Connecting the Dots: The Search for Meaning in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria


What a stark reminder of how short the road is between heresy and received wisdom.

Even in the mainstream press, today the majority view is that the intervention in Iraq was a barely veiled disaster.

In excess of 100,000 civilian casualties, 4486 American soldiers dead, 32, 226 wounded, and over a trillion dollars spent. The statistics are mind numbing.

And all for what?

With the exception of a recent spate of stories concerning the US rethinking its distinctly white elephantine, imperial embassy in Bagdhad’s not-s0-green zone, memories of the painful episode in Iraq are receding fast. Although images of Shock and Awe, Abu GhraibGuantanamo Bay, and Fallujah occasionally return, spectre-like,  to haunt the popular conscience, it is clear that less than a decade after the invasion began, most people prefer forgetting to remembrance.

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The Retreat From Internationalism – Part I

From the late 1940s  through to early in this century, Canada enjoyed a reputation as a determined, capable and effective internationalist. Regardless of which party formed the government, this country actively engaged with other peoples and states in the in the pursuit of collaborative solutions to the world’s major problems and challenges. From the founding of the UN, post-war reconstruction and the Suez crisis to non-proliferation issues, protection of the global commons and working to address the plight of children in conflict, Canada was always present, and, when appropriate, ready to lead.

As Canada’s relative power and influence inevitably declined with the recovery of Europe and Asia and the emergence of China, India, Brazil and others, the scale of Canadian activism was down-sized.  Grand, long-term goals such as eradicating poverty and bringing peace to the world gradually gave way to to smaller, “niche”  projects such as the land mine ban, conflict diamonds and the construction of innovative new doctrines such as the Responsibility to Protect.  The nature of Canadian internationalism changed with the times, and public diplomacy was mobilized to advance the likes of Human Security Agenda, but a core commitment to internationalism endured.

Today, little remains of that tradition, and international policy decision-making seems related mainly to the quest for future electoral advantage.

What happened?

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Defence Policy, International Security and the Military: Time to Talk

South of the border, there have in recent years been a growing number of voices expressing serious concern over the militarization of American life.

I certainly share that sentiment.

Is an F-16 fly over and trooping the colours  really appropriate for the opening of the Super Bowl?

The USA is apparently becoming the Praetorian pole in an increasingly  heterpolar world order. Still, I think that a debate of this nature is culturally healthy, and have always admired the fact that some of the most trenchant, even withering criticism of U.S. policy and actions comes from domestic sources, including not least that country’s many military academies and war colleges.

Even in the mainstream media, a decade’s worth of assumptions used to justify deploying the military to pursue the epically misguided global war on terror are finally being questioned.

One could only wish that a similar degree of the scrutiny accorded defence issues in the USA  might one day be evident in the discourse on international policyin Canada.

Apart from a few faint echoes in the academy and a handful of specialized publications, that discussion here  is practically non-existent. I find that most unfortunate.

Canadians need to start talking about the kind of military that they require in the face of all identifiable threats and challenges. They must then somehow try and square the outcome of that conversation against a thoughtful consideration of whether or not the defence capability that they need matches the one that they have got.

I have my doubts.

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Osama and Obama: Turning the Page?

The reported killing earlier today of Osama Bin Laden by US special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan, is unlikely to prove a game changer for American foreign policy. Secretary Clinton has already suggested as much – the war on terror will continue unabated. Careers, promotions, budgets and bonuses depend on it.

I believe such a commitment to be both hasty and unfortunate, especially given the unmitigated disaster which the current course has visited upon the USA and the world since 9/11. That said, the death of “The Sheik”, the spiritual head of a loose federation of jihadi extremist groups affiliated worldwide under the ideological banner of the Al Qaeda franchise, does raise a series of other critical questions and issues.

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Looking Forward, Looking Back: Cautionary Vignettes

The outset of a new year, and indeed, of a new decade, is as good a time as any to pause and reflect.  As far as I can determine, the roiling, whirling forces of globalization which have been dominant for at least twenty years continue to cut all ways.

Consider, for instance, this initial sampling:

  • Long-serving Tunisian President Ben Ali – one of the region’s less despotic rulers in one of its more stable and prosperous countries – has been driven from power in a revolt which few, if any saw coming
  • The Australian states of Queensland and Victoria, which have in recent years experienced severe drought,  now face disastrous flooding
  • Baby Doc Duvalier, a reviled former dictator forced to seek exile in France in 1986, has returned to his still earthquake-devastated homeland, Haiti, for reasons as yet unknown
  • A previously obscure Icelandic MP and one-time WikiLeaks volunteer spokesperson, Birgitta  Jonsdottir, has become a near-celebrity, mainly by virtue of the attention lavished upon her by the US Justice Department
  • After decades of intermittent civil war and failed peace negotiations, the results of an internationally-monitored referendum suggest that Southern Sudan is now headed inexorably towards independence
  • The latest mass shooting incident in the USA has unleashed torrents of political vitriol and interpersonal venom, but has not appreciably advanced the case for gun control

Add to this mix a smattering of, say, suicide bombings and IED blasts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq,  and what emerges is a pretty good snapshot of the day’s news.

At first blush, it doesn’t sound much like anything that would have inspired Louis Armstrong to record “What a Wonderful World”.

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War and Diplomacy – Part II: A Way Out of Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is a crossroads of civilizations and an almost bewilderingly complicated place.

Over the past few centuries, however, it has more often than not been treated as a pawn in the “great game”.  The country has also developed a reputation as the “graveyard of empires”, not least because outsiders’ forces have never succeeded in pacifying the place. Internal stability, such as it has ever existed, has been predicated typically upon de-centralized, and frequently shifting political arrangements between a weak centre and roiling periphery.

Reeling from the shock of 9/11 and in the absence of adequate reflection,  in late 2001  NATO in effect took sides in a complex ethnic, tribal, sectarian, and geographically rooted civil war. Nine years later, the coalition not only has failed to prevail, but the continuing presence of foreign forces, viewed widely as occupiers by the population, has exacerbated the conflict. The Russians learned the same lesson not long ago, and at great expense.

Such is the burden of history.  Yet today – if it ever was – Afghanistan is no longer the epicentre of transnational  terrorism. That pretext for contemporary Western involvement no longer exists, and indeed, was achieved by early 2002.  Al-Qaeda camps had been dismantled and the membership dispersed . The Taliban, for their part, had and still have mainly national goals with neither the capability nor the intent to threaten international security. The two organizations should never have been conflated.

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Listening to Lawrence – Part II

By my reckoning, history suggests that at the end of the day there are only three ways to successfully counter an insurgency.

The most obvious technique is that referred to rather disparagingly by T. E. Lawrence and set out in the previous post: suffocate the spark of resistance under the sheer weight of massive military occupation. Estimates vary, but the experience suggests that effective suffocation requires a ratio of counter insurgent soldiers to units of local population somewhere in the range of 1:10 to 1:100 or more, depending on the severity of the resistance encountered.  For example, troop requirements in 2004 during the second battle for  Fallujah, Iraq would have been on the high side of this scale, while in rural Malaysia, even at the height of the emergency in the mid-to-late 1950s, they would have been much lower.

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Listening to Lawrence – Part I

Last Sunday, August 1st, the Dutch began a low key, unceremonious withdrawal from participation in the NATO/ISAF mission to Afghanistan. With 24 dead, 140 wounded, and over a billion euros expended, Holland is the first major member of the ISAF coalition to head for the exit. This event, however, was almost lost in the Canadian mix of news coverage over the holiday long weekend, despite the fact that Afghanistan remains among Canada’s top international priorities.

As the number of outside  military forces active in Afghanistan shrinks – Canada, and likely Germany are set to follow the Dutch example next year – the US is more than compensating with a troop surge which is now in full swing. These developments, in combination with the record number of casualties, may serve to encourage more public and media attention and give rise to a broad consideration of the way ahead.

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