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Britain and ISIS: a need to rethink

Jeremy Corbyn's speech before the Manchester attack points a way beyond the "war on terror". 

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Paul Rogers
7 June 2017
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General Election 2017. Danny Lawson/PA Images. All rights reserved.The previous two columns in this series have explored the idea that a Conservative Party landslide, with at least a 150-seat majority, might not after all be the outcome of the United Kingdom's general election on 8 June. The earlier one expressed "a niggling sense that something may be developing below the surface that could break through even in the short time left” (see "The Corbyn crowd, and its message", 18 May 2017).

That notion was based partly on the way in which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was repeatedly attracting large and enthusiastic crowds at open-air events arranged at short notice, apparently responding to a felt need for a less regimented and more engaged kind of politics. Within a week, this sense of a trend had begun to evolve into something rather more definite, and Labour activists were beginning to think the Conservatives might be denied an overall majority (see "Corbyn, and an election surprise", 26 May 2017).

This latter column indicated a possibility of wishful thinking, but the trend of the last few days suggests that it is now distinctly possible. Part of this sudden and unprecedented shift reflects the Conservatives' campaign errors, especially over confusion on its policy over social care. But it is also clear that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is connecting with people in a remarkable way – his popularity is growing day by day and, far from being an obstacle to Labour’s electoral ambitions, he is becoming their star player.

Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is connecting with people in a remarkable way – his popularity is growing day by day and he is becoming their star player.

In light of these two columns, Oxford Research Group has just published a briefing that extends the discussion to look specifically at Jeremy Corbyn’s views on international security. These views were expressed in his Chatham House speech on 12 May and further developed in a thoughtful response to the devastating Manchester Arena attack late on 22 May.

A turning-point

In terms of conventional electioneering wisdom, defence and security are assumed to be Labour’s weakest policies, certain to be bitterly criticised as unpatriotic by the great majority of the national print media. Such criticism certainly followed the Chatham House speech and the subsequent Manchester intervention, but they had much less effect than intended. Indeed Corbyn’s view that the war on terror was failing and that there must be a fundamentally new approach to international security got much more support than expected, and certainly did nothing to dent the growing popularity of the party.

Jeremy Corbyn addressing crowds in 2003 against going to war in Iraq.

The ORG report concluded:

“[After] more than fifteen years of the war on terror, failed or failing states in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, close to a million people killed and over eight million people displaced, the argument for some serious rethinking on Western approaches to security is hardly difficult to make.

This is where Jeremy Corbyn’s Chatham House speech is so significant since it breaks away from a near-universal Western state consensus and may be much more in tune with what many millions of people may be thinking. Whatever the outcome of the general election next week, space has been opened up for much wider debate. Independent organisations such as Oxford Research Group that take a critical but constructive approach to security will have a particular responsibility to aid the quality of that debate.”

The ORG report does, though, include one serious caveat. If in the coming weeks, ISIS loses both Raqqa and Mosul and then collapses, making it look like the war on terror is at last something of a success, then any chance of rethinking security, whichever party is in power, will be much diminished. At the time of writing the ORG report, such a collapse did not look too likely but what is relevant here is that further, wide-ranging evidence from just the last few days strongly confirms that view.

Three days, four theatres of war

That evidence comes from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and the Philippines.

In Iraq, the army’s extended operation to retake Mosul was expected to be completed in barely ten weeks, but is now likely to take at least three times that. Der Spiegel reports that during the fighting, ISIS has deployed over 850 truck-bombs hundreds of young men ready to kill themselves. Even now, there are still around 1,200 ISIS paramilitaries defending a small core of the old city and the Iraqi army is only able to deploy a similar number of its elite task-forces one and two of its "golden division" (i.e. special forces).

So many of these troops have been killed or seriously wounded that the division is reported to be greatly depleted, with little capability of providing a professional core to the army when ISIS moves fully over to insurgency mode. Already that insurgency is evolving, the latest grim result being the bombing of a Baghdad ice-cream parlour in a Shi’a district of the city on 30 May, killing thirty-five people and injuring more than a hundred.

In Afghanistan, the Trump administration is overseeing a rapid expansion of its air-war against the Taliban and ISIS offshoots, with 460 weapons released in April 2017 compared with 203 in March, the April total being the highest since the peak of Obama’s “surge” in August 2012. The paramilitary response is wide-ranging, including one of the largest truck-bombs ever detonated, killing over eighty people and injuring more than a hundred, just outside Kabul’s “green zone”.  

In Egypt, the recent bombing of Coptic Christian churches was followed by attacks by ISIS gunmen on a small convoy of Copts going on a pilgrimage to a monastery 150 miles south of Cairo. The assault in Minya province killed at least twenty-eight people, the latest in a series that has taken the lives of more than 100 Copts since December.

In the Philippines, the army has been caught out by a sudden surge in paramilitary activity from a group linked to ISIS, in violence made worse by Philippine army casualties caused by “friendly-fire” incidents. The impact, and the sense of a government unable to cope, was enough to persuade President Duterte to cancel a visit to Japan. The continuing insurgency and counter-violence in the southern province of Mindanao, where martial law is now in force, is part of a growing climate of insecurity in which the state plays a major role.

A time to rethink

These and many other incidents – including, of course, Manchester – are reminders that ISIS and similar movements are simply not going away, and for Trump to promise more force will be the equivalent of piling yet more combustible material onto the blaze.

ISIS and similar movements are simply not going away.

The implications for Britain are that at some stage there has to be a fundamental rethinking of its defence posture and how it responds to al-Qaida, ISIS and the like. Even if Theresa May’s Conservative Party is re-elected, that process will eventually become impossible to avoid.

But if Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party were to achieve the near-impossible and form a minority government in the coming weeks, its chances would be greatly boosted. Just one reason for anticipating a Labour success is that the much needed rethinking might happen sooner rather than later.

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