Monday, July 24, 2006

Nothing Cowardly About the Killers of Canadian Soldiers

As Canadian forces continue to battle Taliban insurgents deep in Afghanistan—they reportedly killed as many as 100 in recent fighting—the risks to their security continue to mount. Yesterday, a convoy was attacked by VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device), as a result of which two Canadian soldiers were killed and eight injured, as were many Afghans who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

"A cowardly attack," many claim. Soldiers interviewed shortly after the incident expressed difficulty accepting the manner in which their comrades in arms had fallen. "The soldiers who die on maneuver operations... where we are taking offensive action against the enemy, we can rationalize that in our heads," one said. Less so those who die as a result of a suicide bombing, it seems.

That the act defies one's comprehension, or even imagination, is understandable. After all, even the most hardened soldier wouldn't blow himself to bits in a seeming senseless act. But to call the tactic cowardly is a misuse of language and denotes a lack of respect for the opponent. Whether the leadership realizes it or not, Canada's military is engaged in an asymmetric war with Afghan insurgents. And when we speak of asymmetry, we can expect the weaker opponent to adopt measures that rectify, or compensate for, the force imbalance. Canada's military, along with that of the United States and other NATO forces deployed in Afghanistan, are all modern, well-equipped, mobile armies. Road-side bombs, VBIED and other unconventional tactics are therefore to be expected, and have been used for centuries in countries like Afghanistan, which have been visited by one foreign invasion after another. The Soviets certainly weren't defeated by Mujahideen who played by the rules.

It is the very fact that the act of suicide-bombing is incomprehensible that makes it such an effective method. Aside for its efficiency (they are almost impossible to protect against), the psychological impact is far greater than that of a kill in a conventional battle. Similar tactics worked in Lebanon in the 1980s and were sufficient to send the stronger U.S. marines back home with nothing but terror in their eyes and puzzlement in their heads, and explains just as well why they are so reluctant to return now that Beirut is once again facing aggression.

How can someone who embarks on a mission from which he is certain to die be considered a coward? Cowardliness, if it does apply to war, is fear of entering battle or, if that is inevitable, it is doing your utmost to avoid being harmed. In many respects, Israeli warplanes flying high above undefended Beirut and firing missiles at an unarmed population is much more cowardly than the Afghan who packs his jeep with explosives and charges towards a foreign military convoy.

If Canada hopes to survive this foray into the brutal unknown that is Afghanistan, it will need to realize that unconventional and asymmetric tactics like yesterday's attack are neither cowardly nor irrational. Car bombs are a proven and effective means of leveling the playing field and, in the process, of terrifying an opponent.

Let's call a spade a spade: Canada is waging war in Afghanistan. Consequently, those who don't see eye-to-eye with Ottawa will fight back with everything they have—car bombs included. The very last thing Canadian soldiers want to do is make the mistake of thinking that their opponent are cowards, or that they will fight on our terms because we ask them to.

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