Politics·Analysis

Pentagon's take on ISIS fight nothing like Canada's campaign rhetoric

"Tactically stalemated" is the way the outgoing head of the U.S. joint chiefs describes the U.S.-led war against ISIS. Senator John McCain is even more scathing, but none of that is what you hear on the Canadian campaign trail, Neil Macdonald writes.

'If you are not winning this kind of warfare, you are losing' — Senator John McCain

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper says his two rivals are too politically correct to call ISIS jihadist terrorists. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The leaders of the Liberal and New Democratic parties, Stephen Harper tells his election rallies, are such a couple of timorous wet smacks that they can't possibly be trusted to shield Canadians from the evil that constantly bears down upon us all.

"Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair are so wrapped up in some form of twisted form of political correctness that they won't even call jihadist terrorism what it is," Harper told cheering supporters in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., this month.

"If you cannot even bring yourself to call jihadist terrorism what it is, then you cannot be trusted to confront it, and you cannot be trusted to keep Canadians safe from it."

So, to summarize, and I'm using the words of the prime minister here, ISIS is a barbaric, fanatic, radically violent bunch of jihadist terrorist murderers. And they threaten Canadians every single day. And fighting them begins with calling them all those things, and if you can't call them those things, you aren't a fighter.

Now, here are the words of Christine Wormuth, the under-secretary of defence at the Pentagon, in testimony to Congress last week:

"While not 10 feet tall," she told the Senate armed services committee last week, ISIS "remains a thinking enemy that adapts to evolving conditions on the battlefield."

Wormuth, of course, is not running for office, and it is her job to take a clear-eyed view of her adversary.

She is tasked by President Barack Obama to help lead the military offensive in which Canada has been a proud participant, to use Stephen Harper's words again.

Wormuth and the two top American generals who flanked her in the hearings tried to focus on the coalition's meagre gains, but couldn't obscure the utterly bleak reality that has emerged in the year since Obama announced the offensive.

Just a few days earlier, the outgoing chairman of the joint chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, described the situation as "tactically stalemated."

Senator John McCain, former naval commander, chairman of the armed forces committee and easily the Republican party's reigning expert on war, used more pungent language.

"It seems impossible to assert that ISIL is losing and that we are winning. And if you're not winning in this kind of warfare, you are losing. . . It's an abject failure."

Taliban gaining, too

McCain, like Wormuth and the generals, didn't bother with any of the jihadist-murderer-terrorist-barbaric-fanatic-radical references Stephen Harper says a leader must make in order to protect the nation.

Reporters ask NDP leader Tom Mulcair about how he would address security concerns about Syrian refugees and end Canada's military mission in Syria and Iraq. 2:15

Instead, his was a terse, agonized assessment by a militarist who has helped America preside over 14 years of war, dispossession and destruction, as well as hundreds of thousands of deaths and billions in spending, and who just might be beginning to understand that it hasn't worked, and probably won't.

In Afghanistan, where America and its allies were going to install democracy and send girls to school and rid the world of the Taliban, the Taliban retains a considerable grip, women remain violently oppressed and largely unschooled, and the cherished American export of democratic values crashed on the rocks of tribalism, corruption and a harsh religious code.

The invasion of Iraq, which turns out to have been a historical debacle based entirely on a lie, has triggered disastrous consequences that America and her allies, Canada now included, clearly cannot contain.

Among them was the creation of ISIS, which now controls huge chunks of Iraq and Syria, and has effectively erased the border between those countries.

Again, to quote McCain: "There is no compelling reason to believe that anything we are currently doing will be sufficient to achieve our strategic objective of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.

"The United States and our partners do not have the initiative; our enemies do."

'It's a small number'

Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used the coalition efforts as cover to slaughter his own people, dropping barrel bombs on population centres controlled by ISIS and rebel forces.  

By some estimates, Assad has killed up to six times as many people as ISIS. He is at least as responsible as ISIS for the wretched masses of refugees now on the move toward Europe.

Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command: 'We're talking four or five,' referring to the number of anti-Assad fighters trained by U.S. military. (Associated Press)

In his campaign to name and shame evil, though, Canada's Conservative leader seldom mentions Assad. Neither do most other Western leaders; the unfortunate truth is that Assad has become, objectively speaking, a Western ally against ISIS.

In any event, it is an article of military faith, well acknowledged by the White House and Pentagon and repeated at the committee last week, that airstrikes alone will not accomplish victory.

If victory against ISIS is even possible, it will require ground forces, which America and its allies say must come from local armies.

But entire American-trained Iraqi divisions have thrown down their weapons and fled before ISIS.

And when a committee member asked last week what has happened to the most important piece of the Pentagon's plan to mobilize the fight against ISIS and Assad, a program that was designed to train 5,400 Syrian fighters within a year, the answer made headlines.

Gen. Lloyd Austin, the person in charge of U.S. Central Command, replied: "It's a small number. The ones that are in the fight is, we're talking, four or five."

Tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, and four or five trained Syrian fighters at the coalition's disposal on the ground.

Another 100 to 120 are supposedly "in the pipeline," being trained, but if they're nervous, that's understandable. Most of their 54 predecessors have simply disappeared in Syria.   

No wonder the Pentagon has, according to several reports, resorted to embellishing intelligence reports.

At least, though, the Canadian public has access to events like congressional hearings via the internet. That sort of oversight and transparency simply does not exist in Ottawa.

Without it, listening to Harper, we might actually think we're triumphing over evil.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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