The news of recent weeks with regards to Iraq has been mostly positive. The government is making ground against ISIS, who in turn are being hit hard on a number of fronts. To pinch a phrase from Churchill, it looks like we might be at "the end of the beginning". But there is still a long road to go. And that's got me wondering.
A lot of what has happened in Iraq has been done without the aid of western 'boots on the ground' slogging it out in direct battle with the enemy. While it's widely acknowledged that special forces units from a number of countries have been helping out near the front lines and regular troops have been providing training and logistic support in the rear, it's the Iraqis themselves that have been doing most of the grunt work (along with a generous dollop of US and allied air support). So one wonders then (for one is in posh mode) whether it might be time to revisit some old work that I did on this blog. I'm thinking of two posts in particular, one which looked at the end of British operations in Helmand, Afghanistan, and another that made the contention that you don't choose Counter Insurgency (COIN) campaigns, they choose you.
Starting with the latter first - as is my want, to confuse readers - I set out my belief that you don't choose COIN wars, they choose you, based on the fact that an insurgency either occurs somewhere of interest to you, or it doesn't. The insurgencies that followed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan forced the coalitions hand. They had opted to invade in the first place based on a premise that this was necessary to secure their national or regional interests, a premise which will potentially be tested when the Chilcot Inquiry publishes its report in July (though don't expect major fireworks). When the insurgencies ensued, the coalition was basically left no choice in either case but to do something about them.
And that's the broad problem with proclamations about never doing a COIN operation again and that we've seen the back of the days where Britain, America and others pay in blood and treasure to keep a country stable; the theory works fine right up until the point when an insurgency breaks out somewhere that matters to us, at which point we're essentially left with a choice to intervene and preserve a national interest, or ignore it and suffer the consequences. It's not really a choice at all. If something is that important to us then we will intervene to prevent bad things happening, because the alternative will be even worse. It's the old chestnut about sometimes having to hold your nose and take your medicine because the result of not doing so will be even worse, except applied on a geopolitical scale.
What medicine to use though is up for debate.
That's where the former piece comes in, the retrospective of Britain's role in Afghanistan and the suggestion of a move towards something a little more low key, and that's also where we tie in modern day Iraq. A very brief summary for those that haven't read the piece yet; don't send lots of troops, use small numbers of regular personnel to provide training and specialist support, let special forces lead local forces at the sharp end, and focus mainly on the establishment and support of local forces to do the brunt of the grunt work.
How this relates to Iraq is simple, because in effect that is exactly what is being done right now. Iraq is now a giant testing ground for the concept. Now I know some people will argue that ISIS isn't an insurgency, and that's largely because people forget that the definition of an insurgency is " (but not exclusively)