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The damned if you do damned if you don’t nature of military counter terrorism ops

Our focus on sending armed forces to confront Islamist terrorists is understandable but the outcome is seldom definitive.

Our focus on sending armed forces to confront Islamist terrorists is understandable but the outcome is seldom definitive.

Let’s do a little thought experiment, shall we?

Imagine that you are minding your own business when one morning you wake up to see your town and/or country occupied by a foreign armed force. You see a whole bunch of serious-looking characters with some very serious-looking weapons running the show. They have seized all the most important transportation and economic hubs, they are stopping traffic, they are performing what look to be random searches.

On occasion violence breaks out. People are killed: by gunfire, drones or airstrikes. Some of those killed are innocent civilians, including women and children. How does all this make you feel?

OK, some context is required. The foreign troops are not in your land through some random spin of a wheel. They are there to confront and defeat what has been identified as a terrorist group. In other words, terrorists are known to be active in your country. Something has to be done. Sometimes the foreign forces are in your nation at the invitation of your government, which cannot deal with the problem itself. The decision to bring in more firepower is based in part on the belief held by some that the military is the best tool we have to deal with terrorism (that is debatable).

Regardless of the underlying reasons, such deployments always result in what is unfortunately called ‘collateral damage’: i.e. civilian deaths. Maybe in what we term the ‘fog of war’ these are inevitable.

How Many Iraqis Died in the Iraq War? — FAIR
A picture says a thousand words

But they have two unintended effects.

One: terrorist groups use these incidents to demonstrate that it is the foreigner who is the problem, not them. And, in addition, those who lose loved ones to the ‘occupiers’ may be more open to join such groups to exact revenge.

Second: no one wants to be occupied. Period. We all want to live in freedom, to have the choice to determine the nature of our societies and who governs us. That this is removed from us elicits anger. As a consequence some will rise up against the foreign forces. Furthermore, Islamist terrorist groups use actions of this type to ‘prove’ that this is all a predetermined campaign to kill Islam and all Muslims. They are therefore able to deflect criticism of their own actions, which almost always lead to deaths of the same innocent civilians.

Which brings us back to where we started. What is the end goal in the decision to send an army to another land to engage in counter-terrorism operations? The elimination, or severe weakening, of the terrorists would be a start. So, how long do the troops stay? What constitutes ‘victory’? How do we detect it?

In the end, what should states do when asked to pony up a contribution to an international counter terrorism force? Canada has been asked to participate in France’s military mission in Mali, nicknamed Operation Barkhane. France is an ally: shouldn’t we support it?

But if we do will we not be perceived as ‘occupiers’? Will that not put a target on our backs? Is it worth it? More importantly, is it necessary? That second question is easier to answer: Mali has nowhere near the resources to deal with local jihadis. So, if we don’t help France it will have to assume more of the burden and it is probable it will decide to pull out at some future date. What then?

This is very, very difficult. Aside from my conviction that we should not see the military as the primary counter terrorism tool, it is nevertheless true that there is a role for it. Getting that right? Ah, there is the challenge.

We are faced with the same conundrum when it comes to what to do in Afghanistan. The outgoing Trump administration is promising to bring most of the troops home (the US has been in that country at varying levels since 9/11) and it is clear that the Afghan government/military cannot and will not ‘defeat’ the Taliban. On the contrary, it is more likely that the terrorists will seize power and bring Afghanistan back to 1994 (or more accurately 794 CE). Are we ok with that?

All this being said we need to think more and better about what our efforts to stop terrorism should be. Defaulting to a military solution is probably not the best way to do this. Not that I would be so arrogant to claim I have THE answer. Like everything in life, it is complicated.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Programme Director for the Security, Economics and Technology (SET) hub at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of five books on terrorism.

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