Alphen, Netherlands. 30 June. In responding to the terrible events in Tunisia in which thirty or more Britons were gunned down on Friday Prime Minister David Cameron talked of an existential struggle, a generational struggle. And yet he seems to completely under-estimate the scale of the challenge posed by Islamic State, the Caliphate which was established a year ago this week and the strategic Islamism they champion. He also refused to state the blindingly obvious; Islamic State will need to be defeated in the field BEFORE it can be defeated on our streets. That means armed forces that must have the capability and the capacity to go back and fight in the Middle East.
So, why does strategic Islamism, and in particular IS, pose an existential threat (note the use of Islamism not Islamic, which is a vital distinction)? First, strategic Islamism threatens to destroy the state system across the Middle East with enormous political and humanitarian implications. Second, strategic Islamism reaches deep into now complex European societies. Third, there is no doubt that IS would seek to gain and use mass destructive and disruptive weapons and technologies against open societies. Fourth, there is no conceivable political accommodation with IS.
Prime Minister Cameron as ever says all the right things, but as ever does very little to back his words with action. For example, my well-placed sources tell me that Cameron is sympathetic to the need to rebuild the British armed forces. However, Chancellor (finance minister) George Osborne has made further cuts to the British armed forces in the forthcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) a leitmotif for his fixation with achieving an arbitrary budget surplus by 2018-2019.
Osborne apparently told Cameron that if he agrees to the NATO target of maintaining Britain’s defence budget at 2% GDP then he can “say goodbye to the budget surplus”. Osborne has even threatened to resign if the coming Review does not confirm further swingeing cuts to Britain’s forces. Worse, those around Osborne in the Treasury by and large adhere to the end of history nonsense believing there to be no real need to the world’s fifth largest economy and Permanent Member of the UN Security Council to have powerful armed forces.
Rather, they believe that a mix of strong intelligence services, an intrusive state and extended policing can contain the Islamist threat within Britain, allied to the constant downplaying of the threat posed by strategic Islamism. For example, a very well-informed contact of mine tells me that far from there being 700 British ‘fighters’ in Syria and Iraq there are some 2000 and that some 1000 have recently returned to Britain. This is strategic illiteracy at its dangerous worst, especially when one considers such retreat against the backdrop of a rapidly rearming, aggressive Russia.
Consequently, the armed forces are forced to perform political fig-leaf operations. Cameron likes to say that Britain is the second most active member of the anti-IS coalition. In fact, the US carries out some 94% of all operations. Given the caution of the Obama administration and the extremely lukewarm commitment of America’s allies (both within and without the region) the entire strategy upon which the coalition is founded has become fundamentally flawed with no real link between the strategic objective of defeating IS and the forces and resources committed. Local fighters are incapable of defeating IS in the field which now has at its command resources that increasingly give it the appearance of a state.
The result is that IS continues to cultivate the myth of military invincibility which makes it so attractive to the aggrieved, the marginalised and the fanatical across both the region, Europe and the wider world. Therefore, until IS is defeated in the field and if needs be by a ground force with Western troops to the fore then the allure of IS well beyond Syria and Iraq will only grow.
Critically, Cameron has to ask himself a profound question and for once honestly answer it; which is the most important struggle – reducing national debt or fighting strategic Islamism. If he is to honestly answer that question Cameron will also for once have to take a strategic position rather than a political position and with other European leaders stop running scared from the memory of Afghanistan and Iraq. That means recommitting Britain to fight the very existential struggle he proclaims with an existential mind-set whatever the near-term political costs. It is as though Winston Churchill had said in 1940 that Britain was determined to fight Nazism, but only if it did not exacerbate the national debt.
First, Cameron must commit more of Britain’s forces to the struggle and end the ridiculous constraint by which IS can only be attacked in Iraq not Syria. Second, he must stop playing political games with Britain’s defences, particularly the capacity of Britain’s armed forces to undertake sustained operations. Given the current threats ‘maintaining’ the NATO target of 2% GDP on defence simply by cooking the books is a dereliction of duty. Folding the aid budget, intelligence and the nuclear deterrent into the defence budget simply to give the appearance of 2% in fact represents a massive cut to the operational forces and their ability to act.
Finally, if an increasingly obsessive George Osborne refuses to realise the world has moved on since 2010 and that his fixation with his arbitrary budget surplus is in fact yesterday’s struggle then he must be removed from office. If not Britain and indeed the wider coalition will go on fighting strategic Islamism with one hand tied behind its back and the only winner will be IS.
Prime Minister Cameron made a solemn promise to avenge Friday’s victims by dealing with the threat at source. To do so he must help defeat IS in the field. Anything less and yet again words will be seen as hollow as the promises he made yesterday to the victims.