Speech to International Counterterrorism Conference
Polls tell us that the majority of the British population, by 4:1, do not support intervention in Syria. I suspect the picture is similar in Europe and the United States.
2013-09-09 by Colonel Richard Kemp
Sixty-three years ago tomorrow, in September 1950, United Nations air and naval forces began an amphibious invasion of Inchon on the Korean peninsula with a series of devastating airstrikes. Inchon was one of the most brilliant and decisive operations in modern warfare: conceived and commanded by American General Douglas MacArthur, perhaps the greatest general of modern times.
What has the Battle of Inchon got to do with counter terrorism today you might very reasonably ask. Whenever I think of intervention in Syria, I think of Inchon. Although the proposed Inchon operation was obviously kept very much under wraps, virtually everybody who knew about it opposed it. Inchon was stridently opposed by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, by many in the White House and even by most of MacArthur’s own staff.
I cannot comment on the views about Syria today among serving British officers, but I know that I have heard only one retired British general speak in support of military intervention in Syria, and many against. Polls tell us that the majority of the British population, by 4:1, do not support intervention. I suspect the picture is similar in Europe and the United States.
For both Inchon and Syria I can understand the strong opposition. One member of the Inchon planning staff said: ‘Make up a list of amphibious “don’ts” and you have an exact description of the Inchon operation’. Well if you made up a list of military intervention “don’ts”, Syria also ticks pretty much every box.
Except one. Deterrence. When you look at the stakes, you have to ask yourself whether the potential deterrent value of a strike against the Syrian regime outweighs all of the potential horrors and nightmare scenarios that could follow. And I obviously don’t need to mention those to this audience, here in this country, which could well be more immediately, and severely, affected by the fallout than any other country in the world.
However, against the background of today’s terrorist threat – and tomorrow’s – deterrence has never been more important. Al Qaida Central, devastated and reeling from a highly successful, sustained campaign of drone attacks in the Pakistan tribal areas, is desperate to find a way of re-asserting itself. Chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons have long been high on its priority list and remain so.
Both the Taliban and Al Qaida will soon be presenting the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan as a bloody nose for the West. Unless things change dramatically very quickly, they will have plenty of ammunition to support their propaganda. Only this week, General Mark Milley, the Commander of ISAF Joint Command in Afghanistan, said that between 50 and 100 Afghan soldiers are killed in battle every single week.
It is most likely that large swathes of southern and eastern Afghanistan will again fall under the control of the Taliban. It is also highly likely that the United States will carry on a drone warfare campaign similar to that in Pakistan, working to prevent insurgents developing enough power to threaten Kabul, and to prevent extremists from establishing a base in Afghanistan to again threaten the west.
But whatever the reality on the ground, and however we might wish to portray that reality, the jihadists will plausibly paint the picture of Afghanistan as a major victory for them, and a major defeat for us. It will be a much-needed shot in the arm for Al Qaida in that region and globally, and we will see the positive effects on support, funding, recruitment and morale among their followers.
The security vacuum in southern and eastern Afghanistan will also open up the potential for a relatively safe haven for the Pakistan Taliban’s campaign against the government of Pakistan. It is not yet clear what effect this could have on their insurgency inside Pakistan, but it perhaps deepens concerns about the security of Pakistan’s own weapons of mass destruction. And of course the Pakistan Taliban, like the Afghan Taliban, is closely allied to Al Qaida. A network with global ambition, including against the United States homeland, the Pakistan Taliban has also reportedly sent hundreds of fighters to join the rebels in Syria, and has established its own base there.
The development of Iran’s nuclear programme is not only concerning from the perspective of the Ayatollahs’ possession of nuclear weapons, but whom they might share nuclear and radiological material with. Hizballah, very possibly. And just because Al Qaida and Hizballah are currently in the process of killing each other in Syria, does not mean that Shia Iran would baulk at providing Sunni Al Qaida with WMD if they judged it in their interests to do so.
The same could be true of North Korea which, as well as nuclear, has stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and according to some sources, has supplied arms to Al Qaida, Hizballah and Hamas in the past.
And full circle, back into Syria where the risk remains – whatever the West does or does not do – that chemical weapons might well come into the hands of the rebels.
Short of being able to seize or destroy all of these potential terrorist sources of WMD, deterrence is the only realistic answer. Unfortunately – whichever way Congress votes tomorrow, and whatever President Obama decides to do or not do – that deterrence has already been seriously undermined and diminished.
Lengthy and very public deliberation, indecision, order and counter-order, exposure of splits between and within Western nations, isolation of national leaders. The thin red line becoming the thin grey line. All of this may well be democracy at its best. But it does not make for effective deterrence.
Prime Minister Cameron’s very public and vocal call for action against the Syrian regime followed swiftly by his defeat in parliament and Britain’s self-exclusion from any military intervention does not make for effective deterrence. Britain once ruled over the greatest empire the world has ever known. Today it is a very different picture. But nevertheless Britain’s voice does remain important.
Our generals are often accused of fighting the last war. Britain’s parliamentarians are now in that position as well. During their debate, the ghost of Iraq hung over the House of Commons. Even though – despite some superficial similarities – the two situations are very different.
But another spectre dominated Britain’s decision even more than Iraq. Jonathan Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute said that the most telling phrase from debaters on Syria was: ‘Our job in this parliament is to look after our own people’. Betraying ignorance – or more likely willful blindness – to the reality that what extremists perpetrate on their own people today they will bring to our shores tomorrow.
The haunting fear behind this parliamentary sentiment spells out the word ‘appeasement’. We are back in 1940, when many British politicians argued for an accommodation with Nazi Germany instead of a fight. And it is very possible that a vote in parliament then might have brought that to reality. But there was no vote in parliament. Because Winston Churchill won the day by force of will and sublime moral leadership.
The disease of appeasement today is not confined to Britain alone. It infects much of the Western world and Europe in particular. Seemingly, other than France – over this issue at least. And I never thought I would hear myself saying a good thing about the French. Nothing personal, but although they may be America’s “oldest ally”, they are our natural enemy. Let us not forget who France allied herself with America against in 1778.
Too many in Europe are determined to see the threat from Islamist terrorism as one of our own making, and of course Israel’s, and would prefer to sell out their own principles, their own culture and their own moral standards, and of course your country, rather than to make a stand.
I have nothing but admiration for the professionals involved in the physical war on terrorism in the UK and overseas – such as Commissioner Adrian Leppard, here with us today, and Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick who you heard from this morning, and their opposite numbers in Europe. The work they do, often in conjunction with our closest allies such as the US and Israel, has been instrumental in preventing many terrorist plots and saving many lives.
My concern is with the intellectual war on terrorism, upon which the future prosecution of the physical war depends to such a great extent. There is a view – widely held – that our withdrawal from Afghanistan, following on from our withdrawal from Iraq, will appease those parts of the population who wish to oppose our national foreign policy by suicide attack on the underground or by hacking off our soldiers’ heads on the streets of London.
There is a view that any form of forward defence such as continued engagement in Afghanistan, targeted assassinations against Al Qaida leaders who are plotting to kill us, or a deterrent strike against Syria, will bring down upon us the wrath of Muslim extremists at home and abroad.
Instead, some – perhaps the majority even – believe that we should withdraw into our island fortress – which is far from a fortress these days, rely on our metal detectors and body scanners, and give up whatever ground we need to give up in order to appease those at home who might still wish us harm. As Winston Churchill said: ‘The acts we engage in for appeasement today, we will have to remedy at far greater cost and remorse tomorrow.’
For evidence of this you need look no further than here in this country. As you know better than I, 800 lethal rockets were fired by Palestinian terrorists at Israeli civilians last year. And despite 20 separate letters sent by the Israeli government to Ban Ki-Moon
appealing to the UN to take action, warning him that ‘inaction today could help ignite an escalation of conflict tomorrow’, Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council took no action, and did not even once speak out against this terrorist onslaught.
Instead, the UN, the EU and Western powers continued to appease the terrorists of Hamas. As a consequence over 150 people were killed when Israel was forced to launch Operation Pillar of Defense in November.
Thankfully Israel still understands one thing that many of us seem increasingly to forget. Our terrorist enemies are not weak, and we cannot afford to be weak or to be seen to be weak. Thank goodness that Israel destroyed Syria’s nuclear programme six years ago this week, despite very real fears that it could trigger retaliation or even war. If Israel had not acted, I very much doubt anybody would be so much as contemplating a punitive strike against a nuclear-armed Syria.
In contrast to the West prevaricating and procrastinating, and worrying and wondering, Israel has “allegedly” carried out airstrikes in Syria three times this year, against targets that the Prime Minister determined threatened the security of his nation.
Back in the 30s a young British Army captain called Orde Wingate taught the Jewish communities here in Palestine, besieged by murderous Arab gangs who wanted to drive them from the land, that attack is the best form of defence. And in so doing, he helped sew the seeds of Israel’s doctrine of national security.
In this global war on terrorism, instead of taking counsel of our fears, instead of appeasing our sworn enemies, we can learn today from Israel’s moral resolve and Israel’s indefatigable courage, itself alone reminiscent of Britain Alone after Churchill’s will prevailed against the appeasers in 1940.