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Iraq and beyond: hidden, secret wars

The west's military focus has shifted towards covert use of special forces. Both the human costs and the blowback risks are escalating.

US Central Command (CENTCOM) is the unified military command that oversees the various wars being fought by the United States and its coalition partners from northeast Africa to western Asia, including the intensive air-war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The latter has been going on since August 2014 and is being fought with an intensity that is scarcely covered in the western media. Each day CENTCOM releases an online report on the previous day’s operations.

This is its report for just one day, 2 March 2017:

March 3, 2017

Release # 20170303-01

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

SOUTHWEST ASIA — On Mar. 2, Coalition military forces conducted 16 strikes consisting of 78 engagements against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq.

In Syria, Coalition military forces conducted two strikes consisting of four engagements against ISIS targets.

* Near Ar Raqqah, one strike destroyed a weapons storage facility.

* Near Palmyra, one strike damaged a bridge.

In Iraq, Coalition military forces conducted 14 strikes consisting of 74 engagements coordinated with and in support of the government of Iraq against ISIS targets.

 * Near Al Qaim, one strike destroyed an ISIS storage facility.

 * Near Haditha, one strike suppressed an ISIS tactical unit.

 * Near Mosul, two strikes engaged an ISIS tactical unit; destroyed six fighting positions, four heavy machine guns, three medium machine guns, two tunnels, a rocket-propelled grenade  system, a VBIED, and a VBIED facility; damaged seven supply routes; and suppressed 22  mortar teams.

 * Near Rawah, 10 strikes engaged an ISIS staging area and destroyed nine ISIS-held buildings.

The term “strike” is misleading since it reads as if a single plane (or drone) attacks some targets. But as CENTCOM helpfully explains:

A strike, as defined in the coalition release, refers to one or more kinetic engagements that occur in roughly the same geographic location to produce a single, sometimes cumulative effect in that location. For example, a single aircraft delivering a single weapon against a lone ISIS vehicle is one strike, but so is multiple aircraft delivering dozens of weapons against  a group of ISIS-held buildings and weapon systems in a compound, having the cumulative effect of making that facility harder or impossible to use. Strike assessments are based on initial reports and may be refined.

Thus, “engagement” is more revealing a term than "strike", and taking the period 2-6 March alone there were 89 strikes involving 380 engagements.

This gives some idea of the extent of the air-war. The Airwars project has arrived at a figure of 18,814 strikes using just short of 70,000 weapons, mostly precision-guided bombs and missiles. The Pentagon itself says that by late 2016 these attacks had already killed some 50,000 ISIS supporters, a total now probably closer to 55,000. Airwars reports that over 2,500 civilians have been killed, not far short of the total loss of life in the 9/11 attacks.

The connection is all the more relevant at a time when counter-terror officials in Britain warn that the risk of domestic attacks is the highest for some decades. “To put it at its most crude – we have killed tens of thousands of them and they want to kill at least hundreds of us” (see "The UK and the Terror Threat", Oxford Research Group, 1 March 2017).

This aspect of the wider campaign against ISIS is obscured or hidden for three reasons, not just a rooted culture of secrecy. First, there is less attention to the war after more than fifteen years of continuous conflict. Only where there is a major development – such as the assault on Mosul, where western media sources can get close to the fighting – does interest rise. Second, opposition parties, including in Britain, have failed consistently to argue the need for debate. Third, and perhaps most dominant, is that this is being fought as a "remote war" – without tens of thousands of boots on the ground, and without the bodies of young soldiers coming home on a near-weekly basis as was the case in Iraq a decade ago.

A parallel war

Beyond this, though, lies a parallel war that is going on in much greater secrecy – the widespread use of special forces.  Transparency in this respect if rather more open in the United States but almost entirely lacking in the United Kingdom where a long-upheld mantra (“we do not comment on special forces operations”) has in the past applied as much to the Labour Party as to the Conservative.

Bits of news about these operations appear readily to be fed through to government-supporting newspapers but there is no overall indication of the numbers or areas involved. Furthermore it is not even clear whether “no comment” applies just to the core special forces such as the SAS and SBS, or whether it extends to much larger numbers in the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), those Army Air Corps and RAF units that support them or even regular troops temporarily seconded to work with them.

This is the “secret” rather than the “hidden” war. It may involve the UK being active militarily in a number of countries where there has been no parliamentary debate before the operations commenced – and certainly no holding the government to account once they were underway. That may worry anyone concerned with democratic accountability (see "The west's shadow war", 31 March 2016).

One of the very few independent groups trying to uncover where UK forces are deployed and what they are doing is the Remote Control Project. After careful analysis of multiple sources of varying authenticity, its conclusions are due to be published in a few weeks. These may throw some welcome light on a heavily concealed issue.

Britain's current military operations need not be a concern only for a narrow coterie of specialists. For they relate to a role that the UK already has in one of the world's most unstable and violent regions, which could well deliver a serious blowback in terms of a major domestic incident.

In 2005, the then Blair government denied any connection between the Iraq invasion and the London bombings on 7/7, a claim later shown to be false. If the worst again happens, it will become even more important to make clear the connection between the wrecking of lives in Britain and the much greater wrecking of lives in the hidden and secret war that is going on day after day.

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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