Destroying ISIL Means Boots on the Ground

The fact that the movement does not recognise fixed borders makes it all the more difficult to track, says Con Coughlin

Published: 13th October 2014 06:01 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th October 2014 06:01 AM   |  A+A-

With every day that passes in the bitter battle for Kobane, the inadequacy of the West’s response to the challenge posed by Islamic State (IS) militants becomes ever more obvious.

Having opted to rely almost exclusively on air power to — as David Cameron put it — “degrade and destroy” IS, western policymakers must be deeply alarmed that the militants have been able to enter the outskirts of the Syrian town despite being regularly bombed by US warplanes.

The situation on the ground, where Kurdish fighters are desperately opposing the Islamist onslaught, is now so dire that American General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warns that the town is in imminent danger of capture.

Gen Dempsey, who fought in both previous Iraq conflicts, in 1991 and 2003, is one of several prominent military officers — from both sides of the Atlantic — who have argued that IS is unlikely to be defeated by air power alone.

And yet, with Kobane on the point of collapse, politicians in Washington and London are still clinging to the fiction that IS can be defeated without the use of “boots on the ground” — the odious political shorthand for combat forces.

What they really mean is that there will be no British or American boots on the ground. Kurdish, Iraqi, Syrian, Shia or any other “boots” that are prepared to take on the maniacal IS fanatics, however, are all most welcome.

This deep-seated aversion to committing any ground forces is the legacy of the massively unpopular military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, where public support, which was initially strong in both nations, quickly faded once it became clear that there would be no swift and easy victory.

Dealing with the IS threat, which now extends directly to the streets of London following this week’s arrest of several men said to be plotting terror attacks, promises to be even more drawn out, with Cameron recently warning that “this is the struggle of our generation”. It is also a great deal more complex than the challenges we faced in the other campaigns, where the fight was essentially focused on a clearly defined enemy.

Yet in the year since IS first emerged as a major threat, we still do not have a clear idea of the organisation’s strength or composition. Some estimates put the total number of fighters at 10,000, others at 50,000. The 500 Britons said to be fighting with IS are more of an estimate than an accurate figure, and the fact that the movement does not recognise fixed borders makes it all the more difficult to track.

If IS succeeds in capturing Kobane, it will have uncontested control of a swath of Arabian territory stretching almost from the Mediterranean littoral to the mighty Euphrates river in eastern Iraq.

We would have a far better idea of the type of enemy we faced, and the military assets needed to deal with it, if only our politicians would wake up to the extent of the challenge and get over their hang-up about deploying combat troops. But such is their determination to avoid being dragged into another unpopular war that the only ground forces they are prepared to tolerate are foreign proxies, such as the Kurds, whom we now expect to do all the fighting on our behalf.

The fundamental flaw in this approach was evident yesterday, when Michael Fallon, Britain’s Defence Secretary, suggested that Turkey should become more involved in the battle for Kobane raging on the other side of the border. Fallon, like so many of his Westminster colleagues, is simply clutching at straws: why should the Turks have an interest in helping the Kurds to defeat IS? Ankara’s long-standing obsession has been to prevent them from establishing their own state, and any military intervention by the Turks against IS would simply strengthen the Kurds’ hand.

This is but one example of the limitations of a policy in which the West hopes that others will fight its wars on its behalf. The reality, and one that will become abundantly clear the longer this conflict continues, is that if Britain and its allies are really serious about defeating Isil, they must do some of the dirty work themselves — and not just from the relative safety of 20,000 feet.

No one is saying that we need to launch a massive ground offensive on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan. But having just a small number of well-armed Western troops to assist the Kurds and other groups fighting on the ground could make all the difference in defeating this resilient and well-organised Islamist menace.

© The Daily Telegraph

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