The situation in Iraq and Syria and the response to al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq al-Sham (DAESH) - Defence Contents

3  The policy of the UK Government

24. Although a UK intervention has been authorised by Parliament and, we were told, would be legal under international law, it is immensely difficult to define the nature of the UK strategy. Indeed, in evidence to the committee, the Service Chiefs implied that there was not an overall military strategy or campaign plan, at least as yet. In the words of Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford, the Chief of the Air Staff:

    So, in terms of, "Have we got a campaign plan from here to success?" I think this is a situation where the international community, the Iraqi Government and all the other players within it are developing the plan as they go.


    From my own viewpoint, this doesn't lend itself to the traditional, "This is where we are. We've thought it all through. This is where we're going to and this is the end state we're looking for.[29]

Admiral Sir George Zambellas, the First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, concurred:

    You can't define precisely how long an operation is going to take. You certainly can't select the end state.[30]

25. In the previous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, senior UK military and civilian figures did define clear missions, end-states, roles, responsibility and tactics, and summarised them in documents such as the April 2009 'comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan'.[31] In this case, however, senior figures seemed to go out of their way to downplay the UK contribution, and the military contribution in particular: to emphasise that they were only one part of a large coalition. Peter Watkins, Director General of Security Policy at the Ministry of Defence, told us that the UK "should not expect to be doing everything" and that "we are only one country that is contributing to a large international coalition"[32] and the Chief of the Air Staff stressed the complexity of the situation and the fact that there were lots of "moving parts".[33]

26. A frequent refrain was the 'small' nature of the UK contribution. Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford described what the UK was doing as "merely a small part" or "a very small part";[34] General Sir Richard Barrons, Commander Joint Forces Command, talked of the UK "doing a number of very small things as part of this coalition"; [35] "a small niche contribution";[36] "really quite small scale"; and again "we expect that contribution to be small".[37]

27. The Chiefs of Staff emphasised the insufficiency of military action. To the question 'what is the mission in Iraq?' General Sir Richard Barrons, had the response:

    We are very clear that we are making a contribution to a coalition military operation in the full expectation that the military line of effort is not decisive. [38]

The Chief of the Air Staff added:

    The nature of military utility here is very difficult.[39]

Service Chiefs were also insistent that one of the reasons they could not describe or define the mission, was that it was not their mission to define. In the words of the Chief of the General Staff:

    I think the trouble is you are not really addressing it to the people who are going to be able to answer it. It seems to me it is fundamentally a question for somebody from the Foreign Office to answer, or even from Downing Street.[40]

Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford was also reluctant to define the exact role of the other players in the coalition:

    You were looking for: who owns this? Well, the answer is that there are probably about 20 different players who own different elements of the comprehensive approach that needs to be applied in Iraq, in Syria and right around the region, because of the multifaceted and multi-natured nature of the ultimate solution, and all the moving parts that need to go into place.[41]

Shashank Joshi suggested that in reality the UK had simply signed up to a US strategy, without questioning it, or attempting to formulate any independent view.[42] Peter Watkins was asked repeatedly by the committee to describe the resources which would be invested in the mission, and to offer metrics, to allow us to judge performance, or the UK commitment, but declined to do so.[43]

28. Insofar as it is possible to define a UK mission in Iraq and Syria, it appears to combine a narrow focus—the elimination of a terrorist group—with a very broad definition of how to achieve it: no less than the fixing of the Iraqi and Syrian states. In the words of the Prime Minister:

    [T]his alliance has a strategy which is very simple and straightforward, which is, we want a Government in Iraq and a Government in Syria that are capable of representing all of the people of those countries, and have security forces that can keep the security and stability of those countries, and not allow terrorists to thrive. That is the strategy. That is the aim.[44]

29. The full theory of the UK Government appears to be as follows:

a)  In the words of General Sir Richard Barrons: "The objective of the coalition is to remove ISIL from Iraq."[45] Or, more exactly, the final goal is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat DAESH in Iraq and Syria, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.

b)  But the UK and other international forces cannot be deployed in combat roles. (In Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall's words: "Everybody has been absolutely clear that nobody wants western combat boots on the ground."[46])

c)  The combat, therefore, will be undertaken by Iraqi Security Forces, who will have the task of countering the DAESH insurgency, and recapturing and holding the DAESH strongholds in Western Iraq.

d)  But this effort is hampered by the collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces, the sectarian divisions within Iraq, and the profound corruption, and unpopularity of the Iraqi State, particularly in Sunni areas.

e)  So this requires: the formation of a new Iraqi Security Forces, a new non-sectarian policy, the elimination of corruption, and the regaining of the trust of the Sunni population (so they too can turn against DAESH).

f)  This, in turn, relies on adopting a more comprehensive approach, aiming at—in the Prime Minister's own words—"the creation of a new and genuinely inclusive Government in Iraq".[47]

g)  Finally, the situation in Iraq cannot be addressed without addressing the situation in Syria: and again in the Prime Minister's words, the creation of "a new representative and accountable Government in Damascus."[48]


30. State-building appears, therefore, to be at the heart of this military-political strategy. This was closely reflected in the House of Commons debate. The Prime Minister opened the debate saying his strategy depended on "'the creation of a new and genuinely inclusive Government in Iraq [and] a new representative and accountable Government in Damascus."[49] Andrew Mitchell MP argued that the solution to DAESH was to "focus on local governance and accountability";[50] Dan Jarvis MP noted that "there needs to be a wider, encompassing political framework, with a plan for humanitarian aid and reconstruction, which will ultimately lead us to create a stronger and more accountable Iraqi Government."[51] The close connection, which some Members of Parliament seemed to draw between the narrow task of counter-terrorism, and the broader task of state-building was most neatly summarised in the debate by Gisela Stuart MP quoting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon: "missiles may kill terrorists. But good governance kills terrorism."[52] This phrase had already been enthusiastically endorsed by the Prime Minister.[53]

31. This theory of counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency/state-building raises issues well beyond the scope of this report. But, it is worth noting in passing that there are in fact no self-evident connections between the key objectives. You can create a stable legitimate state without winning a counter-insurgency campaign—as India has done—or you could win a counter-insurgency campaign without creating a 'legitimate' and 'inclusive' state—as Syria did in 1983. Strong states can sometimes harbour terrorists, weak states may seek to exclude them. We would question the capacity of the international community to create democratic states in the short term in either Iraq or Syria. Given those challenges, we would also question whether such things can be created and would question a strategy based upon the assumption of success, in state building.

The current strategy and comparison to the 'Surge Strategy of 2007'

32. The clearest way, however, of analysing the current strategy is by comparing it directly to its predecessor—the counter-insurgency doctrine of the 2007 surge—which has been laid out in very considerable detail. The enemy we were fighting then, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), is the precursor of DAESH. DAESH are occupying much of the same territory in Anbar that AQI occupied then. Fallujah, for example, which is now a major target for the operation, was captured, at immense cost, by the coalition in 2004, and subsequently lost again. The same party, the Da'wah party, is in power in Baghdad and almost all the Iraqi politicians and US commanders in control today were involved in the previous campaigns in Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the current 'Caliph' was then an Al Qaeda in Iraq fighter, and was held in US custody. His movement draws its energy from many of the same political and sectarian divisions.

33. The 2007 strategy was based on a military counter-insurgency campaign in which international troops were deployed: to clear and secure neighbourhoods, to help the Iraqi Security Forces protect the local population and to help ensure that the Iraqi forces left behind were capable of providing security.[54] This was then paired with many of the aspirations of the current strategy (economic development; state-building; devolution of power to local leaders; Sunni outreach through de-Ba'athification; training of the Iraqi Security Forces; using Sunni tribes against DAESH; controlling supplies to DAESH; creating a regional solution embracing neighbouring states). President Bush's 2007 presidential address could almost be used verbatim in 2015:

    A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations. Ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities. [The Iraqi Government must] show that it is committed to delivering a better life, to empower[ing] local leaders. And to allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation's political life, the Government will reform de-Ba'athification laws


    We'll help the Iraqis build a larger and better-equipped Army and we will accelerate the training of Iraqi forces […] help local Iraqi communities pursue reconciliation, strengthen the moderates and speed the transition to Iraqi self-reliance.


    Recently, local tribal leaders have begun to show their willingness to take on Al Qaeda.


    We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq. We will work with the governments of Turkey and Iraq to help them resolve problems along their border. We will use America's full diplomatic resources to rally support for Iraq from nations throughout the Middle East. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States need to understand that an American defeat in Iraq would create a new sanctuary for extremists and a strategic threat to their survival. These nations have a stake in a successful Iraq that is at peace with its neighbors, and they must step up their support for Iraq's unity Government.[55]

34. When asked to define the differences between the 2007 strategy and the current strategy, the Defence Secretary declined to specify any difference in terms of counter-insurgency doctrine or Sunni outreach. Instead he implied the nature of difference was in the role and composition of the Iraqi Government:

    [T]he biggest difference between now and 2007 is that we now have a genuinely inclusive Government in Iraq, who represent both Shia and Sunni, and, indeed, Kurdish elements in Iraq.[56]

The central difference, therefore, between the 2007 and the current strategy is not in the objectives—which remain almost identical—but in the actors. This time these tasks are not to be performed by 130,000 US troops, 100,000 international contractors and consultants, dozens of Provincial Reconstruction teams, US-financed 'Sunni Awakening' councils and $815 billion dollars of US money. Instead it is to be led by the Government in Baghdad. There are to be no foreign combat troops on the ground. Unlike the period between 2003-2011, training of the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga is to take place at secure bases, well behind the front line, and is not to include embedded trainers working alongside Iraqi troops.

35. The formal international coalition role is limited to air-strikes in Iraq (UK) and Syria (others), the training of local security forces, 'capacity-building' of the Iraqi state, and an aspiration to create 'a regional solution' (and, we presume, special forces operations—although these remain classified). This is not because of a conclusion that the deployment of 130,000 US troops was ineffectual—indeed, the conventional wisdom continues to be that their deployment was essential to the apparent success of the 2007 campaign. Instead, the decision to do it this time without international combat troops, reflects first, the absolute opposition of the Shia political parties, and, in particular, the Iranian-backed Shia militia to any Western combat deployments in Iraq (they have in fact implied that they would attack Western troops were such deployments to occur).[57] Secondly, it represents a totally changed political environment in the US, and the UK, in which there is no political appetite for combat troops.

36. During the course of our evidence sessions it became clear that regional partners were unlikely to deploy ground troops in Iraq, nor was it considered wise to suggest that they did so.[58] Instead, we were frequently told that any troops deployed would need to be Iraqi ground troops and that those troops would have to have the trust of all Iraqi citizens, a highly optimistic notion under the prevailing circumstances.[59] Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall told us:

    Everybody has been absolutely clear that nobody wants western combat boots on the ground, but we are also clear, as we have been in a number of these conflicts, that the enabling activity we bring in terms of intelligence, strike assets, counter-IED, for instance, and just general training is what will actually allow the ISF—ultimately, we hope, non-sectarian—plus the Peshmerga, plus the national guard drawn from the tribes, plus the Shia militia drawn into the Iraqi security forces, to take the fight back to ISIL.[60]

37. A more limited coalition role is also reflected in the US strategy. In the evidence to the United States House Armed Services Committee on 13 November, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the coalition's strategy was:

    [F]ocused on supporting inclusive governance, sustaining a broad-based regional and global coalition and strengthening local forces on the ground. It also includes undercutting ISIL's flow of resources, countering ISIL's messaging, constricting the flow of foreign fighters, providing humanitarian assistance and our intensive regional and global diplomatic effort.[61]

The challenges of the strategy

38. We heard in Baghdad that Iraqi Security Forces will be expected to recapture Tikrit, Mosul and Fallujah. There appeared to be an expectation that Kurdish Peshmerga forces would capture the part of Mosul on the East bank of the Tigris, and that the Iraqi Security Forces would take the main part of the city, and then rapidly transfer control to the local police and a 'National Guard'. A number of interlocutors were confident that Mosul would be recaptured in 2015.

As stated above, Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall identified the actors in this assault:

    [T]he ISF—ultimately, we hope, non-sectarian—plus the Peshmerga, plus the national guard drawn from the tribes, plus the Shia militia drawn into the Iraqi security forces.[62]

This strategy therefore relies heavily on certain key assumptions about Iraqi forces (the Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, Shia Militia, and a putative 'National Guard'), about the Iraqi Government, about the Sunni population, and about DAESH itself. We will analyse these factors in turn.

29   Oral evidence taken on 5 Nov 2014, HC (2014-15) 512, Q210 Back

30   Oral evidence taken on 5 Nov 2014, HC (2014-15) 512, Q220 Back

31   Defence Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2009-10, The Comprehensive Approach: the point of war is not just to win but to make a better peace, HC 224, para 36  Back

32   Q354; Q352 Back

33   Oral evidence taken on 5 Nov 2014, HC (2014-15) 512, Q210 Back

34   Oral evidence taken on 5 Nov 2014, HC (2014-15) 512, Q130; Q210  Back

35   Oral evidence taken on 5 Nov 2014, HC (2014-15) 512, Q208 Back

36   Oral evidence taken on 5 Nov 2014, HC (2014-15) 512, Q205 Back

37   Oral evidence taken on 5 Nov 2014, HC (2014-15) 512, Q199 Back

38   Oral evidence taken on 5 Nov 2014, HC (2014-15) 512, Q199  Back

39   Oral evidence taken on 5 Nov 2014, HC (2014-15) 512, Q220 Back

40   Oral evidence taken on 5 Nov 2014, HC (2014-15) 512, Q207 Back

41   Oral evidence taken on 5 Nov 2014, HC (2014-15) 512, Q210 Back

42   Shashank Joshi (ISI0021) para 3 Back

43   Q353; 355 Back

44   Oral evidence taken before the Liaison Committee, 16 December 2014, HC (2014-15) 887, Q66 Back

45   Oral evidence taken on 5 Nov 2014, HC (2014-15) 512, Q200 Back

46   Q317 Back

47   HC Deb, 26 Sep 2014, col. 1258 Back

48   HC Deb, 26 Sep 2014, col. 1258 Back

49   HC Deb, 26 Sep 2014, col. 1258 Back

50   HC Deb, 26 Sep 2014, col. 1299 Back

51   HC Deb, 26 Sep 2014, col. 1327 Back

52   HC Deb, 24 Sep 2014, col. 1307 Back

53   HC Deb, 24 Sep 2014, col.1257 Back

54   Bush address on Iraq, BBC, 11 January 2007 Back

55   Bush address on Iraq, BBC, 11 January 2007 Back

56   HC Deb, 12 Jan 2015, col. 591 Back

57   Iraqi cleric al-Sadr re-emerges, 60 Minutes, CBS News, 25 September 2014  Back

58   Q6; 9-11; 47; 171; 241 Back

59   Q36 Back

60   Q317 Back

61   US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Statement on the Administration's Strategy and Military Campaign Against ISIL Before the House Armed Services Committee, 13 November 2014  Back

62   Q317 Back

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Prepared 5 February 2015