Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. All four of these countries have been through brutal civil wars recently, and three are still suffering from conflict. The UK’s approach to each is different.
In Afghanistan we fought a full war with our allies, put troops in on the ground, policed territory and are now handing over responsibility for security to local forces and taking our leave.
In Iraq we have fought two wars, and are now helping others fight another war against a militant insurgency, limiting our military involvement to a few missions by planes flying on long round trips from Cyprus. Our previous wars have not produced a settled country.
In Libya we used missiles and bombs delivered from the air and offshore to help topple an authoritarian regime, and are now leaving the civil disruption and war to local forces.
In Syria we are not intervening at all, though the government did wish to last year. It then wanted to intervene to help bring down the unpleasant ruler. More recently it has been more inclined to intervene against the militant insurgents who are seeking to topple that same government.
UK interventions are sometimes helpful to Sunnis, and sometimes to Shia. The underlying religious civil war continues. The current tilt of UK policy is pro Shia, seeking to defeat the nasty ISIL forces.
What can we learn from these different approaches?
Some in the military say the Afghan model is the right one. They believe the west does have to intervene, bring down bad regimes, and then use its forces on the ground to offer protection to an emerging democratic process. Some say Afghanistan will now settle down to a better peaceful democratic future. Others think the west should keep forces there for longer and offer stronger guarantees of stability to the latest civilian government. This would of course require consent from the Afghan authorities, in a country where some may be weary of foreign troops on its soil as well as weary of war.
Some say the Libyan model was right. A short sharp military intervention ended a bad regime. Time might then produce a better answer as the competing forces try to sort out a new future. Others say that so far the breakdown in law and order has been most damaging to the Libyan economy, with death and destruction stalking the land.
Some say we need to be more wholeheartedly engaged in the Iraqi conflict. We need to be prepared with our allies to commit more force to destroy ISIL more quickly, and will need to commit western troops on the ground yet again because local forces do not seem so far to be up to the task of defeating the insurgents.
I think what I take away from all this is it is very difficult for the west, despite its massive force led by the USA, to intervene successfully, to create stable and peace loving democracies. I am glad we are now leaving Afghanistan and support non intervention in Syria and Libya despite the obvious problems there. Sometimes you have to accept you cannot solve all the world’s problems. If more force is needed to kill more people in these countries the local powers with armies and airforces on the ground have plenty of ways of bombing, shelling and occupying territory.
When it comes to Iraq I remain concerned about our limited intervention. Is the coalition giving the necessary support to local forces to recapture the territory lost to ISIL? Is there a good political strategy in place from the new government to win over Kurds and Sunnis to a unified Iraqi rule? Will arming the Kurds lead to demands for a separate Kurdish state, and how would this be accommodated? What is the strategy for dealing with the Syrian part of ISIL, and with Russia which retains influence in the region?
I am as appalled as any by the mindless evil of some ISIL people with the organised murders of humanitarian aid workers. I agree with the US and UK governments that discussing ransoms could encourage more such detentions of westerners and would fuel the ISIL forces as it filled their treasury. It is tough having to tell families of those captured that it is likely their loved ones will die, but if the USA and UK does not know where they are being held it is impossible to rescue them. Usually with bullies the best approach is to hit them back. These people are however both bad and mad. They are mad enough to deliberately provoke and take on the forces of the mightiest military coalition of the world led by the USA. I am not sure the usual rules of how to respond to bullies works with them.