IN THE aftermath of the beheading of aid volunteer Alan Henning by Islamic State, General Lord Richards, the former head of the armed forces, has called for a reversal in cuts in the armed forces and for “thousands” more soldiers to help tackle the threat of Islamic extremism.
The latest atrocity has brought inevitable calls for a tough and effective response. But in deciding what form this response should be, we need to take a hard look at the severe limits the UK faces.
Lord Richards agrees with the assessment of Prime Minister David Cameron that this is a generational struggle. To that end, he argues, we need an army that can sustain a demanding operation. Air power alone, he insists, will not win a campaign like this. The UK will either have to put “boots on the ground at some point” or train others for the task.
However, two constant refrains throughout the Commons debate over UK air strikes against IS in Iraq were that Britain should not extend air strikes into Syria and that there should be no British “boots on the ground”. Since the IS atrocities are widely believed to have been committed in Syria and the public (for now) remains opposed to troop deployment either in Syria or Iraq, the call for more recruits is neither realistic nor helpful at this time. There may be good reasons to oppose cuts in armed forces numbers and to press for a reversal. But this is not one of them.
There is another reason to critically examine this proposal. The cold facts are that despite angry and defiant words by UK ministers on this and other terrorist actions in the Middle East, no perpetrators have been brought to justice. The challenges of location and terrain and operational capability are immense. Even were the option of troop deployment to be reconsidered, we lack one vital component that would determine the success or failure of any engagement by members of the armed forces.
This is full and detailed intelligence on the exact whereabouts of IS forces, their military capability, mobility, organisation, leadership and command structure. This intelligence has to be detailed, accurate and fully reliable. Similar intelligence needs to be gathered on the financial backers of IS and for action to be taken to staunch the flow of funds.
From the little we know of IS it has a fanatically loyal command structure that is difficult to penetrate, its forces are well armed and highly mobile – and it has considerable intelligence of its own, aided and abetted by formidable backers in the Middle East.
For security reasons, not all US intelligence may be shared with the UK. In any event, we need our own intelligence capability, given the numbers of “home grown” radicalised British Muslims who have left these shores to fight for this caliphate, and who may return to undertake terrorist operations here. This is where resources and manpower need to be concentrated if we are to strike effectively against the terrorist monster of IS – and its paymasters.
Sticking up for a healthier diet
THERE are few greater challenges in Scotland today than encouraging youngsters to eat more healthily – fewer chips, more fruit and veg.
It’s a formidable task, given the ubiquitous spread of snack food outlets and the default option of chips-with-everything in fast food outlets. But the benefits of healthier eating are both immediate and longer term: improved physical condition, a decline in obesity and less need for health service intervention later on to repair the damage done by poor nutrition. Given the financial strains in health service provision, it will become ever more imperative that the public as a whole plays its part in adopting better quality lifestyles.
Many variants of the “nudge” approach to lifestyle change have been tried. But now comes “nudge” with a twist: university researchers have found that by introducing a competitive streak, youngsters are significantly more likely to choose healthier foods. In tests in primary schools, some 600 pupils were given a sticker for choosing a portion of fruit and vegetables. But in groups where an extra reward was given for those with the most stickers, there was a notable increase in the healthy foods option.
Some teachers would doubtless object to the introduction of competition even in an area such as this and that “all must have prizes”. But the benefits of promoting healthier choices in eating at an early age and in a manner that avoids coercion or punishment are so manifold as to outweigh such sensitivity. Such “Incentivisation plus” is all the more necessary given the difficulty in encouraging parents to offer healthier food options at home. An extra reward sticker, perhaps, at supermarket check-outs?