The Vocabulary of Conflict: Afghanistan and Iraq

If there are two things I’ve avoided mentioning since the inception of this blog, it is Iraq and Afghanistan. For anyone who has casually surfed a blind selection of blogs in their spare time, I think you can understand why I’ve chosen not to get involved in the often mephitic atmosphere of this debate. It’s chaotic and reflects the lack of clarity in the wars themselves.

Six Canadian soldiers were killed yesterday by a roadside bomb. The media refers to these bombs as IED’s (improvised explosive devices), following the vocabulary of military spokespersons. In response to these latest deaths, here is an excerpt to more effectively demonstrate this vocabulary, from the Globe and Mail:

The Taliban’s increasing use of roadside bombs has also taken a toll on civilians, Brig.-Gen. Grant said. “They have managed to kill six great young Canadians today, which is an absolute tragedy,” he said. “The other part of this is that they’re killing lots of Afghans. They’re attacking the weak, they’re killing women, they’re killing children, they’re killing policemen. These are not the tactics of anything other than terrorists.”


Asked whether this represents an “Iraqization” of the conflict, Lieutenant-Colonel Jean Trudel, who serves as chief of staff for the Canadian headquarters in Kandahar, shook his head.

“Not particularly,” he said. “It indicates a loss of control by the insurgents.”

Canadian troops faced insurgents in the farmland southwest of Kandahar city last year in the largest battles Afghanistan has witnessed since the collapse of the Taliban regime. Those fights have taught the Taliban that it’s fruitless to openly confront the Canadians, Lt.-Col. Trudel said.

“The fact that we’ve lost a lot of soldiers from IED attacks indicates a success, in the sense that our conventional operations have succeeded against the Taliban,” the chief of staff said.

Where to start…

1) These roadside bombs – sorry, IED’s – are not, historically speaking, the “tactics of terrorists”. They are the tactics of guerrillas. Crashing planes into buildings and floating boats laden with explosives into aircraft carriers are tactics of terrorists. There is more than a semantic difference between the two classifications; when you paint civilian-based militias as terrorism you are admitting a loss of control and belying a critical problem with the military operation at-hand. See: Corsica.

2) If by “Iraqization”, the journalists mean “people who were under a tyrant who barely kept a fractious mix of misplaced ethnicities (largely due to Western colonial folly) under control and who now are now occupied by Western forces (yet again) whose motives increasingly speak more about global economics than humanitarianism” then there are some similarities. However, the way in which the term is implied in the article suggests that the “tactics of terrorism” are being imported from Iraq, which itself is an interesting bit of circular logic given that Afghanistan is the only one of the two countries that had anything to do with the destruction of the World Trade towers.

3) To suggest that the killing of six of our soldiers (along with civilians and police) represents a “loss of control” by the insurgents is perhaps one of the more grotesque distortions of military logic I’ve read (recently). Sounds to me as if the insurgents are in control if by their actions they are disrupting the lives of its citizenry and the work of the soldiers who have been put there to resurrect what is becoming the Romantic dream of a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

All things considered, no matter how passionate or well-reasoned your opinion, it simply isn’t enough to oppose either of these wars, at least not anymore. Three or four years ago, perhaps. However, there is a marked difference between the two conflicts. With Afghanistan there was, at the very least, a reason for NATO troops to get involved; it was, after all, the training ground for Al-Qaeda and, considering the devastation of 9/11/01, arguing for a military response was not an irrational (ie. purely emotional) action. Iraq, however, was and is a debacle of historic proportions. It would depress me to recount just how ill-conceived (and corrupted) the decision to invade Iraq was. There are many other sites out there which can do a better job of summing up the horrible negligence of the latter invasion.

One thing I will mention, and I do so on behalf of my countrymen who are stationed in Afghanistan, is that, failing “success” – itself a contentious ideal in any war – the blame for the lack thereof can be directly attributed to two factors:

1) Iraq. If the United States and Britain had not diverted (and thus fragmented) their troops so that they were intervening [or invading, whichever way you wish to see it – I’ll leave the Semantics of Conflict essay for another day] in not only one but two countries, NATO would’ve had the maximum available response in order to accomplish whatever goals there were in the Afghanistan mission. Instead, by pulling troops out of the latter and into the former, they hobbled the efforts of the only justifiable military action of the two and endangered both.

2) Although there are 37 countries involved in the NATO/ISAF deployment in Afghanistan, there is a disproportionate amount of Canadian troops on the frontline in the most tumultuous areas (read: Kandahar), despite repeated calls for other participating countries to commit troops for support. Say what you will about the Afghanistan mission (and again, a lot of contentious arguments are to be had), it angers me to see such reluctance on behalf of other participating countries: either you’re there and fight or you should rightfully leave. You simply can’t have it both ways on the battlefield.

Canada has a tragic history of its soldiers being used as gun-fodder in armed struggle, most notably in the trenches of WWI. This perhaps explains why we did not involve ourselves in Vietnam or Iraq; though we have our share of military controversies to deal with (much of it due to financial stagnation and federal meddling), we have generally learnt not to follow into armed conflict when the goals of the coordinating military power (usually the US and/or England) are suspicious. The difference this time is that our public is looking very critically at the war in Afghanistan, asking the right questions, and putting pressure on our politicians to ensure that this latest involvement does not devolve into the sort of pandemonium currently underway in Iraq.

I would be lying if I thought the current plan in Afghanistan was particularly clear or that our politicians (and some of the bureaucratic upper ranks of our Armed Forces) had the best interests of our soldiers, Afghanis, or the reputation of Canada in mind. The former Soviet Union went bankrupt as a result of their involvement in the 80’s, with the U.S. funding, arming, and training the civilian insurgency. The shoe is on the other foot, with Russia and China supplying the insurgency via Iran. Whether we call them terrorists or not, vocabulary alone is not enough to soften the blow of rising casualties in a conflict sorely in need of clarity.


5 Replies to “The Vocabulary of Conflict: Afghanistan and Iraq”

  1. Excellent entry. As usual, it is very lucid and well thought out.

    I am curious about your thoughts on one point, however…the omission of “UN” from your entry. You are correct in much of your analysis within the context of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization…but the mandate of this group is much, much diferrent than the one for UN operations. Indeed, the former is led by western democracies without a mandate from most nations (such as Russia and China who you’ve indicated are supplying the “insurgents”), while the latter is constrained by security council unanimity and international law.

    What dynamic is at work here because of the difference between a NATO-led or a UN-led mission, specifically as it relates to the deployment and challenges facing Canadian troops…or the mission in general?

  2. Kolovar – good point. If I’ve left out the UN, it’s partly my choice of focus/prejudice but also the lack of current relevancy of the UN.
    I don’t mean to disparage them or call for their dismissal, but the UN has had a hard time gaining respect since atrocities like Kosovo and Darfur – ie. don’t shoot, just stand firm and let things happen. If the UN had teeth (ie. a policy – firmly defined of course – of shoot-to-kill when under attack) then NATO wouldn’t need to overshadow missions such as Afghanistan where there are both military and humanitarian goals.

  3. I would argue that a large part of the trouble we see with military policy in these war zones stems not from the irrelevancy of the UN, but the relevancy of UN’s lack of “teeth” as you say. If the UN was free to operate as the policy creating and enforcing body it was meant to be, instead of being constantly disempowered by one or two veto votes, I think we would begin to see a lot more humanitarian work, and a lot less military newspeak created to make it SEEM like something important is being done. I think people could learn quite a lot from looking at what recommendations were floored and vetoed in the UN recently.

  4. Averwynn – Yes, agreed, the UN has been undermined the entire way, particularly as regards the lead-up to the Iraq invasion.

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