Ahmed J Versi
Bombing is not best way to defeat Daesh, says Head of the British Army, General Sir Nicholas Houghton even though he supports the Government’s position backed by MPs to extend the bombing campaign in Iraq to Syria.
“From the military perspective this is not the best way to defeat the Daesh. It has always been our view that you cannot defeat an ideology through military means,” said Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton in an exclusive interview with The Muslim News editor Ahmed J Versi.
“The first thing we are concerned about is the safety of all our own people on the streets of the United Kingdom. And therefore the only unilateral strategy that the UK can have is the one that relates to the safety of our own people,” said.
This, the army chief said, “involves border control, involves our intelligence services and police having a very good intelligence understanding of the domestic threats that we go through radicalisation in some elements of our society.”
“It does involve on a social and educational level an outreach to all our communities to do our own best attempts at de-radicalising certain elements of the community and preventing them from becoming radicalised.”
[Photo: Editor of The Muslim News, Ahmed J Versi (L) interviewing Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Nicholas Houhgton, at the Ministry of Defence offices in London. Photograph: The Muslim News]
Houghton was appointed Chief of Defence Staff, the most senior uniformed military advisor to the Defence Secretary, in 2013. Last month, he caused controversy by supporting the Government seeking to join in the bombing of Syria, claiming that Britain was “letting down” its allies by not engaging in the air strikes against IS [Daesh] in Syria ahead of a crucial Parliamentary vote.
Challenged whether the extension of air strikes to Syria would radicalise people in this country as happened during the bombing of Iraq in 2003, he said he would agree if the case was not presented properly.
“If you don’t get the messaging right about the fact that our use of western military force is very constrained and is for specific purposes, is absolutely within the legal context, is absolutely at the wish of host governments – we can discuss later in the context of Syria – we run the risk of selling the wrong message which could act as a radicalising accelerant.”
David Cameron is facing questions over Britain’s decision to follow the US model of drone strikes after the Prime Minister confirmed that the Government had authorised an unprecedented aerial strike in Syria that killed two Britons fighting alongside the Islamic State.
Houghton said it was why he went “back to intellectual conceptualisation of President Obama.” He did “not want this to be presented as a re-run of Western Christian international military crusade against an element of the Muslim world. It is sometimes the media and commentators who pull it in that direction.”
“That is why we have got to be resistant. Even in the time of political intrigue, commentary about whether or not begin air strikes in Syria.
And now if you read the newspapers they are saying we are not dropping enough bombs. Because we are absolutely clear we are only going to use it in the context where it is legal, our intelligence is good, we are within the rules of engagement, using the right weaponry – in the way that absolutely minimises both the collateral damage and potential for civilian casualties.
And that is a demonstration of the very careful and applied use of military capability in the context of the bombs that have been targeted since the vote on Syria specifically against the economics set of targets which supported the economy and financing of Daesh.”
On the question of legality, Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad insisted that he has not invited Britain to help Syria to bomb Daesh and that it was illegal.
The Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee also expressed concerns about British airstrikes in Syria because of the risks of legal ambiguity. But Houghton argued otherwise.
“It is legal because ultimately it’s not military people who determine the legal framework under which we operate. It is made by our Attorney General. He is the specialist interpreting on behalf of the Government International Law as it affects the use of armed forces,” he insisted.
“His advice to the Government is quite clear under Article 51 of the UN in the proactive self defence of Iraq, we have been invited by President of Iraq, Dr Abadi to protect his country that he considers to be under threat and in doing that we are able, within the legal framework, to take military action against ISIS beyond the physical boundaries of Syria.
ISIS has said it does not recognise that boundary. That is the legal framework. Am I convinced by that legal framework? Yes. Is there a bit of debate about these things? Yes. I am completely satisfied that everything in military terms that we have done is within the legal framework that is interpreted by the Government and competent authorities.”
On Saudi Arabia’s announcement of a coalition of 34 Muslim countries to fight against Daesh in Syria, which Cameron has backed, Houghton said it was appropriate to use ground troops despite fears their presence in Syria could exasperate sectarian killings
“Our response to this has been two fold. One, it is a response of some enthusiasm because it is indicative that the regional countries recognise that they have a responsibility within the resolution of this conflict. In that respect it is potentially a wholly good thing that Saudi Arabia as a regional leader has shown some leadership in rallying this.”
“The second response is wanting to understand more what this actually means in the way in which they would coalesce potentially bring military capability to bear on the situation in Syria.
But I would also hope this wasn’t purely a Muslim coalition that was thinking primarily about the military dimension on this. But I also hope that there is a greater focus on the ideological de-legitimisation of Daesh as one of the primary aims of the coalition such as this,” he said.
Houghton declined to directly answer whether Britain should be working with the Syrian army who are organised and fighting against the Deash as they are doing with the Russian military rather than the rebels who are divided, fighting amongst themselves and interested in fighting Assad.
“Hypothetically” he suggested that it would be a good position to get to if Syrian opposition could be reconciled with Government troops though he doubted Assad would not be part of this.
“One of the things that in terms of lessons learnt that haunts many people from Iraq was the process of de-Bathification instantaneously which effectively removed the ability to control the country and rebuild. Somehow we want to finesse this in a way that clings on to that capability. This is what the Vienna Process is all about and this is why to a significant extent the Russian action has perhaps created a dynamic under which there could be some political convergence of aspiration.
I don’t at all deny the legitimacy of your question, but bringing about the circumstances where that could be satisfactory done I think is a journey of some miles.”
The warning by Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, of a risk of civilian casualties from RAF strikes was not a contradiction of Cameron saying during the Parliamentary debate that there would not be any civilian casualties, according to Houghton.
“It is a complementary statement. Our Secretary of State who is a political authority for the targeting directive which permits the use of force in circumstances where the expectation of civilian casualties are zero – our pilots are not allowed to drop weapons.
He recognises that there are circumstances –even thought the expectation is zero – that sometimes, despite the expectation, there are accidents, mistakes, misjudgements, and therefore you cannot ever hope fully eradicate the chances [of civilian deaths],” he said.
The head of the army also defended the unprecedented targeted killing by Britain of one of its own citizens, Reyaad Khan, in a drone attack in Syria back in September but refused to call it an assassination.
“Assassination is not the word I would use. We do not prosecute assassination of our own people. There is another part of the legal framework which is not to do with with extended self defence as in Iraq.
It is to do with the country’s ability to protect its own citizens in legitimate self defence of its citizens. Here you have a case of a particular terrorist who was imminently planning and directing a terrorist action within the UK. Then you can prosecute that quite legitimately with a different legal construct.
This is not an assassination. It is an appropriate use of lethal force to protect your own people from a terrorist act. One element of the legal test is of imminence that you have to act first and then make yourself available to Parliament.”
Regarding the failure to recruit very few people from ethnic minorities including Muslims to the armed forces, Houghton suggested that there were “societal reasons for this.”
“In terms of statistical representation, the BME are not as well represented. In the Indian and Pakistani dimensions, is the very nature of the people who have come over the years to this country. They have come from the mercantile classes rather than warrior classes. They want to become doctors, want to become engineers etc. That is the nature of social aspirations of the gatekeepers. So we are not drawing from the elements of same sets of the elements from the northern areas [of Britain]. Same is true of the [non-BME communities].”
“The army draws people from northern convocations and Scotland where there has been a history of warrior class. So there are societal dimensions. For the gatekeepers, the aspirations for their children have actually become part of the professional classes in trades and occupation. We find a situation where 51% of our target audience are girls, 21% are from BME communities.”
There were important implications from this, the Chief of Defence Staff suggested. “Unless we start to draw people from these communities, firstly, we will struggle to maintain the numbers we need; secondly, we will fail to represent the society that is our duty to protect; thirdly, we will fail to access the talent that is out there.
We are in a situation where the natural grain of society and its aspirations are in a makeup against us but we are also in a situation we somehow have to overcome it because we won’t be getting the best talent.”
“So we have got all sorts of schemes for outreach – the diversity and inclusivity agenda. Anything to try and change the cultural norm is a slow process. We have a lot of Muslims who go out to fight in Muslim countries because they understand standard and values that we have in the army are the same as the Muslim values.”
Questioned about how many refugees have been saved by the British Navy in the Mediterranean and if any of the human smugglers had been arrested, Houghton said that the number was “more than 7500 migrants.”
“Some people could say you are encouraging the trade because they can say if you are stranded in the Mediterranean Her Majesty’s Navy would come and rescue you. Ultimately the aim mustn’t be one effectively encouraging this trade by rescuing people. It has to get at the traffickers.”
“Many migrants from Syria through Eastern European countries. This is being organised on a criminally huge basis. The refugees that are coming are not necessarily of themselves mostly refugees of crisis. They are economic migrants of choice who have given up some of their homelands becoming a better place.
The actual operation that relates with the Mediterranean, is not of itself resolving, it is treating some of the symptoms. The UK’s national policy on this as expressed by the Prime Minister is absolutely right. It is that ultimately the only way to resolve this is to make the countries that are the source of this migration of refugees better places to live.”