Johnny Mercer is the prospective Conservative candidate for Plymouth Moorview.
It has been a demanding summer for the Foreign Office: A change at the helm, three major challenging events to tackle establishing an agenda for future UK relations abroad – and all at a particularly dynamic and fluid time in world affairs.
I am compelled to write; my perspective and analysis are qualified and quantified. I spent 10 years training for or operating in Afghanistan on behalf of the UK Government, attempting to achieve a counter-insurgency not wildly dissimilar to the task faced by the Israeli Defence Force in Gaza, and by the Iraqi Government in Northern Iraq. Through many mistakes, I and my colleagues came to understand what worked and what didn’t and, despite some media portrayals to the contrary, we know we have had genuine effect in that country.
The pace of events in Iraq has caught most off guard. The almost unparalleled evil currently flowing through the north from Syria has presented the UK with not only the obvious threat of the ‘returning jihadi’, but an opportunity to mature our approach to Foreign Affairs, so blighted by our errors in that country in 2003.
It is challenging not to over-dramatise the scale of the genocide that is currently occurring at the moment without appearing vulgar; but it is safe to say it represents some of the worst ethnic culling seen for generations. I have seen this threat face to face, and its darkness is hard to comprehend or explain. It was therefore disappointing to read of the admittedly late, but nonetheless kinetic US intervention last weekend, followed by reports of the UK sending ‘tents and food’ to the Yazidi people. They no doubt needed sustenance; on balance though I would argue that greater threats persisted to their survival. The irony of our lack of appetite to stand directly against “the hallmarks of genocide”, precisely because of our efforts in that same country a decade before, is stark.
Fighting a counter-insurgency is one of the toughest forms of warfare. It requires a multi-agency approach for ‘success’. It also requires a clear qualification of that ‘successful’ end-state. Iraq and Gaza will never be like London, but we have learned a great deal as a country since 2003. We have actually achieved some astonishing results in Afghanistan in some places. We used to be the world’s subject matter experts in counter-insurgency. However, we (this generation) have re-learned the hard way, through mistakes, through loss of life, through blood and toil, about fighting a counter insurgency.
So why have we not used this corporate knowledge to highlight to Israel the folly of their plight? We have fixated on the appalling loss of civilian life in Gaza, when it was clear from the outset that Israel had an extremely high tolerance of civilian casualties, and was not going to hear calls for restraint. A better course of action would have been to maintain the outrage on civilian deaths, but actually to highlight to Israel the long term strategic errors of their tactics – which will ultimately cause more death over a greater period of time.
It would seem Israel hasn’t learned the basic “ripple effects” of killing non-combatants, resulting in greater numbers of more hard-line combatants from those affected by the deaths of innocents. There is a reason why no UK operations were sanctioned in Afghanistan without “zero expectation of civilian casualties” when I was there. Yes – not only because it is wrong to accept collateral damage too easily, but also and foremost because it defeats the aim of the mission, and will not help the counter-insurgency’s wider purposes.
Foreign policy decisions can ultimately be very complicated and multi-faceted, cognisant of the ‘law of unintended consequence’. So perhaps the most perturbing facet of this summer has been the mood and manner of the ‘anti-intervention’ brigade, and the emotion-led reporting in the mainstream media. The uproar against the disproportionate Israeli action in Gaza was completely understandable; however I am yet to see a march for the Yazidi people of Northern Iraq, or for the Christians whose case has so nobly been made by Andrew White. Anti-semitic attacks have rocketed, predominantly in France but also in the UK.
The downing of MH17 may have been the result of one commander giving authority to fire, but there are many factors that went into 298 innocent people enduring a horrific death – the main one of which was a ‘it’s not our problem, let them get on with it’ attitude from the West. It is difficult to watch over-weight masked men carrying weapons they cannot operate intimidating defenceless Dutch investigators as they try and recover body parts of loved ones blown out of the sky. It is harder to watch the Yazidi women being captured as slaves and buried alive by evil personified. It is harder still knowing that we have the stand-off capability, the strategic force projection and the overwhelming fire-power to enforce our will in the name of justice and all that is good.
But it is hardest of all to accept that there is no will to get involved. We must break this mould. The consequences of inaction will only come closer; ‘goal-line defence’ will not stop everything. But there is more to this: what does being in the British Armed Forces actually mean now? The best at what they do on the planet, but never used? What does being British mean? As a society, we must stop seeing these events as threats to our comfortable blogging existence, commenting and wringing our hands at every opportunity, but on the whole with alarming indifference to actually doing anything about it.
Fine, march about Gaza – what happened there is appalling – but don’t then ignore the greater evil of ISIS. And please stop blogging about how bad military action is for our “sorry boys and girls getting flung to every corner of the world’. It is not a conscription Armed Forces in the UK. I and many like me joined at a time of war to fight this evil because we wanted to and, dare I say it, actually enjoyed some of what we were sent to do. There is little point paying for the best trained and best equipped Armed Forces in the world if we never use them.
So let’s get over Iraq in 2003. We got it wrong, and we have learned and endured painful corrective experiences. But the effects of letting that conflict stop every intervention by UK Armed Forces abroad will be catastrophic. We need to mature our approach and accept some uncomfortable facts. Some jihadists are beyond reconciliation and beyond the capability of their host country; Putin will keep pushing until he is stopped; Israel tolerates high civilian casualties – so argue with them in a different manner. And lets keep a high line against emotion-led reporting. We deserve a genuine role on the world stage – we have plenty to offer. Surgical intervention is not a bad thing. We’ll regain respect after Iraq, and contribute more to world stability than a few blogs, tents and marches.