By Colonel (ret'd) Pat Stogran
I concluded my last instalment of The Armchair Colonel posing the question: “What will the ‘defeat’ of ISIL bring to the people of Canada?” Therein I also offered a definition of the term “defeat,” that being setting the conditions to impose one’s will on an adversary, which did not raise any contention. The feedback I received from readers on what we hope to achieve pretty well hit on similar themes suggesting that we are in Iraq to make Canadians safe at home and abroad, uphold what many perceive to be our humanitarian obligations, and to be seen by the nations that comprise the Global Coalition Against Daesh (also known as ISIL/ISIS) to be “doing some of the heavy lifting.”
Contrary to what the war hawks would have us think, it would be near impossible to kill every last one of the bad guys. History has demonstrated that genocides have rarely if ever been successful in eliminating a culture or an ideology, and there is little chance that Canadians would have the stomach to go to the length that would be necessary to eradicate this threat.
Some warriors who have done the hard yards in the “sandbox” are proponents of such a strategy, which I find surprising because they would know better than anyone how resolute the bad guys are and how easy it is for them to run away knowing that they will get a chance to fight another day. One veteran of several tours in Afghanistan characterized the Canadian Armed Forces search-and-destroy strategy in Afghanistan as Whack-a-Taliban: you stomp on fighters in one area only to have them poke their heads up somewhere else later.
In the early days of the so-called Campaign Against Terrorism, the Hydra — a mythological multi-headed monster that grew two heads back every time one was cut off — was thrown around as a metaphor for the threat. Just as the jihadi movement persisted and perhaps even intensified with the assassination of Osama bin Laden, yesterday the bad guys were al-Qaeda, then it was ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, tomorrow it will morph into something else. What we must not forget is that many of those fighters were the “rebels” that NATO was providing close air support to in the overthrow and subsequent torture and execution of Moammar Gadhafi.
And yes, there is a place for killing bad guys, but that has to be done judiciously and with caution. We have seen how collateral damage fuels the recruitment of people to undertake suicide missions around the world or join the fight in Syria and Iraq.
Clearly any suggestion that we should ‘just nuke them all’ is a non-starter. The apparent dependency upon military forces to solve all the world’s problems has often been compared to the situation when the only tool in the box is a hammer, in that problems take on the appearance of a nail. A nuclear weapon, however, is more of a sledgehammer. Notwithstanding all sorts of implications associated with nuclear strikes, such a tactic would not eliminate the existing threat in its entirety. Erroneously, it would alienate millions of people, turning moderates in the Muslim world into extremists and undermining the moral cohesion, a decisive ingredient in war, within the coalition. If we are going to make Canadians safe at home and abroad, uphold our humanitarian obligations, and demonstrate solidarity with our coalitions partners, which in some cases might be mutually exclusive, we must have a greater feel for the complexities of the conflict that we are involved in.
My first awareness of the depth of the problem came from my study of the First World War and the exploits of T. E. Lawrence. Of course, at the time I was a military officer reflecting on the lessons from that war that might be useful in the impending war against the former Soviet Union, so events in this particular theatre of the war didn’t register with me back then. Lawrence of Arabia felt that the Allies had let the people in the region down after WWI with the Sykes-Picot and other secret self-serving agreements that parceled out to the colonial powers the war booty that is today the Middle East. People in those regions had been butchering each other for a millennium or longer, punctuated with the murderous incursions of the Crusades by the infidels from the West, and Lawrence prognosticated that the secret deals would lead to emergence of unrest in the ensuing years, which indeed occurred.
Ignoring history or extant wishes of the people in the region at the time, France was awarded ownership of Syria and Britain took possession if Iraq. Another source of conflict at the time was the 1917 Balfour Declaration, a pledge by the British government to support the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in the State of Palestine. And of course, there were the oil fields that had been the exploratory interests before the war of the likes of Standard Oil in the United States and British Petroleum, a factor that cannot be ignored today.
Obviously, I am not able to do justice to the history of the region in a magazine article, but the foregoing should be an adequate start-state to consider what Canada could or should be doing if we are going to be successful in Iraq. So, if we accept that we have embarked on a campaign against ISIL to (a) make Canadians safe at home and abroad, (b) uphold what many perceive to be our humanitarian obligations, and (c) support our coalition partners, what might the conditions be that would allow us to defeat ISIL? In other words, what do you suggest the “defeat mechanism” is that we should be seeking to exploit?
If someone can make a compelling case how it would be feasible to kill every single antagonist in order to achieve our aim, I would eagerly share the argument with the Esprit de Corps readership.
As usual, I very much look forward to hearing from Esprit de Corps readers, and a copy of my book Rude Awakening: The Government’s Secret War Against Canada’s Veterans will be sent to anybody who offers an opinion, observation, or idea that I think adds a new and interesting dimension to our consideration.