISIL comprise some ten to fifteen thousand core fighters. They are regarded by Al Qaeda as being so extreme as to be beyond even their Pale. As such they face in the words of Adnan Khan “ideological isolation”.
Who is the threat? One reason for the sudden advance of ISIL is that they are currently in league with a group that styles itself the Military Council of Iraq Revolutionaries or MCIR. MCIR appears to be led by senior Iraqi Sunni leaders many of whom were senior Iraqi military officers under Saddam. As such they see themselves as fighting against Prime Minister Maliki and his Shia-dominated government rather than for a new Caliphate from which to launch Global Jihad. There are also signs that this unlikely coalition is fraying. This week the MCIR described ISIL as “barbarians”. Critically, the Association of Muslim Clerics (AMC) supports MCIR and have warned ISIL to curb its violence towards civilians.
What strengths and weaknesses does the threat possess? The current strength of ISIL is the disenchantment of the Iraqi Sunnis with the Maliki Government in Baghdad. Although the Sunni’s are a minority they represent powerful tribes/clans to the north and east of Baghdad that was once Saddam’s power-base. As such they know how to organise to effect. The main weakness of ISIL is their paucity of numbers and their extreme violence which renders them capable of violence but incapable of government should they ever take Baghdad.
What courses of action are available? A coherent strategy would have the following elements:
First, it is vital Western leaders properly quantify the threat and stop the successful exploitation of the worst nightmares of ordinary westerners. It is precisely such exploitation that paralyses European governments in particular.
Second, the evolving nature of fundamentalism must be understood. Al Qaeda is mutating and its many off-shoots are indeed now active across a great belt of instability from Afghanistan to Mali. However, there is no coordinated Global Jihad and there is unlikely to be. The massive majority of responsible Muslims both in the region and in Europe utterly reject such extremism. Not only are they a key constituency they must be respected as such.
Third, the overt use of Western, i.e. American military power would undoubtedly give ISIL ‘street cred’ across much of the Arab World which they currently lack. Indeed, the greatest danger is that the West turns ISIL from a mutation of the Syrian tragedy into a pan-Arab movement as a consequence of ill-conceived military action. Indeed, Western over-reaction is precisely the aim of the strategic communications campaign being conducted the extremist trolls on the Internet who support ISIL.
Fourth, an accommodation between Iraqi Shia and Sunni must be sought. In effect this means implementation of the existing Iraqi constitution.
Fifth, whilst an alliance with Iran might seem appealing Tehran seeks the consolidation of Shia (and thus Iran-friendly) control over Iraq and thus the confirmation of sectarianism. That is precisely why senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Al Quds leaders act as advisors to the Maliki Government. co-operation should be sought but under strict conditions.
Specific courses of immediate action should include the following:
a) the construction of a clear intelligence picture of the key personalities;
b) preservation of the seat of Iraqi Government via the bolstering with advice those elements of the Iraqi armed forces still loyal to Baghdad as well as the Kurdish Peshmerga;
c) contact with MCIR leaders to understand their grievances and to see if the MCIR/ISIL link can be broken;
and d) engagement with and on the Maliki Government to ensure governance in Iraq is re-established on non-Sectarian lines.
The wider lessons of post-2001 Western engagement are that a) it is vital to understand the specifics of any threat. The devil is in the detail; b) ideological or evangelical desires to spread democracy are no basis for action per se; c) threats that are loosely affiliated are not necessarily part of a globally-capable conspiracy; d) such ‘threats’ must not be ‘legitimised’ by ill-conceived action; e) act to prevent and separate domestic grievances from foreign struggles; f) isolate the irreconcilables through the use of law; g) military power should be used only in support of political strategy not as a punitive act in and of itself; h) the support of local people is critical to any Western strategy of engagement and thus respect for their beliefs and customs must be a given of strategy; i) good governance should be at the heart of all political strategy; and j) strategic patience is critical to effective engagement along with all means and tools of influence.
There is one final question; why should the West act? Unlike many other states round the World in this struggle of the state versus the anti-state ISIL has declared the West to be its enemy.