A blunt and bleak report from the Defence select committee, headed by Rory Stewart MP, has thrown an intellectual hand grenade into British discussion about the dangers of Daish, whose innovative barbarity has been amplified by the immolation of a Jordanian pilot.
The substantial report scrutinising the British military response to Daish says the British contribution to defeating Daish is 'strikingly modest' for a UN Security Council member that spends £38 billion each year on defence, and although a 'surprisingly resilient' Daish, which issues 90,000 social media messages every day, is the most dramatic and significant threat to regional stability and international security in decades. It also asks if it is more realistic to contain and suppress rather than eliminate Daish.
Daish, seen as 'the sum of all our fears,' controls territory the size of the UK, has caused millions to flee, destabilises and threatens neighbouring countries and provides a safe haven to about 20,000 foreign fighters, including those who have murdered people in Europe.
But the report observes a significant gap between rhetoric and reality - what it calls 'doing so little' through a modest British contribution of weapons, advisers and only 6% of airstrikes in Iraq. It roasts senior British military chiefs for their inability or unwillingness to clearly articulate the UK's objectives or plans in Iraq, while leaving strategic thinking to America.
Britain, whose experience of Iraq is second only to America, should increase its analytical capability, especially about trends in the Sunni areas, and deploy a few hundred personnel but not combat troops as well as immediately providing expertise in demining and more air support when Baghdad and Erbil are ready to undertake major offensives. Controversially, the report recommends that Britain radically increases defence and diplomatic engagement with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran to assess the viability of a regional solution.
Western forces cannot directly defeat Daish, it says. But the problem is that Baghdad has inadequate forces in trying to recapture let alone rebuild Mosul and Fallujah, which is harder because Sunnis are deeply suspicious of Kurds, Baghdad and Shia militia. Daish has been seen by many Sunnis as the lesser of two evils compared to Baghdad. The 2007 Surge was followed in 2011 by Maliki's marginalisation of the Sunnis, who won't be fooled again, especially if liberation involves a million 'aggressively sectarian' Shia militia men.
The report is unsparing about Baghdad, whose resources have been dramatically eroded by falling oil prices and where corruption is so deeply embedded in every crevice of the state and military that its elimination may take decades. The report, however, praises Haider al-Abadi, whose 'generous' deal with the Kurds on oil and budgets surpassed expectations, but notes he is 'only one man' and Maliki retains a substantial political base.
The report analyses Kurdish strengths and weaknesses. The Peshmerga 'militia' (actually an official army) had an initially mixed performance against Daish but have since improved significantly as an impressive fighting force. But political division hinders their cohesion and the July 2014 reforms agreed by MPs in Erbil have yet to be fully implemented. The Peshmerga Minister claims that the KRG has overall control of the Peshmerga, which is estimated at 150,000-160,000 fighters but only 40,000 are linked to the ministry while the rest are linked to the KDP and the PUK. It mentions concerns about corruption - many 'ghost soldiers' - and that a quarter of Peshmerga are beyond retirement age or disabled. It urges unification of the Peshmerga who should have a stated allegiance to the KRG and a willingness to be trained, and cooperate with the ISF. There could then be an exponential increase in gifting and selling military equipment to Baghdad and the KRG, which is keen to buy kit.
The report's assessment of the staying power of Daish needs to be tested against those who believe that its brutality and primitive politics can unravel sooner. It notes the opposition of neighbouring countries to Kurdish independence and its stated goal is Iraqi stability but its analysis of the great obstacles to reforming a 'fractured and fragile' Iraq make it more likely, as the Foreign Affairs Committee recently said, that Kurdish independence is a medium-term possibility.
If the Peshmerga and the ISF cannot liberate Sunnistan and Baghdad needs to change massively before Sunnis trust it enough to destroy Daish from below, then it may have to be contained until it runs out of steam through 'fission, fusion and exhaustion,' as one witness argued. It is a sobering thought for all its neighbours.
This complex and fiercely independent report asks tough but necessary questions. Discussion and action on its uncomfortable answers may be overshadowed by the looming British election but the questions won't fade.