War, what is it good for?

Sometimes you come across a quote that really strikes you as profound.  Here’s one that remains relevant after all these years.  It comes from a 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs and was penned by Paris-based researcher Grenville Buford:

“Wars have typically been fought against proper nouns (Germany, say) for the good reason that proper nouns can surrender and promise not to do it again. Wars against common nouns (poverty, crime, drugs) have been less successful. Such opponents never give up. The war on terrorism, unfortunately, falls into the second category.”

The reason I want to talk about this today stems from all the military action we see around the world – including action involving Canadian forces – in which the aim is to strike at terrorists.  For example, air strikes in Iraq and Syria, African Union forces in Somalia, Thai military action against insurgents in the south of that country, drone strikes seemingly everywhere…

And all this despite the acknowledgement by some pretty senior military brass that air strikes alone won’t end the threat.  Nevertheless, even if these leaders recognise that it may take the commitment of ground troops, there is a strong reluctance to make such a pledge (for a variety of reasons I guess – voter fatigue with foreign wars, a desire to avoid more casualties, the belief that locals have to step up…).

The problem is, as Buford put it so well, is that the “war on terrorism” is a war on an idea, or an ideology (actually” ideologies” to be more precise) or a mindset.  And whether we call it the GWOT (global war on terrorism) or the GSAVE (global struggle against violent extremism) or even the GSTRING (global struggle to (er)radicate international no-goodniks) – ok, I made that last one up – it comes down to the same thing. We are putting physical assets (people and equipment) against psychological constructs.  As Buford notes, these types of engagement don’t work so well.  Why? I suppose because the root causes or drivers are not being targeted.

But what about the war against ISIS?  At least that is against a proper noun, right?  Too true and we can hope that military action against the group will, in time, lead to its weakening or perhaps demise.  We certainly have to admire the courage and dedication of (Canadian) military personnel engaged in this battle.

And yet, the defeat of ISIS will simply lead to a vacuum to be filled by another group.  Don’t believe me?  Look at what happened in Iraq post-US invasion.  The occupation led to the creation of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was defeated, which led to the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) when Syria descended into civil war and ISI created Jabhat al Nusra, then the morphing into the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and finally the declaration of the Caliphate and the Islamic State.  A similar chronology can be seen in Somalis from 2006 onward.

So, it appears that treating this challenge as a “war” is not the best strategy.  While there is a role for the military against specific targets or groups, “victory” (if achievable) will require a much broader effort.

No ISIS?  No problem.  Something will take its place – unfortunately.

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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