How the decision to go to war made the ‘War on Terrorism’ worse

A little less than a month ago we marked (‘celebrated’ is definitely the wrong word) the centenary of the end of the First World War.  This was a solemn occasion on which we recalled the deaths, injuries and destruction in not only the ‘Great War’ but also in WWII, the Korean War and others.  It was a reminder that war is a bad idea and that we really should exhaust every other option before making the decision to go to it.

Tell that to the Russian government.

There is a movement in that country’s Parliament (the Duma) to have the 1979 invasion by the Red Army into Afghanistan justified (in the first post-Soviet government in 1991 the decision to go to Afghanistan was labelled a ‘criminal gamble’ and a ‘moral and political condemnation’ was issued).  This current crop of politicians believe that condemnation went against “historical justice,” and that Soviet military action in Afghanistan was conducted “in full accordance with the norms of international law.”

Wow!  What’s next – casting the US decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as a wise act?

(Sticking with Afghanistan for a moment, Marine Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie has told the US Congress that the current war in that country is ‘at a stalemate‘, although that did not stop a PhD student in Singapore from writing that “China and India can succeed in Afghanistan where US, Russia failed.”  News alert: they don’t call Afghanistan the ‘graveyard of empires’ for nothing.)

Aside from my disgust at seeing war so cavalierly – can we ever forget the dismissiveness with which leaders sent men ‘over the top’ to face certain death in the mud of Flanders in WWI? – does no one see the link between war and terrorism?  And no, I am not referring to the unhelpful ‘war on terrorism’: I am referring to the fact that by sending troops to occupy a foreign land we are actually creating terrorists and terrorist groups where none existed before.  Need some examples?

  • the Soviet entry into Afghanistan in 1979 led directly to the creation of Al Qaeda
  • the US entry into Iraq in 2003 led indirectly to the creation of Islamic State (via the former Al Qaeda in Iraq affiliate)
  • the Ethiopian entry into Somalia in 2006 led to the creation of Al Shabaab.

This is not a good track record.  And if you want to go back even further you could cite the joint UK/US-sponsored coup in Iran in 1952 that led directly to the Iranian Revolution, the rise of the Ayatollahs, and Iranian state-sponsored terrorism.  You would really think that smarter officials would have learned this by now.  I guess not: the Philippines government is planning to extend martial law in the southern part of that nation to fight terrorism.

You would imagine that we would want to stop doing things that make terrorism – a threat that is very real but also very over-exaggerated in many ways – worse.  So why do we see the deployment of military forces as a solution?  Sure, I realise that on occasion some military moves are probably efficient and maybe even necessary (drone and airstrikes for example although these too can aggravate matters since both cause civilian casualties that lead to grievance – and grieving – and a desire for revenge) but they have to be used in very limited circumstances.  On no grounds should armies be sent to invade and occupy other countries as this never leads to a better situation, despite the myth that soldiers will be seen as ‘liberators’.

Furthermore, war can feed terrorism as we have seen.  Using this instrument is the equivalent of pouring gas on an open fire.  When was the last time you saw a firefighter do that?  No, we have to re-frame our struggle in ways so that we can both contain existing terrorists and terrorist groups and figure out how to prevent people from becoming terrorists in the first place – terrorists are made not born.  We have to get rid of the war metaphor: this is one battle we will not win.


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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