Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Terror and Hope

Rainy weekend afternoons on Elgin St. aren’t known for their political tenor and intensity, but that’s just what we got with Chris Alexander, Robert Fowler and Michael Petrou going head-to-head in a panel discussion titled “Terror and Hope” – hosted by the “incomparable” Adrian Harewood of CBC Ottawa.


Robert Fowler, Canada’s longest serving Ambassador to the UN – the pinnacle in an incredible career in our foreign and public service – recently published A Season in Hell: My 30 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda . In December 2008, Fowler was kidnapped by Al Qaeda operatives while acting as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Niger. The book is a fascinating psychological analysis of his captors. Indeed, Fowler’s experience getting to know his captors – their values, lifestyle, sense of time (or lack thereof), and their singular focus on entering Islamic paradise – now has a powerful influence on his perspectives regarding the War on Terror and the possibilities for progress in Afghanistan. As you may well imagine, Fowler is about as jaded as can be.


Fowler explained that while he fully supports efforts to, as he put it, “whack Al Qaeda,” the US-led post-9/11 intervention veered seriously off track. Specifically, he dismisses the attempts to “nation-build” and impose Western values on the Afghans, many of whom view North America as “Sodom and Gomorrah.” Over the past several months, Fowler has been alerting Canadians to Al Qaeda’s hold of the upper two thirds of Mali, which has already led to the displacement of more than double the number of Syrians who have become refugees in light of its civil war. Fowler noted that the UN, the EU and other actors are exploring the viability of a peacekeeping force. He not only supports such a mission, but also wants Canada to play a constructive role. After all, Canada has already invested billions in Mali and this investment must be urgently defended.


After serving as Canada’s Ambassador to Afghanistan followed by a term as the UN deputy special representative in Afghanistan, Chris Alexander can now be found in the House of Commons as one of Stephen Harper’s more eloquent Parliamentary Secretaries. He keeps himself quite busy cleaning up after the exploits of the Honourable Peter McKay, Minister of National Defense. Here, however, Alexander expounded upon his book, The Long Way Back: Afghanistan's Quest for Peace.

Alexander was indignant (and repetitive): the major issue facing everything the West has stood for in Afganistan is not within that country’s borders, but rather in neighbouring Pakistan.


Alexander was correct to point out that for too long, the West overlooked the cross-border nature of the situation in Afghanistan. As Pakistan’s involvement in sheltering Osama Bin Laden in Islamabad becomes clearer, our entire conception of the War on Terror is shifting. While 2014 remains the expected pullout date, Alexander and others are wondering what will happen after the troops have returned home. He cautioned that a Pakistan-supported radical movement could easily overtake North American-trained forces loyal to President Hamid Karzai. Alexander explained that his book is in part a call to action for a coalition of states to condemn Pakistan for hosting the Taliban and, in doing so, violating numerous UN Security Council resolutions. Invoking the fear associated with the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War, Alexander affirmed the world’s responsibility to seek a regional peace.


Michael Petrou, the acclaimed Maclean’s journalist, was by far the least verbose of the panelists. Petrou recently wrote Is This Your First War?: Travels Through the Post-9/11 Islamic World, chronicling his wild ride as an correspondent for the Ottawa Citizen in Afghanistan just weeks about the 9/11 attacks. Petrou introduced the audience to some inspirational people he met during that tense time, including a poet who gives him “hope for Afghanistan’s future.”


When the three gentlemen sat down for a discussion, sparks began to fly in all sorts of directions. When asked about the War on Terror, Fowler alleged that in the aftermath of 9/11 the West threw core tenets of our civilization out the window, from habeas corpus to failing to condemn and stop torture behind the scenes. He stated ominously: “the War on Terror has created damage to our civil society that will not soon be repaired.” Chris Alexander, meanwhile, seemed unwilling to move beyond his focus on Pakistan. He offered a call to action straight from the JFK Cold War playbook: “we” must ensure a candidate sympathetic to the Taliban does not win the upcoming Pakistani election. Fowler shot back: “who’s we?” “We have nothing to do with the Pakistani election.” This exchange took place a few minutes after Alexander accused Fowler of “romanticizing Al Qaeda” for pointing out the Taliban’s disinterest in timelines in light of their absolute certainty that they – and Allah – will triumph in the end.


It was Petrou who brought a measure of calm to the conversation, putting the focus on human security and urging decision makers to consider the impacts of aggressive tactics (think drones) on the local population’s feelings toward the West. In addition, he was astute in pointing out that we cannot be true liberal internationalists if we advocate for a strategy of abandoning the Afghan people after all they have suffered “for the freedoms we take for granted.”


On a more forward-thinking note, Fowler – who is convinced that the men of Afghanistan are unlikely to change their belligerent ways – pointed to the importance of empowering women in Afghanistan to assume greater roles in the government.


The discussion concluded with all panelists agreeing that the greatest threat to Western security is a Pakistan-based Al Qaeda affiliate getting its hands on nuclear weapons. Overall, this was a fascinating discussion, one that could have gone for an additional hour. (Indeed, there was no time for even a single question from the audience!)