Another front in the US’ ‘war on terrorism’?

I don’t know how closely you follow terrorism-related stories in the news ( I know I spend FAR too much time doing so!) and thus I don’t know if you are aware of the ‘peace talks’ that have been developing for some time between the US and the Taliban in Afghanistan. These negotiations are linked to the US desire to get the hell out of that country, where its military and other forces have been active since shortly after 9/11. That initial foray was of course dictated by the fact that the Al Qaeda (AQ) terrorists responsible for that horrendous series of attacks were headquartered in Afghanistan and an American non-response at that time would have been unacceptable.

Almost two decades later the US military cost in Afghanistan, both from an economic (close to $1 TRILLION by one estimate) and human (more than 2,400 US soldiers have been killed) perspective has worn on the national pocketbook and psyche. President Trump really wants to pull out to the extent his administration has actually been sitting down with the Taliban who, by my definition at least, are nothing but a band of antediluvian religious terrorists (NB Trump cancelled ‘secret talks’ which were to be held at Camp David today in the wake of yet another Taliban terrorist attack in Kabul in which a US soldier died). True, that particular terrorist group was not behind 9/11 but its leadership did grant AQ safe haven and the Taliban have been responsible for untold death and destruction (primarily of innocent Afghan civilians). From what I can gather, in exchange for a US pull out the Taliban has promised (!) that they will not allow any other terrorist group to use Afghan territory to plan attacks against the US. I guess planning attacks against ordinary Afghans is ok though. I dunno, the optics on this strike me as all wrong.

Look, I get it. If I were an American I’d be sick and tired of Afghanistan too. Far too much blood and treasure has been used for what appears to be little gain (some may argue with me on that). Furthermore, it is a fact, pointed out by me and many others, that the mere presence of foreign troops in place like Afghanistan FEEDS terrorism: it does not drain it. Terrorist outfit after terrorist outfit has cited ‘boots on the ground’ as justification (and a rallying cry for) their actions. Hence for reasons both of public opinion and questionable effectiveness, withdrawal makes sense.

But while the US may drawn down its footprint in Afghanistan it looks like it might increase it in Nigeria. A recent US State Department announcement from the “Strategic Initiatives Unit Chief, Office of the International Religious Freedom” noted that the US government is committed to dealing with the problem of Boko Haram (BH) in Nigeria. That involvement seems for now to cover ‘fair and inclusive governance, provision of government services and a new security approach’.

Sounds innocuous, doesn’t it? But is it really? These ‘approaches’ have nasty tendency to morph over time to include military or paramilitary actions and the possible deployment of military ‘advisors’ or even troops. Hence, the US interest in helping Nigeria in dealing with Boko HaramĀ could eventually turn into something much more complicated.

The reasons why the US would want to do this are not clear, at least not to me. Boko Haram poses absolutely no threat to the US. It does certainly to Nigeria and its immediate neighbours (there have been instances of BH incursions into Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin). I suppose that the US does have an interest in helping to quell any terrorist movement as AQ was once a local player that grew to international significance. But in light of the aforementioned jihadi tendency to see deployments as ripe fodder for recruitment this really has to be done carefully, quietly and minimally.

What I really fear, though, is that the US is still seeing counter terrorism primarily through the lens of war. This approach has not worked well at all in the two decades after 9/11 and I fail to see why there are so many who maintain that this is the best strategy. Yes, there is a role for the military but it has to remain small. Otherwise we just perpetuate the ebb and flow of terrorism, making gains here only to incur losses there.

Surely there has to be a better way.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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