It is hardly a surprise that so many people in the UK, around 30%, are fundamentally opposed to any sort of direct British military action in Iraq, save for vital humanitarian aid, when one considers the absolute disaster we seem to have left behind the last time we chose to involve ourselves in that troubled country.
That having been said however, it is also reported that approximately 40% of those people who were asked the question, would actually support the idea of Britain using its military airpower to attack and degrade the heavy equipment and weaponry now at the disposal of the Islamic State, which currently presents such a terrifying risk to virtually all of the non-Sunni peoples of both Syria, Iraq, as well much of the wider Middle East region. Were Iraq and then Syria both eventually succumb to the rabid fundamentalism of the Islamic State movement, then one could only begin to speculate as to which neighbouring country would be next on their list of possible conquests. Would it be Iran? Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar? the UAE? Lebanon? Turkey? or even Israel?
It may seem fanciful to suggest that a rag-tag army of radical Islamic fundamentalists could possibly threaten some of the Middle East's principal military players, but when one considers that Iraq's own national army was thought to be one of the best equipped and highly trained in the region, yet simply vanished when confronted by the Islamic State's highly committed and often seasoned fighters, none of the countries mentioned should simply assume that they are safe from the current IS threat.
Not only are the Islamic State reported to be one of the wealthiest terrorist organisations that the world has ever seen, ostensibly as a result of stolen bank deposits and hijacked oil revenues, but now thanks largely to the inherent weakness of the new Iraqi army, IS have become one of the best armed and best equipped field armies in the entire Middle East. What weaponry deficits they might have, can easily be filled by purchasing the necessary arms and equipment on the world's markets using their vast stolen wealth, although there will almost always be certain specialist personnel and equipment that are not available to them, by virtue of the fact that such items and skills are generally held under the various state's immediate control.
In addition to being well equipped and well financed, this new Islamist force is thought to have some of the most experienced and committed fighters in the Middle East, many of whom have gained extensive military experience in Saddam Hussein's former national army, or when battling the western coalition forces following the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003, opposing the army of Bashar Al Assad in the towns and cities of Syria and helping to rout the new Iraqi army over the course of the past few months. By repute, many of these Islamist fighters are thought to be highly committed religious zealots who put their personal faith before their own physical safety, making them extremely dangerous adversaries for those Iraqis who might be willing to oppose them. Quite whether their growing ranks of impressed fighters are as willing to fight and die for the cause of Islam, as are its voluntary recruits, remains to be seen, but by most conservative estimates the Islamic State movement is said to be able to field a force of up to 10,000 fighters to wage its battles, a not inconsequential number of people, especially if they are extremely well armed, well motivated and highly mobile.
Although some military experts believe that an entirely air mounted military campaign against the IS insurgents would bring only limited benefit to the embattled Kurdish and Iraqi forces who are having to face the fundamentalist fighters of ISIS, the fact that they are having to oppose insurgents that are armed with the latest American weaponry, courtesy of a retreating Iraqi regular army, is also a vital consideration.
In the comparatively short lived Libyan air campaign, waged principally by Britain and France, the allies were said to have specifically targeted the heavy weapons of Colonel Gadaffi's forces, in order to ensure that those artillery pieces, tanks and missiles couldn't be used against the civilian population who were rebelling against Gadaffi's autocratic regime. By dominating the skies over Libya, Britain and France were able to suppress and degrade the military advantage that Colonel Gadaffi enjoyed over his opponents, but without the allies having to commit any ground troops to the actual campaign, save for a handful of military advisers and specialists who were liasing with the rebel forces.
In Iraq most Kurdish commanders on the ground have all pointed to the fact that their Islamic enemies are being so successful against them, ostensibly because the Islamic State fighters that they're facing now have better weaponry than the Kurdish peshmerga, who are regularly having to make do with extremely limited and often obsolete Soviet era military equipment. If all that the allied air forces were to do, was to destroy or degrade the Islamic State's burgeoning weapons cache, the battle tanks, the armoured personnel carriers, the field artillery, the mortars, the rocket and missile batteries, which were stolen from the Iraqi regular army, then that action alone would doubtless level the northern battlefield and allow the peshmerga defenders to compete with Islamic State on a more equal footing.
Time and again both the Kurdish and Iraqi leaderships have publicly stated that there is absolutely no need for allied troops to join the fight against ISIS directly, to put boots on the ground as it were, simply because the Iraqi army and the peshmerga are content to fulfil that role for themselves, without the need for any large scale foreign intervention. In fact the only thing that the Iraqis and the Kurds seem to want and need from the western powers are those specialised military forces and services that they cannot provide for themselves, such as ground attack aircraft, military spotters, trainers, intelligence units, communications specialists, transport facilities and most importantly, modern weapons. Mimicking the old Churchill mantra, most Kurds and Iraqis are simply telling western leaders, "just give us the tools and we'll finish the job", without any need for a single British or American military life to be risked or indeed lost.
Of course sitting behind Britain's currently pitiful response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Northern Iraq is David Cameron's own utter failure to make the case for a military intervention in Syria, which resulted in a parliamentary defeat for the Prime Minister; and the fact that a British general election is due to take place in less than twelve months time. With the country divided over what action to take over the Iraq crisis, it seems that Mr Cameron has chosen to adopt a highly cautious approach when it comes to possible British responses, with the result that he is now generally seen to be indecisive, distant and even unconcerned about the human catastrophe that is currently taking place in the Middle East.
Coming back from his family holiday a whole day early, the Prime Minister's response to the crisis is to try and concentrate people's minds entirely on the humanitarian aspect of the unfolding disaster, in an attempt to avoid any serious decision making on the much thornier issue of any possible British military action against the Islamic insurgents who are currently blighting large parts of Iraq.
Mr Cameron's own woeful personal performance on Iraq aside, as well his reluctance to confront Russia over its involvement in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the really disappointing aspect of all three crises, is not simply the Prime Minister's own leanings towards inaction and even appeasement, but that of almost the entire British political class. Having sufficiently well trained, well armed and robust armed forces is all very well, but if there is an underlying political reluctance to employ those forces in pursuit of the nation's best interests, including the upholding of international law, then what use are they, or what purpose do they really serve?
That is not to endorse the sort of wilful and ill thought out military adventurism that we saw under the Blair administration with Iraq and Afghanistan, or the current Coalition with Libya, but then neither should we refuse to employ those military forces to the full when international law and acceptable human norms are being so maliciously overlooked or deliberately disregarded. As a nation that prides itself on its strict adherence to the rule of law, human rights and freedom from tyranny, torture and religious persecution, shouldn't we always stand ready to defend our basic principles, even if that means that the young men and women of our armed forces have to be placed in harms way to do so?
If nothing else, British military involvement in Iraq, Libya and quite possibly Afghanistan have taught us that having a well thought out strategy beforehand, an end game, is probably far more important than anything else we plan for. Both American and British political leaders found to their cost that simply having a single basic objective of removing a national leader, finding weapons of mass destruction, or even taking sides in a civil war, often comes a poor second to the much more important issue of, but what happens afterwards? In Iraq, in Libya and potentially in Afghanistan, the most important question should have been what is the long-term objective of the allies actions and how is that best achieved? And that simple question should undoubtedly have been asked before a single boot hit the ground, before a single bullet was fired, or before a single Tomahawk missile was launched.
As it is, in Iraq, in Libya and possibly to a lesser extent in Afghanistan, there were few long term goals, almost no planning for what to do or what would happen after the fighting was over; and as a consequence both Iraq and Libya have largely degenerated into a patchwork of historically divisive ethnic, tribal and religious factions that are inadvertently tearing their country apart, such is their historic intolerance and hatred of one another. In Syria, although the western allies have played no direct part in the vicious civil war that has been raging there over the past few years, western support for the Free Syrian Army, has almost certainly aided the rise of ISIS, the Islamic State terrorist movement, which now threatens to engulf significant parts of Syria and Iraq, bringing with it the sheer human brutality of the Middle Ages, masquerading as modern Islamic justice.
David Cameron's Conservative/Liberal Coalition government are just as culpable for the spread of the ISIS terror, as is Barak Obama and his administration, if only by providing the means that has allowed ISIS to grow and to thrive. By Tony Blair, George W Bush, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Barak Obama removing or diminishing the apex predators in the Middle East, in the persons of Saddam Hussein and Bashar Al Assad, they have inadvertently released a far greater threat to the region as a whole, in the form of the Islamic State.
It seems to be beyond belief that the British and American intelligence services would have been unaware of this development as the bloody Syrian civil war dragged on, or as the Iraqi government of Mr Maliki continued to falter and fail; and yet it seems that no affirmative action was taken by any of the western allies to eliminate the growing threat from ISIS, until of course it started to threaten almost the whole of Iraq and the many minority religious communities that have existed there for centuries.
Only time will tell just how many Shias, Yazidis, Christians, etc. have fallen victim to the ISIS terror; and only once the Islamist group have been fully defeated by the peoples of Iraq and Kurdistan. Having already publicly displayed their utter brutality and disregard for common humanity through their fighter's explicit postings on the various social networks, it seems likely that many hundreds, if not thousands of more victims will have been slaughtered without their deaths being recorded in such a diabolical way. As seems to be the case nowadays, in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Libya, in Iraq, time inevitably tends to uncover the numerous mass graves of those who have often been murdered in the most appalling way, with their bodies hidden in a crude attempt to hide evidence of the crime and the identities of the perpetrators.
As has been said before on this blog, whether we like it or not Britain shares a degree of national responsibility for the catastrophic situation that now exists in Iraq; and as such must try and make amends for that by trying to right some of the wrongs that have been carried out in our name. Although ultimately it is the likes of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron who take the decisions to commit our armed forces to action, in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria and in Afghanistan, it is us, the electorate, who hand them the executive authority to act in our name. Our earlier adventure into Iraq cost Britain nearly 200 lives and for most of us, it wasn't worth a single loss for what little was ultimately gained, or for any of the perceived benefits it was said to have brought to the people of Iraq. Afghanistan has cost this country many hundreds of more young service personnel's lives, not a single one of which can have been said to have been worth the highly questionable gains that the venture is said to have brought to our country. All that having been said however, the fact that we have already been bitten in Iraq, suffering the losses we did for pretty much no real gains, should not prevent us from trying to do the right thing this time, but for all the right reasons.