What role should the military have in the ‘war on terrorism’?

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on September 24, 2018.

We are now in year 17 of the ‘war on terrorism’.  After the catastrophic terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001 the US, and many of its allies, declared war on violent extremism.  The initial effort to locate and punish the perpetrators of that event led to a now 17-year presence in Afghanistan, an invasion of Iraq, and drone or air strikes in a whole whack of countries from Asia to Africa.  What was once termed the GWOT (global war on terrorism) morphed into the “Long War”, a term that has been changed by some to the “Eternal/Neverending War”. Yikes!

Canada has been at the side of the US and its other allies within NATO pretty well since day one.  We deployed to Afghanistan in the late fall of 2001 and only left a decade and a bit later.  Wisely we opted not to join the ill-fated and ill-considered invasion of Iraq, a move that has been disastrous from every angle, but especially for Iraqis.  We did, in its place, agree to help out elsewhere, and the latest manifestation is the deployment to Mali – Op Presence – to help counter terrorism operations in the Sahel.  Other deployments are certainly possible in the future.

The Americans, on the other hand, may be having a change of heart.  Then again, in light of the Twit President Trump – sorry that should have been Twitter President Trump – it is hard to figure out just what is US policy on any front these days.  According to Voice of America, the US is considering shutting down its counter terrorism units across Africa.   In its place it might up its drone presence in Niger.  On step forward  one step back.

What does not seem to be taking place is whether a military response to terrorism is the right one in the first place.  That question is more important than you may think, and the answer is not so obvious.  We defaulted to the military hammer after 9/11 because we were told by then US President Bush that we were at war, a war we did not choose but which we had imposed on us by the dastardly terrorists.  When you are at war you send the army or the air force or the navy or the Marines or whatever you happen to have at your disposal.  Clear right?

Wrong.  Our decision to see this primarily as a military mission forgot that the enemy had neither an army (or air force or…) or territory but rather was a loosely knit bunch of extremists who excelled at blending into society before they struck (how else did they get onto those planes on 9/11?).  The military was a blunt instrument where a precision tool was required.

And what was that precision tool?  Well, security intelligence and law enforcement agencies for a start.  Those organisations have both the means and the mandate to carry out investigations that can lead to arrests and neutralised plots.  I would argue that they are more nimble as well.  The only military response that makes sense to me, as a former security intelligence analyst, is the quick in-and-out special operations teams like the one that finally got Al Qaeda leader bin Laden.  Even there, intelligence was the key to finding out where he was.

Instead we sent thousands of soldiers to overstay their welcome in far off lands.  True, they did some good but did they really ever solve the problem they were sent to fix? Is Afghanistan – or Iraq for that matter – better off today after a decade and a half of occupation? Not the way I see it.

We are also now using more air and drone strikes.  I need to be careful on this point as I am a specialist on neither, but have we really thought this out?  Are they as accurate as officials say they are?  What are the knock on effects? Does anyone know?  Or are these tactics just a way to keep using the military but removing the risk to our own soldiers and airmen?

I am not trying to besmirch the reputations of the fine men and women in the Canadian military (or the US or the UK or any other one).  I just am not convinced that we are seeing what we need to do through the proper lens.  Maybe it is time to do that.

Phil Gurski’s latest book ‘An end to the war on terrorism‘ is now available.  A book launch will be held on October 3 at 7:30 PM at Peter Devine’s  in Ottawa.



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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