New Canadian Media
Sunday, 12 March 2017 20:25

Creeping Hopelessness in Terror Fight

Commentary by Phil Gurski

We seem to be having a hard time figuring out what to call our struggle with terrorism. Leaving aside the belief, held by me and others, that framing counter terrorism in terms of war is a bad idea, it is clear that we keep changing our minds about what we are really involved in. 

After the clumsy misstep by U.S. President George W. Bush to label it a “Crusade”, we moved from the ‘war on terrorism’ to the ‘long war’ to the ‘global struggle against violent extremism (GSAVE) to ‘countering violent extremism’.  The latest iteration, which I read today in a New York Times op-ed, has me worried, as much for its pessimistic tone as its psychological effect on all of us.

According to Brian Castner, a formal explosives disposal specialist in the U.S. Army, some in that country’s military have begun to refer to the fight against terrorism as the ‘Forever War’.  This is not a good development.

War imagery

Let’s think about this phrase for a moment.  Forever.  That’s a long time.  And, what is worse, is that forever has no end.  In other words, we will be fighting terrorism and terrorists in a war with no termination.  No victory.  No truce.  No surrender.  No resolution.  Just war, interminable war.

In some ways we should have known this from the start.  Wars against abstract or common nouns don’t end because these nouns don’t reflect tangible entities.  Terrorism is no more a defined object than are drugs, poverty and cancer.  These ‘things’ are either tactics (terrorism), social ills (drugs, poverty) or natural phenomena (cancer).  They don’t have armies – yes Islamic State has a pseudo army with quasi soldiers – or uniforms or well-delineated structures.  You might as well declare war on mist. Yet we frame all kinds of social causes as war.

Don’t get me wrong, I do see a role for the military in counter terrorism measures, even if I disagree with the war metaphor.  But that role has to be constrained and carefully deployed.  Against IS or Boko Haram in northern Nigeria there is space for the army.  After all, however, this fight is for security intelligence and law enforcement agencies on the one hand and civil society on the other.  The former are tasked with taking care of those who wish to do us harm, while the latter look after addressing the conditions under which people turn to terrorism so that, in the end, fewer make that decision.

Accepting death and destruction

We must stop using war imagery when we talk about terrorism.  Aside from the reasons just cited, if those in the armed services are seeing this as the ‘forever war’ what does this mean?  If means that a hopelessness has entered into the minds of those we send to confront terrorists. 

Hopelessness not only breeds depression but it serves as an obstacle to other possibilities. If we convince ourselves that this war is eternal and that we will have to keep killing terrorists, iteration after iteration (Al Qaeda, IS in Iraq, IS, Al Shabaab, AQAP …) we consign ourselves to a non-solution.  I can think of little more futile than accepting death and destruction as the only way forward. There has to be a better way – I think a lot of people are involved in alternative approaches already – and we have to find it and implement it now.

The First World War was once called the ‘war to end all wars’.  We all know how that phrase ended up.  We need to get smart about terrorism before the Forever War becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

For our own sakes as well as those of future generations.


Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield).

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Seshadri Kumar in Houston, Texas

Donald Trump fought and defeated Hillary Clinton, the media, fellow Republicans and conventional wisdom on his way to the American Presidency.

 I have watched at least eight presidential elections in the U.S. up close. As an immigrant journalist, I had the opportunity to cover the nomination speech of George H.W. Bush at the Republican National Convention, in Houston, in 1992, when the senior Bush lost the election to Bill Clinton.

The media narrative that trounced Bush was the catch phrase “Read my lips, no new taxes,” a promise that Bush had broken in his first term.

Trump’s victory has variously been described as a “revolution” and a “movement”;  and I would add a “phenomenon” as well.

A “Second Coming”

I don’t mean to serve up a post-facto encomium to Trump’s election, but I submit that Trump’s announcement in June 2015 of running for the Presidency had a certain “Second Coming” feel to it. I had the feeling then that this was not yet another candidate – I sensed a popular elation that accompanied it.

The media enthusiastically caricatured him, the pundits lampooned him, literally laughing at him.  And that laughter continues today, even as Trump’s inauguration approaches.

What catapulted Trump to national attention was his colloquial, yet somewhat exaggerated, matter-of-fact observation that Mexico is sending across border thieves, smugglers and rapists. He did not merely use the prosaic expression ‘securing the borders.’  He deliberately chose to avoid the “politically correct”.

Contest in Texas

While the other Republication candidates could be written off as soft on immigration, Ted Cruz from Texas was as hard and harsh as Trump on containing illegal immigration.

What strengthened my thinking outside the conventional box was that even Cruz failed to excite the base because he stuck to politically-correct language. Thus, a Conservative like Cruz, a very articulate and accomplished Senator, could not distinguish himself from Democrats as well as fellow Republicans.

While Cruz was shackled on immigration, Trump stood out as a torchbearer, not to speak of his visual, emotional and symbolic pledge to build a wall with Mexico. The more the media played up the wall as a divider to alienate Trump, the greater the resolve among Trump supporters in solidifying their support behind him.

The first debate

Another significant episode, in my opinion, was the first Republican presidential debate conducted by the Fox News Channel. The very first debate question of the 2016 presidential race was asked by Megyn Kelley and it had to do with women. To me, it came across as similar to asking Trump if he would stop beating his wife.  

At a time when America stood poised to elect its first woman president, I saw another candidate beside his beautiful immigrant wife and an accomplished daughter. I felt that that would have a positive impact, at least on some women.

It is important to recognize that Trump supporters never saw him as Pope material. His lifestyle was not a secret. By the time allegations of his improper behaviour with women became national news, Trump was immune to the attacks as the public was already been de-sensitized to such charges.

The issues that mattered to voters were below the radar of the media, which played up sex scandals, Trump calling beauty pageant participant as fat and ugly or insulting a Gold Star Muslim family. The majority of them remained in the closet and came out on Election Day.

Fort Bend county: a case study

Something very surprising happened in Fort Bend County, where I live and publish newspapers. Fort Bend County in Texas is one of the top three most diversified counties in the country.

Nearly 25 per cent of the county’s population is Asian and a large chunk of them are Indian Americans. It has been a Republican county forever, but the county voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in more than 50 years. The last time was for John F. Kennedy.

While the state of Texas voted for Trump, Fort Bend County voted for Clinton. At the same time, in down ballots, in local races, they elected all Republicans. The precincts where Trump lost in Fort Bend County comprise a large number of Muslims and immigrants from India.

Like everybody else, these voters chose to defy convention wisdom.

India-born Seshadri Kumar started his journalism career with The Times of India in Mumbai in 1977. He worked with the Khaleej Times, Dubai, U.A.E. and subsequently with the Houston Community Newspapers and Houston Chronicle in the U.S.. He began publishing an ethnic newspaper in Houston, India Herald, in 1995, and launched a mainstream community newspaper called Fort Bend Independent in 2008. He lives in Sugar Land, Texas, a suburb of Houston.

Published in Commentary
by Firas Al-Atraqchi (@Firas_Atraqchiin Cairo, Egypt
 
In 2003, Canada opted out of the coalition that pummeled Iraq back into the Middle Ages. Now, Canada has joined the coalition to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that emerged out of the U.S.-led invasion.
In a three-part series, Firas Al-Atraqchi, a member of NCM's editorial board, frames the Iraq quagmire, traces the evolution of ISIL, and how the Islamic State has come to dominate large areas of Iraq and Syria. Before they elect a new government, Canadians need to weigh the pros and cons of taking the fight to ISIL. Here are the current party positions --
Conservatives: Committed to bombing ISIL positions from the air in Iraq and Syria and deployment of troops in a non-combat role. NDP: End bombing campaign and pull out all military personnel from Iraq and Syria; boost aid to help refugees affected by ISIL as well as investigate and prosecute war crimes. Liberals: End the bombing campaign but keep military trainers in Iraq; boost aid to help refugees and allow more into the country from Iraq and Syria. Greens: Ensure responses to terrorism are consistent with international law.
 
 
Canada's active role in the U.S.-led aerial bombardment campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) continues to be an important election issue.
 
ISIL is an immediate threat to Middle East security. It has grown and expanded into areas where political and security vacuums persist: Afghanistan, Egypt's Sinai, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and has even gained the allegiance of Boko Haram in Nigeria.
 
ISIL needs to be eradicated at its points of origin -- Iraq and Syria. But current U.S.-led strategies will inevitably fail because ISIL's expansion came about due to political, not military, incompetence.
 
ISIL's expansion came about due to political, not military, incompetence.
 
The debate in Ottawa shouldn't only center on whether or not Canadian forces should participate in Washington's campaign against the Islamic extremists who have blitzkrieged their way through large areas of Iraq and Syria.
 
It should also consider where ISIL came from, what it wants to achieve and how it can be defeated. What are the socio-political factors that helped spawn and sustain ISIL? And, what does Canada's contribution really mean in the long run?
 
No Plan B
 
Ottawa's current Middle East strategy fails to plan for the possibility that ISIL won't be defeated militarily.
 
Ottawa's approach also fails to account for the political impasse in Baghdad, which has played right into ISIL's hands.
 
In the U.S., the Iraq quagmire is also an important election issue but for entirely different reasons.
 
Campaigning for the Republican Party nomination, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush blamed U.S. President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for ISIL's rise and Iraq's current crisis.
 
The media has been critical of his position on Iraq and a number of pundits appear to blame his brother, former U.S. President George Bush, for the debacle in the Middle East.
 
But Jeb Bush is not entirely wrong.
 
While his brother is to blame for creating the conditions that would eventually help foment ISIL, the Obama administration is also to blame for walking away from Iraq without correcting those blunders.
 
Under Paul Bremer, George Bush's administrator in Iraq, all Baa'thists were purged from government positions in 2003. The Iraqi army was disbanded, effectively releasing hundreds of thousands of disgruntled trained men (some retaining their arms) into the clutches of Shia and Sunni militia that were willing to pay for their services.
 
Bremer also played a pivotal role in building the foundations of an Iraqi government that was divided along sectarian, not nationalistic, lines.
 
Cosmetic changes
 
From crisis to crisis, any changes in Baghdad's political landscape were cosmetic.
 
When Iraq was on the verge of a civil war in 2006, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafary was removed and replaced with Nouri Al Maliki.
 
Shortly after ISIL overran Mosul in June 2014, Maliki was replaced with Haider Abadi.
 
The problem here is that all three men come from the same Da'awa party. Iraqi ministers appear to be rotated through different positions. Abadi himself was Communications Minister in 2004.
 
When Maliki was sacked as prime minister, he was given the office of one of the three vice-presidents. Jaafary was last year made foreign minister.
 
The same politicians that were blamed for much of Iraq's demise in the formative years since 2003 effectively remained in positions of influence. It was only after hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets two weeks ago that Abadi abolished the three vice-presidencies and removed Maliki who has since left for Iran.
 
From the sidelines
 
The Obama administration has pretty much remained on the sidelines as Iraq's political stability in Baghdad evaporated, and the various factions squabbled over office and influence. In 2008, Obama campaigned on a platform that the Iraq war was misguided and should have never happened. However, his administration kept the status quo in place and allowed the seeds of division to grow.
 
Iraq is in an economic, political, security and social mess. Aerial bombardment might resolve some problems, but given that the country is on the verge of collapse, the current approach could create an even bigger mess.
 
Iraq is in an economic, political, security and social mess. Aerial bombardment might resolve some problems, but given that the country is on the verge of collapse, the current approach could create an even bigger mess.
 
More than a million Iraqis have for the past week been protesting against government corruption and mismanagement.
 
In Baghdad, Basra and Najaf, they have demanded that the government be held accountable for lack of basic services (such as electricity), an end to religious rule, and better security.
 
Abadi has responded by cutting the number of ministries in government, and promised a review of public expenditure. But the protests continue to grow.
 
In the meantime, ISIL continues to hold large swathes of territory in Iraq (and Syria) and has changed tactics to target Baghdad's military leadership. On Wednesday, four ISIL fighters captured U.S. Humvees, detonated their body-strapped explosives and killed two senior generals responsible for Baghdad's counter-offensive in Anbar province.
 
The manner by which ISIL has evolved reveals that the group's prime goal is not only to survive by adapting and mutating in the face of opposing firepower, but also to fully manipulate the divisiveness and weakness in its enemies.
 
Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Canadian journalist of Arab descent who has covered the Middle East since 1992. A former senior editor with Al Jazeera's English-language website, he currently teaches journalism at the American University of Cairo as an associate professor.
Published in Commentary

The creation of a new Office of Religious Freedom within Canada’s Foreign Affairs department has been generally panned as “pandering” to ethnic voters. It is anything but …

A look at the provenance and profile of a similar American institution offers a few useful lessons. The Office of International Religious Freedom was created in 1998 after Congress approved legislation requiring the State Department to draft an annual report on how religious liberty was faring around the world. While the American Office has unfailing produced these reports, they have not been the kind of lightning rods that they might have been – not even during the presidency of George W. Bush. 

That outcome is not surprising given that U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright did not read too much into its creation. “This landmark law has made identifying and condemning all forms of religious persecution an integral part of U.S. foreign policy and has caused American diplomats to become more comfortable and practiced as raising the issue.” She called it a “litmus test” for dealing with other governments.

We don’t see the Canadian version being any different. Foreign policy-making is a matrix, and, with the creation of the new Office, religious liberty may have gained greater significance. But, it is highly unlikely that Ottawa will determine its diplomatic course on this one factor alone.

After all, it’s been widely reported that the idea for the creation of such an Office came in the wake of the killing in Pakistan of its minister for religious minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, in March, 2011 – two months before the last federal elections. It is germane to speculate what our newly-appointed ambassador of religious freedom, Andrew Bennett, would have done had the assassination happened on his watch.  Bennett’s office would be expected to issue a vociferous statement and he himself may decide to travel to Pakistan to lend Canada’s heft to the global outcry. But, would it make a whit of difference to minorities in Pakistan? Would they feel or be any safer because Canada has spoken out?

Unlikely.

Also imagine Mr. Ambassador of Religious Freedom meeting Saudi Arabia's new interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, whose regime regularly jails expatriates for practising any faith in the holy land of Mecca and Medina. The outcome is likely to be no different in meetings with Chinese, Azerbaijani, Iranian, Nigerian or Malaysian leaders, for all of whom “non-interference in internal affairs” is a helpful rallying cry.

So, what’s the point? In the days following the announcement at a mosque north of Toronto, commentary has focused mostly on how standing up for persecuted faith communities in foreign lands may be a political winner with new immigrants. It is true that most New Canadians believe that we should stand up to totalitarian regimes, even if it amounts to nothing more than whistling in the wind. It could be an extension of our “soft power” and the drip, drip influence of moral suasion.

But that does not make the new Office a sop to immigrants as much as it is a recognition that Canada’s political centre-of-gravity is shifting away from a largely godless constituency to a new critical mass of citizens for whom faith is an important dimension of their lives. The first demographic would rather have the government set up an Office of Freedom from Religion – as Mary Jane Chamberlain of Toronto said in a letter to the Globe and Mail – while the second prefers an Office of Religious Freedom. This Office is a nod to the faithful.

It is again instructive to quote Albright (from her book The Mighty and the Almighty, 2006): As I travel around the world, I am often asked, “Why can’t we just keep religion out of foreign policy?” My answer is that we can’t and shouldn’t. Religion is a large part of what motivates people and shapes their views of justice and right behaviour. It must be taken into account. - New Canadian Media

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary

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