The Canadian Forces and Peace Support Operations after 2011

Tasneem Jamal Defence & Human Security

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2010 Volume 31 Issue 3

The following is an abbreviated version of Ernie Regehr’s June 15 presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence.

Approaches to post-2011 roles for Canadian Forces outside North America will clearly be influenced by the Afghanistan experience. So when the Prime Minister told CNN in March 2009, “my own judgment is, quite frankly, that we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency” (Boadie 2009), we should understand that he was not only stating an Afghan-specific truth, but was reflecting a broader reality.

One part of that reality is that insurgencies are in fact rarely defeated on the battlefield. Put another way, complex human conflicts are not amenable to “purely military solutions.”1 National or intrastate armed conflicts are largely ended through negotiations and “high-level political settlements.”2 Thus, if insurgencies are not defeated, but end through political negotiations, such peace processes should be built into peace support operations from the start (as emphasized by the Security Council in the context of reviewing peacekeeping operations [UNSC 2010a]).

A basis for Canadian involvement

The security and well-being of Canada and Canadians are inextricably linked to global stability and prosperity. We rely on an international order that respects Canadian sovereignty and territorial integrity; we want and need an order that functions according to broadly accepted rules and international law. So Canada necessarily has a history of responding to security concerns beyond our borders, not only when our interests are directly threatened, but also when there are serious strains on the stability of the international system on which we ultimately depend.

Importantly, the Canadian interest is also shaped by a core value that commits us to come to the aid of the world’s most vulnerable – partly because chronic human suffering undermines confidence in and respect for a rules-based order and thus undermines our vital security interests, but also because we simply recognize ourselves as constituents of a common humanity.

So it is clear that Canada will continue to offer, and be called upon to make, civilian and military contributions to complex peace support operations. But there is no guarantee that future efforts will be any easier or more obviously successful than the intervention in Afghanistan thus far. Peace operations are, by definition, mounted in extraordinarily difficult circumstances – where even after peace agreements are signed, state governance remains dangerously fragile, economies are shattered, security forces are seriously compromised, and political loyalties are complex and frayed.

That makes it essential for Canada and the international community to constantly update the lessons of experience in an effort to shift the odds toward success. Canada is in a good position to learn and act on the central lesson – namely, that establishing and consolidating peace is much more a political, economic, and social challenge than it is a military one.

The fact that Canada does not face imminent or foreseeable military challenges to its sovereignty, territorial integrity, or internal order means that it enjoys considerable flexibility in determining the best ways and means of addressing security challenges beyond our borders. In other words, because Canada is not burdened by the need to maintain high levels of military forces for security at home, our international peace and security toolkit need not be dominated by military capacity.

Such contributions should ultimately be responsive to the way people experience insecurity on a daily basis – and that is most prominently through the consequences of unmet basic needs, political exclusion, denied rights, social and political disintegration, and the criminal and political violence that invariably attend such conditions. It follows, then, that the most urgent requirement is to build the favourable social, political, and economic conditions that mitigate these insecurities.

In addition to shifting peace support operations to more effectively address non-military threats to peace and security, the military elements of peace operations need to recognize three basic realities:

  • There is a real and consequential difference between peace support and war-fighting models of international military engagement;
  • There are significant and unavoidable limits to the utility of force in promoting international peace and security (a reality that has implications for both the nature of military engagements and the range of non-military engagements that are essential to make complex peace operations successful); and
  • There is a core requirement for “strategic consent” in effective peace support operations (that is, the international forces must be welcomed by both the authorities and the population in a host country, and that in turn points to the diplomacy and reconciliation efforts that are essential to ensure the constant renewal or recovery of political consensus in support of multilateral peace operations).

Peacekeeping or war-fighting?

Over a wide range of circumstances and through decades of experience, multilateral collective military interventions authorized by the UN have followed multiple operational models, but at the core is a basic distinction between “peace support operations” and “war-fighting” missions.

Armed forces in multilateral peace support operations are deployed in support of a peace agreement or the active pursuit of one. The Department of Foreign Affairs (2010), in considering whether Canada should join a particular Chapter VII mission,3 already is mandated to ask whether “the peacekeeping operation will take place alongside a process aimed at a political settlement to the conflict.”

The military element of a peace support operation is deployed to support the political settlement of conflict. Military force is not an alternative to a political process or negotiations. And that, of course, is the primary way in which peace support operations differ from “war-fighting.” Rather than being designed to facilitate or support the political resolution of conflict, war-fighting is designed to override politics by dint of force and to impose, rather than negotiate, an outcome.

Because military forces in peace support operations are intended to aid political process, the absence of a sustained political/diplomatic effort to resolve the core conflict renders such operations unviable in the long run. It is a lesson Afghanistan has been teaching us for close to a decade now, but a lesson learned gains value only to the degree it is applied.

The limits to force

Afghanistan’s International Security Assistance Force notwithstanding, it is not by accident that multilateral military interventions in complex conflicts in support of peace efforts have come to be heavily oriented toward the peace support, rather than war-fighting, model. This is a reflection of deference to basic principles of international law, not least the UN Charter; to a history of peacekeeping; and to the limits to the utility of military force in efforts to impose sustainable peace and security outcomes.

In much of the popular discourse about military force, the insistence that it be reserved as a “last resort” feeds the assumption that when all political and diplomatic and hearts-and-minds efforts have failed to end a conflict, it is still possible to resort to military force to finally get the job done. But the reality is, when all else is failing, military operations are also likely to fail.

Efforts to force stability, no matter how powerful or sophisticated the forces involved, cannot ignore political and social contexts and cannot simply reshape reality to fit their own objectives. International forces in peace support operations obviously influence political outcomes, including political reconciliation efforts, and they clearly achieve tactical objectives, but the lessons of history are legion in reminding us that tactical military victories don’t, on their own, win the peace. For military forces to contribute to stability and peace, they depend on, and in turn must support, an enabling political, social, and cultural context.

Thus, it is important that simultaneous attention is paid to building political consensus, legitimate governance, the restrained and lawful application of force, regional cooperation, and energetic peacebuilding. The absence of discernable action on any one of these jeopardizes the entire peace support effort.

Losing and recovering strategic consent

Of course, a consent-based environment, which is essential to effective peace support operations, is not always available. As a result, the creation and management of political consent must be a central preoccupation of would-be peacemakers and peace preservers.

The foundational principle of UN-mandated multilateral peace support interventions is that they are conceived of primarily as actions taken within the context of a negotiated political settlement or comprehensive peace agreement. But even when a negotiated political accord is achieved, even if it is comprehensive and seemingly conclusive, it cannot guarantee the end of all conflict or violence.
Contemporary conflicts that draw international attention are, after all, inevitably rooted in a complex of social, religious, cultural, and economic rivalries. A multilateral force that enjoys the strategic consent of the host government and population may still be required to actively conduct tactical law enforcement and combat operations to apprehend or in some way deal with spoilers. But, by virtue of the comprehensive peace agreement, the context should be one of broad public support for the newly established authority that international forces are deployed to assist. That was, arguably, the situation in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2005.

There can come a point, however, when tactical operations against spoilers escalate to such a level that they effectively nullify strategic consent. When strategic consent is no longer present, multilateral forces can find themselves in full combat with a significant opposition force that can, with some credibility, claim to be fighting on behalf of a significant element of a population that has lost confidence in the political agreement produced by the original peace agreement – the story of Afghanistan since 2005.

History confirms that relying heavily on greater force to recover national consensus and restore strategic consent simply does not work.4 In other words, the loss of strategic consent is rarely reversed by military means alone, or even primarily. Military force can depose governments and temporarily clear villages of insurgents, but, if the objective is political and social stability, military force requires economic, political, social, and law enforcement institutions to consolidate its gains.

Strategic consent can only be recovered through a comprehensive peace process. The key word here is process, because any peace accord, even when it is comprehensive, is not a once-and-for-all achievement. Similarly, consent to peace support operations is not given once and then assumed to be always present. The legitimacy of international forces is not established once and for all by a Security Council resolution; it is earned, and eroded, daily by virtue of the conduct and effectiveness of those forces.

Lessons from Afghanistan

The current multilateral military operation in Afghanistan now fails on several counts to meet the essential conditions for effective peace support operations. The international forces have been operating without the benefit of a broad political consensus or comprehensive peace agreement, and, most notably, without the determined pursuit of such an agreement. The loss of strategic consent has led to escalated efforts to recover it by means of force.

International forces operate in an environment of broad mistrust of the government and institutions that they are sent to protect. Forces have frequently used military methods that lack restraint and demonstrable respect for civilian populations. They find themselves in a regional context characterized by competition and the resort to deliberate destabilization measures. And they certainly function without the benefit of sufficient reconstruction and peacebuilding efforts.

But these failures are not inevitable or endemic to peace support efforts. If the challenges of Afghanistan are turned into lessons learned and applied, Canadian forces will be able to make important contributions to global efforts to come to the aid of vulnerable people and communities and to help build conditions for durable peace – but only if those lessons are actually applied.



  1. In Resolution 1917, its most recent resolution on Afghanistan (March 22, 2010), the UN Security Council (2010b) used these words: “recognizing that there is no purely military solution to ensure the stability of Afghanistan.”
  2. According to US General Stanley McChrystal (2009), Commander, NATO International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan, “In the Afghan conflict, reconciliation may involve [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan]-led, high-level political settlements.”
  3. Chapter VII of the UN charter permits the Security Council to authorize collective coercive measures.
  4. Indeed, that is the conclusion of an oft-quoted Rand study, How Terrorist Groups End. Of 268 such groups that ended over a period of almost 40 years (1968-2006):
  • 40 per cent “were penetrated and eliminated by local police and intelligence agencies”;
  • 43 per cent “reached a peaceful political accommodation with their government” (in negotiations they moved to progressively narrower demands);
  • 10 per cent won; and
  • in only 7 per cent of cases did “military force [lead] to the end of terrorist groups” (Jones & Libicki 2008, p. 1).


Boadie, Anthony. 2009. Canadian PM says Afghan war can never be won. Reuters, March 1.

Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. 2010. Canada and peace operations.

Jones, Seth G. & Martin C. Libicki. 2008. How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida. Research Brief. Rand Corporation.

McChrystal, Stanley. 2009. Commander’s initial assessment, August 30.

United Nations Security Council. 2010a. Statement by the President of the Security Council on “United Nations peacekeeping operations: transition and exit strategies,” February 12, S/PRST.2010/2.

———. 2010b. The situation in Afghanistan. S/RES/1917 (2010), March 22.

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