‘The surge is not yet complete’

British colonel talks fighting terror.

June 18, 2010 19:41
RICHARD KEMP. ‘By leaving that vacuum in the West

richard kemp 311 AJ. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Richard Kemp served in the British army for 30 years before retiring in 2006 with the rank of colonel. He saw action in most of the trouble spots Her Majesty’s forces were involved in during that time, from Northern Ireland to Bosnia and, more significantly for his understanding of Israel’s position, in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he served as commander of British forces.

It was in Afghanistan that Kemp experienced how Islamist groups exploit their Western enemies’ commitment to international law, fighting from within civilian populations. It was those experiences that led him to speak out in defense of the IDF during Operation Cast Lead when in an interview with the BBC he said: “I don’t think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare when any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of innocent people than the IDF is doing today in Gaza.”

Kemp was here earlier this month for a conference on “Israel’s Critical Security Needs for a Viable Peace” organized by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, he discussed the implications of a NATO presence in the West Bank, the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, al-Qaida, homegrown terrorism in the UK and the raid on the Mavi Marmara.

A veteran of several NATO operations, Kemp is skeptical about the possibility of the organization even being able to muster up a peacekeeping force in the event of an Israeli-Palestinian accord, and even more so about the effectiveness of such a force should it actually be deployed.

“I think one of the big questions in my mind is where are the NATO forces going to come from,” says Kemp. “NATO has had a real problem in persuading its member nations to make a meaningful contribution to the operation in Afghanistan, and that is an operation that is designated as NATO’s priority operation and it is the only big operation that NATO is involved in today. If we can’t generate forces for that operation, with people sharing the burden either in terms of contributing forces or contributing funding or other assistance, it’s hard to see how easy it’s going to be to persuade NATO member nations to donate forces for a peacekeeping operation on the West Bank.

“The second question I would have is the sustainability and endurance of a force like that. What happens when the extremists turn on NATO? What happens when NATO forces are attacked? How long would the electorate in a NATO country allow its forces to remain involved in such an operation if, for example, large numbers of its troops are killed in a terrorist attack? We have seen this before, although not in a NATO operation, but for example in 1983 in Lebanon where the American and French peacekeeping forces withdrew in the face of a large number of casualties. Now why would the same thing not happen to a NATO force? If you put a NATO force in that position and then withdrew it before the job was done, how much security, safety and peace is that going to bring to Israelis or Palestinians?

“Also, how effective would NATO be in a peacekeeping role in the West Bank? Look at all the national rules of engagement and the restrictions that NATO forces operate under today in Afghanistan, at the complexities of the chains of command. In some ways peacekeeping is more difficult than actually being a combatant in a war. At least to an extent you know where you are when you are a combatant, but in peacekeeping everything is so blurred I can’t see how a NATO force in a peacekeeping role in the West Bank would be any more effective than a United Nations force, and we’ve seen how effective UN peacekeeping forces are in the face of any aggression against them.”

How would you see the implications of an IDF withdrawal from the West Bank and possibly from east Jerusalem for insurgency and terrorism?

On that subject I think every successful extremist group, every successful terrorist campaign, has depended heavily on a safe haven. You just have to look at Vietnam, look at Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and today [the Taliban] with its safe havens in Pakistan. By leaving that vacuum in the West Bank, you would leave Israel very vulnerable to terrorist attacks by insurgents who could operate from there. I think it could become a sort of honey trap for Islamist extremists.

You have spoken of how Islamist groups exploit Western commitment to the rules of war. Can you tell us about your experiences in Afghanistan?

The Taliban in Afghanistan use the civilian population to shelter behind. Even very recently, British troops in Afghanistan have experienced boys as young as 14 throwing grenades at soldiers, forced to do so by the Taliban, a tactic that obviously makes it very dangerous for British troops. British troops were reluctant and in most cases will not open fire on children, and the Taliban know that, they exploit that.

They exploit not just the rules of war, but also the humanity of British soldiers – a humanity they don’t show to their own people. If anyone in the in the areas of Afghanistan over which the Taliban has control is thought to have cooperated with NATO forces or with the Afghan government, then the penalties for that are extremely serious, and whole families can be killed or beaten or burned out of their homes. But they know the British troops and other NATO troops won’t treat people with such disregard and they exploit that fact. They also have forced Afghan civilians to move in front of them after they have attacked NATO troops to help them get away. That kind of thing is what I’m talking about and it still happens day by day in Afghanistan.

Has the Afghan surge been a failure?

It’s not a failure. The surge is not yet complete. American forces are still building up in Afghanistan. Operation Moshtarak, which began a few months back and is still ongoing, has succeeded driving large elements of the Taliban out of areas they formerly controlled. There was reinfiltration and in that situation there will always be reinfiltration, but now there are more forces on the ground to prevent that reinfiltration and to retain greater control of areas that have been taken and I’m optimistic about that.

We’re about to see, I think, an offensive begin against the Taliban in the Kandahar area. That’s probably the heartland of the Taliban, and I think they’re going to be quite tenacious in their desire to hold on to that territory, so I think we might see some pretty stiff resistance being put up. We’ve already seen signs of them building up their forces in the area and trying to extend their influence before the inevitable operation against them commences. But I don’t think we could in any way say the troop surge has been a failure.

Victory on today’s battlefield is often not conclusive. How does one win wars nowadays?

I think there is such a thing as victory, and victory in Afghanistan in the 21st century is creating a situation where a resilient Afghan government can maintain security over the majority of its own territory. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that we will ever impose a Western style of democracy on Afghanistan. We don’t particularly want that; they don’t particularly want that.

What we in the Western world need and what Afghanistan as well as Pakistan need, is a country that is controllable and that is not a security vacuum which the Taliban can occupy and allow other international extremists to come in to do what they did before, train and prepare, plan and carry out large-scale terrorist attacks against the West.

I don’t see a time when the West will ever be able to turn its back on Afghanistan and let it just get on. I think there will always be a need of support from the West for the Afghan government. I’m talking not so much about troops on the ground, but in terms of perhaps air support, technical support, training, specialist support.

What about al-Qaida? Has the war in Afghanistan succeeded in reducing the capabilities of al-Qaida? Has it regrouped to take advantage of the instability in Pakistan?

I think the capability of al-Qaida has been reduced. Its freedom of action as a core organization has been reduced. The instability of Pakistan is obviously not down just to al-Qaida. Pakistan has its own very significant insurgency which al-Qaida supports, and al-Qaida, like the Pakistan Taliban, wants to see the collapse of the Pakistani government. And that’s one of the reasons why we must not give up in Afghanistan, why we must stay the course, because our withdrawal, the lack of support from NATO and the West, would leave a vacuum from which the Pakistan insurgency can be supported and reinforced.

ne of the greatest fears of senior Pakistani officers is that NATO will withdraw precipitously from Afghanistan, so that’s one of the main reasons why we cannot afford not to succeed.

In terms of al-Qaida’s ability to operate, its groupings do have quite a large amount of freedom for operations in Pakistan. Some of it is due to a blind eye being turned by elements of the Pakistani security forces, more of it is due to the very difficult terrain that is very difficult to control, and it’s the kind of safe haven that al-Qaida wants. But there has been a lot of success against al-Qaida, by the Pakistan government and also by the Americans. The Americans [recently] killed al-Qaida’s number three.

We’ve got al-Qaida on the run, but as much as it is a core element in Pakistan, it is also very much a global franchise which has shown itself capable of mutating and evolving and changing to suit the circumstances. We’re looking at places like Somalia, places like Yemen, as places for al-Qaida to operate in with a degree of freedom. But I think it still has a very strong focus on getting back into Afghanistan. It gives them things other countries don’t give them, potentially.

How does one fight an ideology? How do you fight the Taliban, how does Israel fight Hamas?

I think you fight the Taliban by putting forward a better ideology and a better framework for people to live in. An organization like the Taliban can only succeed if it succeeds in persuading a large element of the population to follow and support it. The job of the West and NATO and the Afghan government is effectively to offer something better and persuade the Afghan people that something better exists and they should be following the agenda of the Afghan government rather than the Taliban.

That’s how you succeed against an ideology, and I think Gen. Stanley McChrystal [the commander of the US and NATO mission in Afghanistan] and our own British commanders as well as the Afghan commanders recognize the need for that. That’s why so much emphasis is being put now on winning hearts and minds over and above destroying insurgent elements. The two have got to go hand in glove, because you can’t bring security and you can’t bring a better way of life to the Afghan people without stopping Taliban influence.

The same applies although it’s a completely different situation in Gaza. The people of Gaza, the people of the West Bank, have got to be persuaded to reject the kind of ideology that leads to the conflict that exists today.

You fought in the first Gulf War and were with British intelligence prior to the second Gulf War.  Do you think Iraq has been a success within the parameters of creating a sustainable government?

I think to an extent the jury is still out on that. I think the biggest mistake that was made there was not the Western invasion of Iraq, it was how the aftermath of that invasion was handled. I think the US troop surge, the work that was done to turn around a lot of the militias and insurgents and turned local Iraqis on to some of the foreign extremist militias that came in, including obviously large elements of al-Qaida, was a big success.

The extent to which that is sustainable in the long term – I mean we still see a lot of death and destruction in Iraq and it’s far from where it needs to be. I have to say, I’ve always been relatively confident about the future of Iraq as I am about Afghanistan. But that’s not to say it couldn’t go very badly, indeed it could go in so many different directions.

What about the intelligence assessments on weapons of mass destruction that led up to the war?

My view – and I was working for the British Joint Intelligence Committee at the time and it was the JIC that produced the intelligence report on WMD, although I wasn’t involved directly in producing that report – is that the analysts who produced the report and the JIC members who endorsed it firmly believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I don’t think there is any question of their sincerity or belief. Whether at one point Iraq did have WMD and disposed of them I have no idea. Certainly on the part of the British government there was no attempt to falsify intelligence or to distort intelligence in my view. It turned out to be inaccurate inasmuch as when our forces arrived there, there were no WMD. I don’t think it was a deception on the part of the British government at all.

How big a problem is homegrown terrorism in the United Kingdom?

I think it is a very big problem. Given that we have a substantial Islamic population in the UK, there is only a very small percentage of people actively involved in extremism, either in planning it, carrying it out or actively supporting it. But there are enough people, even though they are a very small minority, to present a real challenge to our safety and security in the UK and particularly in London.

The main texture of the threat there is homegrown extremists but with influence from outside and direction from outside and, in many cases, training from outside. For example, some of the people involved in the July 2005 terrorist attacks went over to Pakistan and did training there under the banner of al-Qaida. In pretty much every plot that has been uncovered in the UK, we’ve seen connections that have been traced back to extremism in Pakistan. So it is a real threat. Our security forces in the UK have been pretty successful – it’s not an isolated effort because we depend also on intelligence and assistance from outside the UK – in preventing attacks from taking place.

There is still a very big problem of sympathy and support, of allowing these kinds of activities to go on, of people prepared to turn a blind eye, people who are prepared to even give help or shelter to those they know are planning or thinking about terrorist attacks. There are two main areas for us to focus on: One is hard intelligence and interdiction of people involved in terrorism and the second is trying to persuade the mass of the Islamic population of the UK to turn these people in if they come into contact with them and also to try and prevent radicalization from within that population.

That’s a very hard thing to do, very hard, given the external influences on large elements of our Islamic community. Take for example the Pakistani community, which is very heavily influenced by people in Pakistan who are on the Internet or coming over and giving direct anti-Western messages. That has to be countered in some way and that’s very hard for the British government to counter because its credibility in telling people what’s right and wrong in Islam is not very high.

I think quite an important dimension of the problem is what we’re doing in Afghanistan and what we’ve done in countries like Iraq. The perception among some British Muslims, and non-Muslims as well to an extent, is that we are in Islamic countries suppressing and oppressing and killing their brother Muslims. I think we in Britain need to do more to counter that message. The sort of ways that we should be countering is trying to persuade senior Pakistanis and Afghanis, military and government officials, leaders and clerics to come over and give a message that Muslim leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan and British leaders and troops are basically standing shoulder to shoulder fighting extremism. I think that kind of message from fellow Muslims is going to have more traction than any British government minister trying to persuade people.

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