On Friday we had a PMs speech and debate on bombing ISIS / IS.
The vote was: 524 in favour, 43 against. A majority of 481.
Since Saturday the Royal air force has been flying over Iraq fully armed and ready to drop bombs or fire missiles at IS forces. So far they have not done so because of the problems they have with identifying targets.
The desire to target IS and not the civilians around them is a significant problem in Iraq, less so in Syria. But the RAF are not (yet) flying in Syria so what is the problem.
I refer to ISIS / IS sometimes as ISIS which is the amalgamation or Terror, insurgency and guerrilla groups and IS the Islamic State. People have argued that IS is not a state or not Islamic, I’m not going to cover the nonsense of denying the Islamic identity here. Instead I am looking at its identity as a state.
IS now covers an area larger than the UK, they have an economy that puts them towards the bottom of the list but not at the bottom and there are a number of small nations that are considered states with far smaller areas or economies.
But one point which has been made now by several people is that they don’t have a capital or any of the things a state should have, like a parliament.
Walk around London and see the palaces, the halls, all of the magnificent history written in stone and brick.
While you are there visit the tower of London, a thousand years of power and might stamped into the landscape.
London is a great and powerful city, the capital of a great powerful nation. It exudes age and majesty, it says the UK is worthy or respect because we have done all of this, can do all of this and have been doing it for centuries.
But then Britain has been throwing its weight around the world for centuries and London is the legacy of Empire, wealth and power. Paris, Rome, Madrid, these also lay claim to centuries of history and have the magnificent old buildings to support that claim.
Our ancestors were born into a country where London was the capital and everything was based there. It’s where the government is and always has been and these days it’s where the biggest share of resources and spending ends up.
As a nation and in fact across the entire traditional and historic west we have problems with the very idea that things should not be concentrated in a great Capital city, look at how much trouble the mobile office technology has being accepted and try to scale that up to the level of regional or national governments.
This gives an enemy a long list of clear targets that are unquestionably associated with the British government and leadership.
Across Africa, the Middle East and the Far East people are using the technology of this century to run business and organisations with smart phones and tablets that don’t need fixed offices. Here in the west as a society we are slowly adapting to mobile technology in business and not at all in government, our traditional western views are leaving us far behind in terms of distributed business and government.
But the Islamic State is not a traditional western power, it does not have the traditional mindset of the west, in fact it is an amalgamation of insurgent groups and people who are well versed in asymmetric warfare, they have no need for historic buildings and in fact spend a deal of time destroying any historic buildings that do not fit with their interpretation of history and scripture.
Here in the UK with our hundreds of years of tradition and bloated governmental bureaucracy we have 650 MPs and yet apart from very rare or ceremonial events you never see more than 10% in parliament. Bombing the houses of parliament most of the time will have a minor impact on British government.
For IS which has an organisational structure based around insurgent groups and tribal councils they have no real need for great halls and chambers to meet in. They can hold a council meeting in a coffee shop or mosque anywhere in one of the cities they control. This makes bombing the focal points of the IS government very hard, the only ones they have are generally only there because they are aping traditional government structures or are meeting points for civilians and therefore likely to bring high numbers of civilian casualties.
With smart phones and tablets and distributed computing it is entirely possible to control an organisation or even a nation without the fixed infrastructure that we in the west are pre conditioned to consider necessary. We westerners have done government and bureaucracy the same way for hundreds of years, technology is only slowly beginning to make changes.
But for people who do not have the same traditional handicap towards what a state could be and can be things can be very different. Want to hold a meeting, why be in the same room unless you want to be doing that old fashioned shaking hands and sharing coffee stuff.
Smart phones and tablets with encrypted communications software, video packages like Skype and conference calls means that you can hold those meeting from anywhere in a country or several countries. The computer servers and resources used to control and coordinate the billion dollar economy that is the Islamic State can be located anywhere in the world.
This is the 21st century, technology makes it possible for any business, organisation or government to be distributed. All it takes is the technological know how and the willingness to discard long traditions of the way things should be done. ISIS and IS have clearly demonstrated they have a grasp of technology and coming from an amalgamation of terrorist and insurgent groups they are the very opposite of traditional and hidebound when it comes to the way they do things.
So what do you bomb?
The Islamic State in Syria has been suffering steady attacks by the US against identified fixed facilities and buildings. The oil wells and refineries have been attracting particular attention in an attempt to cut down on the millions of dollars a day the Islamic State makes from selling oil. Other buildings known to be used by IS have also been destroyed.
Front line defences, vehicles, tanks and the like which are out in the open have also been attacked but this in Syria and the West is less concerned about the risk of collateral damage, after all the same aircraft that are flying over Syria and bombing IS were ready to fly over Syria and bomb Assad not so long ago.
Iraq on the other hand is a far more difficult problem. While IS control and exploits some 40% of Iraq’s oil production and refining facilities the Iraqi government wants them back rather than blown to bits. It would take years to rebuild and cost more money that the weakened Iraqi state has to spend. So they have asked the west NOT to destroy the oil facilities.
What does that leave? To be honest not a lot. IS forces in the Sunni north of Iraq are based in towns and villages that are inhabited by Sunni locals, some forced to support IS, others doing so willingly. Apart from front line villages that are regularly fought over where the civilians have long since fled any buildings used by IS also tend to have civilians in them or around them.
In terms of vehicles and groups of people away from the towns, again it is a problem of identification. A fighter pilot or ground spotter that see’s a column of pickups filled with masked men in black pyjamas with machine guns and IS flags is a clear target, half a dozen men in the back of a truck full of boxes could be an IS supply unit, reinforcements going to the front lines or some locals taking their goods to the closest market.
The time when the US could simply fly over the battlefield and blow up anything not a US vehicle are long gone. The Iraqi army, the Shia militias and the Peshmerga lack the modern electrical systems used to identify friend or foe to modern fighters. IS captured large numbers of western vehicles and equipment, someone driving a Humvee in an area that may be IS or Iraqi or Kurdish today could be friendly or an enemy.
IS also have captured Russian or soviet era tanks and armoured vehicles, the same as are used by the Kurds and the Iraqi army. Again to a fighter pilot racing over the area at speed to avoid ground attacks is that tank an IS one advancing or withdrawing or a Kurdish one advancing or withdrawing? Take away the flags above and which one is the enemy and which one is an ally?
So British aircraft are taking off, flying across the designated target areas and waiting for someone to spot something they can attack. But IS are not stupid, or at least the people behind them are not stupid. They are already changing the way they operate and developing counter measures against air strikes.
All of these means that bombing will not work, the whole Degrade and Destroy thing is a good sound bite but cannot be done from the air. In fact the very way in which the bombing is not working acts to improve the reputation of IS and ISIS, they can and indeed are using the fact that the infamous US shock and awe bombing campaigns that crushed Sadam are not working on them.
But pictures of aircraft in the skies makes it look as if the west is doing something to counter the problem. Cameron’s claim of a generational war against IS and whoever replaces them and whoever replaces the ones that come next will involve bombs and missiles being fired every so often against the occasional target.
Using technology and techniques designed to fight traditional enemies will not work against IS, our leaders need to start thinking about other ways of doing the job.
To do the job requires a short term and a long term solution. The short term is military, the long term one is social and economic and political. Three areas that the west has proved singularly inept at organising in the Middle East.
Without troops on the ground who can identify the enemy all the bombs in the world will do nothing except strengthen the IS cause. The west has had enough of its young men being maimed and killed in some dusty hell hole, Britain has had its armed forces somewhere shooting at and being shot at for the last 100 years.
But what is the alternative. Half the Iraqi army is considered to be completely incapable of combat and most of the rest is questionable. All of those men trained and equipped at vast expense by the US and UK, the number considered to be capable of full scale combat operations to a western standard is a handful. Syria, Jordan, the Lebanon, can they do the job. No they can’t. Saudi Arabia with a larger and more powerful military than the UK, not willing to do the job and outside of the prestige units of the Saudi army most of them are as questionable as the Iraqis.
The Shia militias that are being raised in great numbers, they are looking to fight a holy war, Shia against Sunni, they will be as bad as ISIS. The Kurdish forces are one of the few that is actually fighting IS to a standstill but they can hardly drive IS out of the entire north of Iraq alone.
About the only serious military with the numbers is Egypt, a nation that does not seem to have been involved in the anti IS alliance.
Thanks to deliberate provocation there is a clear consensus in the west that ISIS / IS must be attacked and destroyed. All of our technology and air power is useless against an invisible enemy and the terrorists and insurgents in Syria and Iraq are the sons and grandsons of the men who hid from Russian bombs in Afghanistan decades ago. They have learned their tradecraft during wars where those who failed to learn died and they are very good at what they do. Aircraft and drones cannot kill an enemy they cannot find.
So the west is trapped, the demand to act against the impossibility of acting.
We can bomb and shell and missile for years and achieve nothing. To win in the short term it will take ground forces which means local troops and that brings the prospect of creating new problems in a few years time.
After all you cannot bomb an enemy you cannot see.