Testing “Whole of Government” in Afghanistan

John Siebert Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2010 Volume 31 Issue 2

Canada is currently about five years into a live experiment in Afghanistan with a public policy approach called “whole of government.” It attempts to coordinate the many departments and agencies involved in international missions.

A new government approach

New machinery within the federal government has been created to advance international whole-of-government solutions. For example, Foreign Affairs Canada’s Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force (START) was created in September 2005 “to help answer the growing international demand for Canadian support and involvement in complex crises – conflict or natural disaster related – and to coordinate whole of government policy and program engagements in fragile states, such as Afghanistan, Haiti and Sudan” (DFAIT 2010).

Whole-of-government language was embraced by the Liberal Government of Paul Martin in the 2005 International Policy Statement. The current Conservative Government in Ottawa has continued its application in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Now this concept has evolved beyond the coordination of government departments and agencies to include nongovernmental and civil society organizations. According to Kerry Buck, an Assistant Deputy Minister at Foreign Affairs Canada,

Whole of government really means synchronized Canadian engagement on the ground, and this is part of an evolution from different departments doing their stuff in silos a few years ago on international missions…. It‘s gone from ‘3D’ – development, defence, diplomacy – to what we inside are calling ‘1C:’ One Canada. One Canadian synchronized coordinated engagement plan from the beginning. (Davis 2010)

Despite the laudatory goal of synchronizing Canadian efforts in a difficult environment such as Afghanistan, challenges continue to surface in the practice of whole of government – and not just turf, logistical, and personnel problems that often plague complex human enterprises. It may be time to explore whether a whole-of-government approach, particularly in Afghanistan, is masking more fundamental challenges. In trying to coordinate multiple government agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), are the proper and desired differences between various entities being smoothed over, to the detriment of democratic governance?

Distinguishing between development and defence

The need to clearly distinguish between, rather than integrate, development and military functions in the field is a principle that NGOs have been espousing for some time. The Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) has not been alone in pointing (CCIC 2007) to the adverse effects of an “integrated” whole-of-government approach in Afghanistan.

Despite this well known NGO concern, expressed often and reinforced by internationally endorsed principles, the NATO Secretary General was quoted in March 2010 advocating for much closer integration of NATO and NGOs in Afghanistan (CBC News 2010):
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, [NATO’s] secretary general, said the military no longer provides “the complete answer” for complex conflicts such as Afghanistan. Instead, it needs the support of international development organizations and non-governmental organizations to provide the “soft power” needed to prevail in such crises. Fogh Rasmussen complained in a video blog, released Thursday, that military and civilian aid groups currently “don’t plan together, don’t train together” and hardly share information. To change that, he said, NATO plans to organize a conference for military planners, NGOs and other organizations.

Within days, however, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) issued a stiff press release, “NGOs are not a ‘Soft Power’: Highlighting the Impartiality of NGOs in Afghanistan” (ACBAR 2010). ACBAR, which represents over 100 NGOs operating in Afghanistan, made reference to the 2003 Stockholm principles (endorsed by Canada) and the 2007 European consensus on good practices for humanitarian assistance. These include impartiality and neutrality in delivering assistance in an equitable and impartial manner, without political conditions and without engaging in hostilities or taking sides in controversies of a political, religious, or ideological nature. Humanitarian actors are required to retain their operational independence and neutrality, without the appearance of military engagement. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF 2010) was even more pointed in its reply to Fogh Rasmussen.

Here it would be helpful to make a distinction between Canada’s whole-of-government role in countries such as Haiti, where Canada’s military was part of a recent quick response to a devastating earthquake, and in Afghanistan, where Canada is a party to an armed conflict. START director general Elissa Golberg praised the Haiti efforts as a concrete demonstration of the benefit of coordination. In a recent interview she stated that “START‘s whole-of-government team is not ‘exchanging business cards when the disaster happens.’ These [previously] established connections paid off big in the Haiti response…which rolled out with unprecedented speed” (Davis 2010).

And yet CCIC (2010, p. 1), in its policy-coordinating role for a range of NGOs that were responding to the Haiti earthquake, was still cautious about the military’s role in the initial stages of Canada’s response: “Military forces currently on the ground are providing crucial logistical and operational support, while civilian agencies have the experience and expertise needed to deliver assistance. Assistance currently being provided by military personnel should be handed over to civilian agencies as soon as possible, leaving the military to focus on providing logistical and operational support.”

NGOs are not being obstinate about working with NATO or the Canadian military. They are stating that, by their very nature and the principles by which they operate, they cannot integrate their activities with military planning, training, and information sharing – or, for that matter, with the tactical or strategic pursuits of any side in an armed conflict.

Beyond good development principles

The disagreement actually goes a step further.When NATO mlitary operations ape humanitarian assistance or development roles, the humanitarian enterprise itself is compromised and humanitarian workers are endangered.When the lines between development and military operations are blurred, humanitarian workers end up becoming insurgent targets. This approach, in turn, “impedes the ability of civilian humanitarian and development personnel to reach populations” (CCIC 2007, p. 2).

The same reasoning would apply to an official development and humanitarian agency of government such as the Canadian International Development Agency, which is committed, as are its NGO counterparts, to good development principles and alleviation of poverty and suffering. Citing “The Principles and Practice of Good Humanitarian Donorship,” CCIC (2007, p. 4) states that “aid as a [military] force multiplier is completely inconsistent with these internationally sanctioned norms.”

Balancing and refocusing the Ds

Criticisms about the priority given to one part of the whole-0f-government response in Afghanistan – namely defence – presents a different kind of argument. CCIC (2007, p. 1) claims that the military component of the mission has been elevated above the subsequently neglected development and diplomatic components. As a result, “the integrated whole-of-government approach has served to militarize peace-building and humanitarian and development assistance.”

This is an argument shared by Project Ploughshares’ 5 Ds analysis (Regehr & Whelan 2004; Hamzo & Regehr 2008) that insists that proper prioritizing and balance be given to the traditional 3 Ds –defence, development, and diplomacy – along with the additional Ds of democracy and disarmament.

While it is possible in principle to accept the merits of a coordinated (not integrated) whole-of-government approach, the end goal to which that approach points must still be the right goal. Project Ploughshares has stated that the focus in Afghanistan should be on the protection of vulnerable civilians rather than counter-insurgency fighting. The military would not be excluded, but would be less prominent and operate to support diplomacy and development, which would be given higher priority.

Guarding good democratic principles

Beyond the pressure to inappropriately integrate rather than coordinate in a whole-of-government approach, or to wrongly elevate or disproportionately weight one D, there may be a more fundamental problem with the implementation of whole of government: pressure to violate good democratic governance principles.

It is elementary political science that governments, to preserve good democratic governance, have evolved systems that prevent the inappropriate or absolute exercising of power by any one branch. The institutions of each democratic country vary, but the basic principles of checks and balances and watchdogs apply.

The executive – the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canada’s parliamentary democracy – sets overall goals or government policy. The elected legislature has certain powers that the executive cannot override or ignore. Periodic free and fair elections are held so citizens can pass judgment on those elected to the legislature and executive. An independent judiciary tests the constitutionality of government bills and actions. The police investigate and make arrests to protect citizens and property, and the courts guard the rights of citizens from abuse by the police. All in government are reviewed and reported on by independent ombudsmen or auditors to ensure financial and other rules are followed by nonelected officials. A free press builds in transparency and encourages vigilance by all.

Although there are times when the Prime Minister or the Supreme Court are called on to make Solomonic judgements, the complex fabric of democracy is most often preserved by a rigorous guarding of the distinctions in roles and the necessary tensions between different parts of the government and civil institutions.

Back to Afghanistan

The issue of Afghan detainees raises the question of whether principles of democratic governance are being challenged in the whole-of-government approach to circumstances of armed conflict. The continuing scandal illustrates confusion, at best, about the relative roles and responsibilities of various parts of the Canadian government system active in the Afghanistan mission.

Is it the Department of National Defence, Foreign Affairs Canada, or some other body that is responsible to ensure proper treatment of detainees? An early agreement regarding detainees with the Government of Afghanistan was signed by the military’s Chief of Defence Staff rather than the civilian Canadian Ambassador.

Are diplomats or officials from Canada’s correctional system to monitor and supervise detainees handed over by Canadian Forces to Afghan authorities?Were resources such as safe escorts, provided to civilian Canadian officials by the military, appropriate to allow proper performance of civilian duties? The broader question is: Are human rights violations of detainees and Afghan civilians being downplayed or ignored in the quest to accomplish military goals against insurgents? And, are military commissions and courts in Canada being allowed to perform their proper function to determine whether the military followed acceptable practices regarding detainees?

None of these questions are easily answered – in the fog of a war or in the comfortable and secure office of an NGO analyst sitting in Canada. But the question raised here is whether a coordinated whole-of-government approach creates inappropriate pressures to smooth distinctions and override the power balancing and checks inherently and necessarily at play between various organs of the Canadian government. Even if the aim in coordinating Canada’s response in an international mission is worthy, one must be concerned about the inappropriate or unacceptable exercise of power by any one government agency.


Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief. 2010. NGOs are not a “Soft Power”: Highlighting the Impartiality of NGOs in Afghanistan. March 9.

Canadian Council for International Co-operation. 2007. Canada’s whole-of-government approach in Afghanistan: Implications on Development and Peace-building. Briefing Paper: Submission to the Independent Panel on Afghanistan, November.

———. 2010. A Canadian Civil Society Statement to the Foreign Ministers Meeting on Haiti. January 25.

CBC News. 2010. Afghanistan a model for future crises: NATO. March 4.

Davis, Jeff. 2010. Feds’ go-to team in Afghanistan part of new whole-of-government strategy. The Hill Times online, April 19.

Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. 2010. START – Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force.

Hamzo, George & Ernie Regehr. 2008. Canadian peace and security spending: An update on the 5 Ds. The Ploughshares Monitor, Autumn, 29:3.

Lieven, Anatol. 2009. The war in Afghanistan: its background and future prospects. Conflict, Security & Development 9:3, October, pp. 333-359.

Médecins Sans Frontières. 2010. NATO statement endangers patients in Afghanistan. March 11.

Regehr, Ernie & Peter Whelan. 2004. Reshaping the Security Envelope: Defence Policy in a Human Security Context. Ploughshares Working Paper 04-4.

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