The fallout from airstrikes

I have said it before and I will repeat it here: I am not an expert in military affairs.  Hell, I am not even a well-informed John Q Public when it comes to things military.  When I talk about the military I am bound to sound dumb.

So, here it goes: my take on why airstrikes are counterproductive.

News has just broken that Canadian CF18s killed civilians in Iraq during an airstrike on IS positions in Mosul (see story here).  Local media are reporting that 10 people died in a dairy factory: the Canadian military is denying any civilians were killed, claiming that an IS weapons facility was taken out.

I don’t want to get into a “he said she said” debate.   And I am well aware that truth is the  first casualty in the fog of war.  Combatants take advantage of the smallest event to show themselves as the white hats and the enemy as the black hats.  The history of war is replete with examples of propaganda purportedly giving proof of atrocities, only to turn out to be false (check out the infamous “crucified Canadian soldier” story of WWI).

The problem here is that we are faced not just with an enemy in IS (and AQ and Boko Haram and Al Shabaab and AQIM…) but with a narrative that is elegant in its simplicity and devastating in its recruitment potential.  This narrative states that we, the West, are at war with Islam and are seeking to destroy it.  Its proponents cleverly use events to support their contention.  Like airstrikes.  Like this allegation.  Like the US airstrikes in Kunduz that bombed an MSF hospital.  Like Russian airstrikes in defence of the Assad regime.

None of these allegations have to be true to be effective.  Lord knows how many people have died as a result of a false rumour that riled up the mob (see my next blog for a case in India).

I have been told that airstrikes are incredibly accurate these days, unlike in previous wars.  Laser-guided, drone-assisted, this tactic is wielded carefully to ensure as few civilian casualties as possible.  And I am sure that is true.  But here is the problem.  The charred bodies that are the aftermath of an airstrike could be the remains of an IS terrorist – or a factory worker.  The truth is hard to discern here.  And it is the locals who make that determination since those that drop the bombs don’t wait around to make unquestioned identification of the bodies.  The corpses are now propaganda.

So, here is my amateur suggestion.  We need more operations like the one that killed former AQ leader Osama bin Laden.  There was, to my knowledge, ZERO fallout from the risky assault by US special forces.  ZERO.  The only people to die were terrorists.  It is hard to make propaganda from that.

I know that these kinds of ops put our armed forces personnel in danger.  And I know that in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq there is little appetite for committing more ground troops to yet another Middle East war.  But they work and they do not contribute to the narrative.  It is a win-win situation for us.

Our armed forces are professional and good people and I don’t want anyone to accuse me of slandering them just because I think airstrikes are not the answer.  But we have to think about this carefully.  We have been at “war” (calling it a war was our first mistake) for 15 years.  If we don’t carry out this “war” right, we’ll be at it for another 15 years.  And I don’t think anyone wants 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.

One reply on “The fallout from airstrikes”

I’ve taken the time to ponder your post carefully, Phil, and
hope with the following to offer some counterpoints and/or alternate views for
your consideration. From your excellently-articulated point of view, I’ve
attempted to tease out some underlying assumptions I think merit additional discussion.

Assumption #1: Airstrikes are too risky because their
employment is not carefully managed.

As a 11-year United States Air Force veteran that included
combat experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia, I have witnessed firsthand
the evolution of airstrike precision against hostile targets. I can say without
question that the weaponry we, in the West, employ is frighteningly accurate.
Moreover, meticulous and thoughtful planning go into each mission against each
target; steps and processes are in-place to ensure the absolute minimum of collateral
damage. Commanders and other officers in the tactical battlespace are empowered
to call of an attack if the risk to innocents proves to be too great. Unfortunately,
Western media – much of which is predisposed AGAINST such tactics – is seemingly
all-too-motivated to capitalize and amplify such stories in the hopes of mobilizing
popular and political support against such airstrikes.

Assumption #2: Special Operations raids – like the one
against UBL – are a low-cost, high-impact, “safer” option as compared to

I’d strongly caution against using the UBL raid as a
foundational exemplar for how we should conduct operations against Islamic
extremists. The UBL raid was successful largely due to months and months of
rehearsed planning by SEAL experts against a mocked up compound of a static
target. To replicate such planning
effort against virtually every high-value target (HVT) would be impossible, frankly.
Further, if such a raid goes wrong, it goes VERY wrong VERY quickly – I’d
humbly call your attention to the HVT operation in 2005 in Afghanistan that
lead to the deaths of many American warriors (and served as the inspiration for
the film “Lone Survivor”). Yes, these raids are highly effective; but I’d
strongly argue they’re not “low-cost”, and relying on them heavily in a CT/CVE/COIN
portfolio is, in my view, a strategic mistake – the enemy WILL adapt, and we
need to be prepared to deal with additional loss of life on our side as a

Assumption #3: If we reduce the collateral damage to
near-zero, as a result Islamic extremists won’t be able to radicalize local
populations as effectively.

This assumption is the “whopper”. Although I understand its
underlying premises, I am just not sure this is conclusively provable. Yes, local populations do not look kindly upon such collateral damage in their environs; yet, war carries with it an
unfortunate axiom: innocents inherently suffer. Coalition airstrikes, however, are just but
one factor in what may be causing radicalization. As you are FAR more aware
than I, there are a whole host of other socio-cultural, ideological, and
environmental considerations that factor in, and I’d argue that ANY combat actions
taken by Western nations could be used as grist for the radicalization mill. At
the end of the day, the radicalization cycle is a complex one, and simply
blaming airstrikes in favor of other tactics does not guarantee that cycle will
cease in every environment or to the degree intended.

Bottom line: I trust the professionalism and competence of
our aviators. American, Canadian, British, and Australian airmen are among the world’s
elite. Moreover, we need to have a multitude of tools at our disposal to combat
ISIS, its allies, and other Islamic extremist groups.

Although additional honest discussion about the West’s CT/CVE/COIN
tactics is certainly welcomed, I am also guarded against such protracted
discussions amongst government officials and select pundits resulting in
micromanagement of combat operations from the safe confines of Ottawa or

Further, the West’s short election cycles drive incessant politicking and the
resulting memes and narratives that emerge, designed to harness populist sentiment
for political gain. There is sufficient evidence to underscore the ineptitude
of such an approach (Vietnam, Obama Era Iraq/Afghanistan) on the missions of
the forward-deployed and thus, the overall CT/CVE/COIN strategy. Leaders need
to rely on their subject matter experts when formulating policy;

I am 100% in favor of a smart, comprehensive,
well-constructed CT/CVE/COIN strategy that features innovation, creativity, and
flexibility with strong consideration of ALL the critical factors for each
environment it’s applied. Given the immense challenges we face in Iraq, Syria,
Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, and Mali, however – just to name a few – I think it’s
entirely counterproductive to artificially limit the tools of national power at
our disposal.

Thank you humbly for the opportunity to respond and offer my
views on a VERY important subject.

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