THE UK and other Western powers should be prepared to commit ground troops to fight extremists like Islamic State (IS), former prime minister Tony Blair said.
Airstrikes alone will not be enough to defeat IS or similar groups and while training and equipping local fighters may work, the option of sending in combat soldiers should not be ruled out.
Mr Blair, whose premiership came to be defined by the Iraq war, acknowledged there was “no appetite” for ground engagement against IS but warned: “You cannot uproot this extremism unless you go to where it originates from and fight it.”
He said the struggle against Islamist extremism should be seen as an international fight rather than a series of isolated conflicts.
In an essay on his Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s website, the former premier also stressed the importance of engaging with a wider spectrum of radical Islamism, not just the violent fringe.
He said because extremists such as IS – formerly known as Isis – are “fanatical” and “prepared both to kill and to die”, there could be no solution that does not involve force “with a willingness to take casualties in carrying the fight through to the end. This is where we get to the rub. We have to fight groups like Isis,” he said.
“There can be an abundance of diplomacy, all necessary relief of humanitarian suffering, every conceivable statement of condemnation which we can muster, but unless they’re accompanied by physical combat, we will mitigate the problem but not overcome it.”
The US and France have already launched airstrikes against IS targets, and the UK has not ruled out joining the bombing campaign against the extremists, who have occupied a large area of Iraq and Syria. The government has also supplied arms to Kurdish fighters on the front- line and has also been involved in transporting material supplied by other countries.
But Mr Blair said: “Air power is a major component of this, to be sure, especially with the new weapons available to us. But – and this is the hard truth – air power alone will not suffice. They can be hemmed in, harried and to a degree contained by air power. But they can’t be defeated by it.”
He said the lessons learned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had improved Western forces’ “capacity and capability” to respond to the threat of IS and similar groups.
“Our capacity and capability to wage the battle effectively are second to none in part because of our experience there, he said.
“However we’re not talking here about armies of occupation. We are, in certain situations where it is necessary and subject to all proper limitations, talking about committing ground forces, especially those with special capabilities.”
In the 6,500-word essay he stressed that the problem went beyond the extremist fringe stretching deep into parts of Muslim society.
“The problem is not that We’re facing a fringe of crazy people, a sort of weird cult confined to a few fanatics. If it was, we could probably root it out, kill or imprison its leaders, deter its followers and close the doors to new recruits.
“We’re facing a spectrum of opinion based on a world view which stretches far further into parts of Muslim society. At the furthest end is the fringe. But at the other end are those who may completely oppose some of the things the fringe does.”