War as a catalyst for terrorism

Historical revisionism is inevitable I suppose. There are those who look back at events, both recent and less so, re-interpret them through a new paradigm, lens or self-interested agenda, re-package them, and present them to us in a way that goes against the previous collected wisdom. Sometimes this re-interpretation is necessary in the light of new data; sometimes the re-interpreter is seeking to set a cat among the pigeons; sometimes the re-interpreter is just out to make a mark (or a grad student trying to carry out original research as part of a PhD program).

Or sometimes the re-interpreter is an autocrat trying to resurrect a lost empire.

This seems to be the case with what Russian leader Vladimir Putin is doing with his efforts to repaint the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as past glory. When the Red Army slunk back to Moscow a decade later, the Kremlin itself called the war a ‘mistake’; Putin and his cronies now want it to be remembered as ‘justified’ and will lead a commemoration in the coming weeks. This of course has to be seen in the context of the Russian President’s desire to rebuild Russian pride and its ability to project strength beyond the motherland. They can’t have a pesky little disastrous military campaign sully their view of themselves, now can they? All this brings back memories for me of a Soviet Union that was incapable of admitting it had made a mistake (Chernobyl, the downing of a Korean airliner in 1983 – a month after I joined CSE – Stalin’s massacres, etc., etc., etc.).

There is, however, a much larger danger to this historic revisionism. If Putin succeeds in erasing this blot on Soviet/Russian history he will contribute to our collective inability to understand the role that wars/invasions have in the creation and support of terrorism and terrorist groups.

You see, there is no other way to interpret this: military invasions and subsequent occupations have directly led to the creation of terrorist groups. The aforementioned Soviet decision to ‘support’ a Communist ally spawned both Al Qaeda, and later on, the Taliban, two terrorist groups that wreak havoc in Afghanistan and abroad to this day. The US mistake to bomb Iraq in 2003 and position over 100,000 forces in the country led to the rise of Islamic State – enough said. The Ethiopian army’s move into Somalia in 2006 gave us Al Shabaab, which continues to terrorise that nation as well as its neighbours. The coalition bombing of Libya to oust dictator Muammar Qadhafi provided an opening for IS in Libya to exploit. Do I need to go on?

And here is what is worse: the appearance of terrorist groups in certain areas leads countries to justify why their armies have to remain, which just leads to more terrorism. At the same time, sudden withdrawals will create more insecurity and uncertainty and allow those same terrorist groups to grow. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t on the one hand, but on the other a different decision – i.e. not to invade in the first place – and we would not be in our current untenable situation.

When, then, will we learn? I fear the answer to that question is: never. Not only are some governments particularly bellicose but military officials often wield a lot of influence on decision-making (why do we have all these aircraft, tanks and weapons if we can’t use them?). War has been part of the human condition forever and will likely remain so. Some wars are ‘just’ (or perhaps better stated more defensible than others) and maybe in some cases there really is no alternative. At the same time we have to weigh the costs of going to war against the likelihood that more terrorism is a by product (not to mention the far greater priority of civilian suffering).

They say that those who forget their history are bound to repeat it. Get ready for a whole bunch of repetitive misery.

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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