Why sending military forces abroad is a two-edged sword

(NB how’s that for an analogy?)

When I was a kid I did not have a good impression of the military (Canadian in my case of course). My friends and I would laugh at those who joined the cadets or reserves, seeing them as ‘losers’. My childhood was first filled with images of US army atrocities in Vietnam and then by the ridiculousness of the whole military machine as portrayed in the TV series M*A*S*H. Safe to say I had no plans to sign up.

As life is full of ironies, so was mine. I ended up getting hired by Communications Security Establishment (CSE – Canada’s signals intelligence organisation) which was then under the Department of National Defence. I began to work alongside many members of the Canadian Armed Forces, current and past. I developed a respect for the men and women who did sign up.

Of course the military is not perfect. Tales of ineptitude, poor management and wasteful spending are legion (you paid HOW MUCH for that hammer?). Nevertheless, our armed forces are an important part of our country as well as a key tool to both support allies and project power abroad.

This is where it gets tricky though. When we deploy forces outside, either to back a friend or to further our own strategies – both of which can be legitimate goals – we also invite unwanted consequences. One of those is the encouragement, or even creation, of terrorism.

In response to an alleged Iranian missile strike on a Saudi oil facility the US, perhaps the Kingdom’s #1 ally, has announced it will send a ‘modest’ number of troops and air defence systems. This is nothing new as the Americans have long had a military footprint in Saudi Arabia for decades, partly because of the importance of Saudi oil, partly because of the incompetence of that country’s armed services.

But even if this is interpreted as a friend helping a friend there is a downside, and a very dangerous one at that. The presence of outside soldiers in a land that is predominantly Muslim is a recipe for terrorism. Recent history is rife with examples:

  • Al Qaeda (AQ) was born out of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979;
  • AQ leader Usama bin Laden called on Saudi to evict US forces from the country as early as 1991: a decade later the group carried out 9/11;
  • Islamic State (IS) is with us because of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003;
  • Al Shabaab sprang from the Ethiopian incursion into Somalia in 2006.


The mere presence of outsiders is a casus belli for terrorist groups. They are perceived at a minimum as kuffar – unbelievers – as well as forces propping up a taghout – impious ruler, all of whom deserve to be killed. Terrorists often target these soldiers in their attacks.

The sender is thus in a precarious position. Don’t send troops and see an ally tumble . Send troops and give life, or birth, to a terrorist group (it has been said by many, including me, that the US decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 was a lifeline to AQ, then on the ropes in Afghanistan, and eventually gave rise to IS).

Even if I believe that there is a valid use for armed forces in combatting terrorism (i.e. special forces: in and out), I’d like to think that almost two decades into the increasingly unfortunately named ‘war on terrorism’ we would have learned that there is no military solution and that the use of lethal force actually makes things worse.

It looks like we have yet to learn 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.

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