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Britain’s secret wars

A new report on the use of special forces against ISIS opens a window onto Britain's changing military strategy in the Trump era.

Iraqi security forces (ISF) among the ruins of 'Jonah's tomb,' bombed by IS in 2014. ISF are backed by coalition warplanes and military advisors as they seek to recapture Mosul (2017). NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved. Jared Kushner, son-in-law of President Trump and one of the most influential people in his administration, says the fight to retake Mosul from ISIS is nearing its end. This view looks dubious when set against reports, for example by Voice of America's Heather Mudock, that ISIS's most experienced paramilitaries are still entrenched in the core parts of the old city. Moreover, even apart from the military realities, the dire problems being faced by civilians augur badly for any quick resolution (see "Dark Times Ahead in Battle for Mosul", VOA, 4 April 2017). 

But the United States-led coalition will eventually declare victory in Mosul. To that end, Trump is more than willing to allow far more intensive airstrikes whatever the cost to civilians, and to sanction the more direct involvement of regular US combat troops in fighting on the ground.

This strategy entails giving the military a much freer hand than Barack Obama ever did. The same change is on display in regard to Yemen, where there has been a marked rise in US operations against al-Qaida groups: last week alone saw more than twenty airstrikes, bringing the total for the year so far to seventy-five, close to double the average yearly total since Obama’s drone programme began in 2009.

Trump is more than willing to allow far more intensive airstrikes whatever the cost to civilians.

As it continues to escalate, the Trump version of the "war on terror" will bring substantial questions for its closest allies – most especially Britain and France. The presidential election and its aftermath in France will determine reactions there, which might be more predisposed to highlight than to conceal the state's overseas military interventions. In Britain by contrast, there is very little debate on its military place in the larger scheme of things.

A surprising aspect of the Westminster Bridge attack on 22 March was that it proved almost impossible for people to see any connection between that atrocity and Britain’s deep involvement against extreme Islamist paramilitary groups. This is remarkable given that the UK is part of a coalition led by the United States that has killed over 50,000 ISIS supporters since August 2014.  

ISIS wants to bring this war back to the states of the “far enemy” – including France, Belgium, the UK and most recently Russia. So if we kill thousands of them, they would like to kill at least hundreds of us. That may be a very crude representation of what is happening. But it is still worth asking why there is so little discussion about the connection, virtually no parliamentary scrutiny, hardly any media coverage, and notably little dissension.  

On 22 March... it proved almost impossible for people to see any connection between that atrocity and Britain’s deep involvement against extreme Islamist paramilitary groups.

There are some ready explanations. The main opposition parties, especially Labour, are reluctant to raise any defence-related issue, mainly for fear of being accused of being unpatriotic, with all the tabloid fervour that this will rouse. Also, there is very little reporting of the war, except in rare cases such as the assault on Mosul, where there are some western reporters in the vicinity. 

Another factor is almost entirely missed, however: the level of secrecy the British government manages to maintain on some of the key aspects of the war, especially the use of special forces. Such deployments, which have wide implications for UK defence policy, are illuminated by a new report from the Remote Control Group. It carries a most appropriate title: All Quiet on the ISIS Front: British Secret Warfare in the Information Age

Towards openness

The Remote Control group, hosted by Oxford Research Group and funded by the Network for Social Change, has worked for several years to bring to the fore the changing nature of the wars that Britain and other western countries fight. The change has been from an emphasis on tens of thousands of “boots on the ground”, albeit supported by copious use of air-power, towards much greater emphasis on “remote control”: the use of armed-drones, air-delivered stand-off weapons, privatised military companies, and expanded use of special forces.  

Remote Control has published many studies which highlight different aspects of remote warfare but All Quiet on the ISIS Front is distinguished by its focus on Britain and its mushrooming specialist contingents. Though much enhanced in capability in recent years, the latter are almost entirely unaccountable to parliamentary scrutiny because of the long-established refusal of successive governments to comment on their activities.

A distinct lack of decision-sharing or even debate becomes even more dangerous in the context of military power and its destructive impacts.

The problem with this approach is a distinct lack of decision-sharing or even debate, which becomes even more dangerous in the context of military power and its destructive impacts. The British government may argue that secrecy about military operations is essential. But other western governments are far less secretive, and Britain's stance is in any case undermined by the government’s practice of feeding little stories into the tabloid press, usually ones that make it look good.

The authors of the new report, Emil Knowles and Abigail Watson, have sidestepped much of the secrecy by careful research supported by unusually wide-ranging references (over 400 are cited). Their analysis uses Open Source Intelligence (OSI) with considerable skill and in the process does a considerable service in facilitating serious debate on this neglected issue.

At any time this would be desirable but right now it is essential. The unfolding Trump era already makes plain that he is content with the prospect of more war – a key way to “make America great again”. Britain, more than any other state, is at the greatest risk of being dragged into his brave new world. Tony Blair took the country into a disastrous war in Iraq, while Afghanistan persists as a failing state and Libya is reduced to chaos. Now, a much expanded "war on terror" will be fought far more remotely than before. At the very least, Britain should go into it with its eyes open. All Quiet on the ISIS Front could do much to ensure the debate that is so much needed.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers, delivered to the Food Systems Academy in late 2014, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. The lecture - "The crucial century, 1945-2045: transforming food systems in a global context" - focuses on the central place of food systems in human security worldwide. Paul argues that food is the pivot of humanity's next great transition. It can be accessed here


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