How NOT to wage the ‘war on terrorism

For those who have been following me over the years you know that the title of this blog is a little facetious. I have been arguing for a long time that the phrase ‘the war on terrorism’ is not helpful and should be dropped. Hell, I even wrote a book about it!

Still, even I acknowledge that there is a role for the military to play in counter terrorism, albeit a narrowly focused, constrained one. If, as has happened in the case of many armed forces, this role is allowed to widen, or is played poorly, we end up in a worse place than where we started.

In my view, this role most assuredly does NOT involve invading countries and sticking around for years. That is what several states have done in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia: can anyone tell me that terrorism has declined in any of those nations as a result?

No, the best thing that the military can do is to identify, or have identified on its behalf, (high profile) terrorist targets and take them out. Remember that a dead terrorist is a good terrorist. This can be achieved in several ways, such as when the special forces team killed Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 or through air/drone strikes. Whatever the mode, it is imperative that all measures be put in place to avoid civilian casualties: i.e. the killing of innocent people.

For the purposes of this analysis I will assume that some countries do everything possible to not kill ordinary folks. In that category I would place the UK and the US. On the other hand I am also sure that others could not care less about the deaths of non-terrorists – here I am thinking about Syria or Russia. But even in the case of the former, ‘mistakes’ are made. And it is what happens next that really matters. If we say we are different than the terrorists, or states that bomb wantonly, and mean it then we must show it.

What the US appears to be doing with the International Criminal Court (ICC) is not good.

The US has blocked an ICC prosecutor from obtaining a visa to travel in order to open an investigation into possible war crimes in Afghanistan, leading the ICC itself to quash any investigation into crimes by anyone in Afghanistan (this includes the Taliban). Not surprisingly, US boy president
Trump called the decision “a major international victory” and denounced the international court for its “broad, unaccountable, prosecutorial powers,” as well as for what he considers its threat to U.S. sovereignty. His National Security Adviser, John Bolton, likewise called the ruling a “vindication” of the United States’ tough policy against the court he has engineered and a “stinging defeat” for the prosecutors.

I guess the US plays by different rules than the rest of us. The ICC is supposed to step in where states cannot – or will not – look into serious criminal acts. As the US thinks it is above the court will it now investigate instances where its own citizens engaged in illegal behaviour? I am not confident in that regard. After all, this is the same country where the military maintained for years that not one single civilian was killed in an airstrike. Not one. This has been shown to be categorically false.

I was not born yesterday. I know that the US is the planet’s most powerful nation and that it can do things no one else can. At the same time it has acted as a model for others to emulate, the so-called ‘leader of the free world’. Is this how a leader acts?

The US and the rest of the anti terrorism alliance prides itself on being apart from the terrorists themselves. We see our values as higher and nobler than theirs. So how can we refuse to allow the truth to come out when it comes to our own criminal acts (if indeed there were any: that is why you have an investigation)? Does that not lower ourselves a smidgen to the level of the bad guys? In addition, does the murder of innocents not create more grievance and more terrorism?

I hope the US reconsiders its decision. Then again, under this most ‘unpresidential’ of presidents, what are the chances of that?

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.

Leave a Reply