Our disastrous military interventions
Gar Pardy is a Rideau Institute Senior Adviser. This article was originally published in Embassy News on Wed. April 6th, 2016.
There can be no expectation that our military interventions will do more good than the obvious disaster they are.
We spiral into confusion and frustration amid the consequences of our military interventions in places of which we know little.
In doing so, we magnify the initial disasters through the paucity of our thought concerning what the interventions are to achieve; and in the process, we convince ourselves the interventions provide us with greater security, both personal and national.
The consequences of these interventions are all around us. For example, the historic and tragic migration of some five million people out of Syria and Iraq and millions more out of Afghanistan and Libya—several millions of whom see the opportunity for a better life in Europe. Sadly, we see these migrations as having little to do with our military interventions.
Yet we react in horror when a candidate for the presidency of the United States talks of carpet bombing as policy. We do not acknowledge that the modern version of the bombing in Syria and Iraq, and earlier in Libya and Afghanistan, is as close to carpet bombing as one can get. For the people on the ground, the distinction is totally artificial and without value. They need to move and they do so.
Then we are bewildered and react in horror when new enemies arise from the chaos of our interventions. Again, in our peaceful, normal, daily routines far from those interventions, we do not draw a connection when large bombs explode and guns are used in mass killings.
This is blowback, in the fullest meaning of the word.
It doesn’t stop there. We are even more bewildered when young men and women from down our streets suddenly appear in the news, cold-bloodedly executing others or taunting us and our societies.
One leading researcher, Marc Sageman, was recently quoted in the New York Times saying:
… with each new terrorist incident we realize that we are no closer to answering our original question about what leads people to turn to political violence.
The same March 27 article went on to note that:
…research linking terrorism to American policies, meanwhile, is ignored.
The reaction of some of our political and military leaders when these consequences blast into our daily lives is uniformly militaristic. Rhetoric that is better left to the theatre than the stage of public policy promotes more military interventions, and more bombings. Tragically, these leaders are cheered on without any acknowledgement they are promoting a vicious, never-ending circle in which we chase our enemies and they chase us.
Of course, these Western military interventions and the occasional eastern ones are not without historical precedents. There is a certain amount of immortality and immorality about all of them. For most, with the passage of time, we can pigeon-hole them into their historical context and move on with a conviction that we would never be that stupid.
The military interventions of our generation loudly proclaim: we are that stupid.
Military interventions in Afghanistan, for instance, have been underway for almost 40 years.
After 10 years, 1979 to 1989, the Soviet Union decided it was not going to change much in that ancient land and abruptly withdrew.
The Afghans, with an army trained by the Soviets before they left, muddled along for more than a decade. The Taliban emerged, forming a weak government in 1996 centered in Kabul and the southern provinces. Osama bin Laden and his band of global terrorists, the Sunni al-Qaeda, lumbered the Taliban with troublesome guests as they planned a deadly attack on the United States.
The post-9/11, American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001—backed by most of the world—was effective in driving the Taliban into temporary exile, among fellow Pashtuns in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
But in the almost 15 years since that invasion, nothing much has changed. Afghanistan remains a largely feudal society with a thin veneer of central government—one that has readily consumed the billions of dollars in aid associated with the Western intervention. The Taliban controls as many parts of the countryside as it did before 2001, including some cities.
The hubris associated with the Afghan invasion led the Americans, again with widespread international support, to invade Iraq in 2003.
A dozen years later, after American troops left Iraq in 2011, there is a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad; a relatively new extremist Sunni group, ISIS, dominating the Sunni areas in the northwest; and a largely independent Kurdish state in the northeast, showing few indications it is interested in the recreation of either the old or a new Iraq. Before long, the latter will see irredentist impulses to draw into its orbit Kurds in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Armenia.
While Saddam Hussein is no longer with us, his legacy lives on.
Meanwhile, Libya has become a failed state as a direct result of Western air and other military support to disparate tribal groups whose initial objective was to see the end of Muammar Gaddafi. Once Mr. Gaddafi was no longer with us, at the end of 2011, the Libyans demonstrated their historical disparateness and now seem not much interested in restoring the trappings of the former state. Before long, al-Qaeda and ISIS created branches there from which forays into Africa south of the Sahara can be conducted with impunity.
And then, there is today’s Syria. The Russian intervention and its overt willingness to see the regime of Bashar al-Assad restored to its former prominence, along with the destruction of most of its opposition—except for ISIS—ensures a rush to the exits by most Syrians will continue for some time to come.
And in all of this, Western policy centres on how long Mr. Assad should remain as president, and the hope that ISIS can be destroyed. We cheer the occasional victory and hope for more, while we debate whether we should send in more troops for training and/or more aircraft, contributing to draining the country of its people.
Few stand up and state that our military interventions are the cause of our troubles. There can be no expectation that our military interventions will do more good than the obvious disaster they are. Until we accept that lesson, we will go around the same circle again and again.
Before retirement from the Canadian foreign service, Gar Pardy was head of consular services for more than 10 years. Recently he published Afterwords From a Foreign Service Odyssey, available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and, in Ottawa, Books on Beechwood.