The Canadian Forces and Peace Support Operations after 2011

Tasneem Jamal Defence & Human Security

Ernie Regehr

Speaking Notes and presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence.

Click here for minutes of the presentation

Speaking Notes


Speaking Notes

Thanks very much for the opportunity to participate in this meeting today. I have provided a paper that I think has been distributed to the Committee, and I take this opportunity to make a few additional points.

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.

Complex human conflicts are not amendable to purely military solutions (that’s how the UN Security Council put it in its most recent resolution on Afghanistan). The focus on multidimensional or whole-of-government approaches, by earlier witnesses before this Committee, speaks to the same reality. National or intrastate armed conflicts are largely ended through negotiations and high-level political settlements (that’s the phrase used by General McChrystal in 2009).

So, the point is simply to note that if insurgencies are not defeated but end through political negotiations, then such processes should be built into peace support operations from the start. That’s a point the Department of Foreign Affairs has made. In setting out considerations for deciding whether to participate in a particular peacekeeping mission, it says it asks whether “the peacekeeping operation will take place alongside a process aimed at a political settlement to the conflict.”

The Security Council’s February 2010 session on Peacekeeping emphasized “that an advanced peace process is an important factor in achieving successful transition from a peacekeeping operation to other configurations of United Nations presence.” But such a process cannot credibly be left to a national or host Government alone. It requires international diplomacy that engages the conflict and the search for political solutions from local to national to regional contexts.

My second point is that while Canada must be part of future peace operations, we have to understand that there is no guarantee that other efforts will be much easier or more obviously successful than has been the intervention in Afghanistan thus far. Peace operations, after all, 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.

Remember, in 2002 when the International Security Assistance Force was established in Afghanistan through the Bonn peace accords, our forces were there in a consent-based security assistance mission anchored by a peace agreement. In 2003 ISAF became increasingly focused on extending the authority of the Government further out into the country. Throughout that period there were plenty of spoilers to be dealt with through what was most certainly a robust peacekeeping operation. But the strategic level consent of the early years of ISAF steadily eroded and by 2005 it had essentially been lost. ISAF had morphed into an enforcement mission in much of the country (but without a persistent process aimed at political settlement).

In other words, peace support operations lead to the unexpected with no guarantees. It is the constant updating of the lessons of experience that can shift the odds toward success.

Finally and very briefly, 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. We have options—in the future we can decide on the most effective ways to deploy resources abroad in response to contemporary security threats. Canada is thus in an excellent position to make the kinds of multidimensional contributions to international peace and security that a succession of witnesses to the Committee has said are essential.



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

President of UN Security Council. 2010. United Nations peacekeeping operations: transition and exit strategies. Statement, February 12. S/PRST.2010/2.


Presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence

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 coming 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 contribute to international peace and security. Such contributions should ultimately be responsive to the insecurities experienced by people on a daily basis – and that is most prominently through 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.

This in turn means that security preparedness involves much more than military capacity. A comprehensive Canadian approach to international peace and security requires attention to, and funding for (Regehr 2005, p. 1037):

  • Development – to reduce poverty and generate economic conditions conducive to sustainable human security;
  • Democracy – to promote good governance, political inclusiveness, and respect for human rights;
  • Disarmament – to limit the availability of weapons, especially to non-state groups;
  • Diplomacy – to pursue the peaceful settlement of disputes;
  • Defence – to restore and maintain stability through military contributions to multilateral peace support operations.

Canada’s contributions to international peace and security are rooted in this country’s extraordinary prosperity and the climate of durable peace and stability at home. Blessed not only by favourable domestic conditions but also by a safe and stable neighbourhood, Canada comes to the world stage with significant resources – and responsibilities – to try to advance beyond its borders the enviable conditions that prevail within them.

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 considering 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 preparedness. We have options – we can decide on the most effective ways to deploy resources abroad in response to contemporary security threats. Canada is thus in an excellent position to make the kinds of multidimensional contributions to international peace and security that a succession of witnesses to this Committee have said are essential.

In the following, three broad and related themes are discussed:

1. The distinction between peace support and war-fighting models of international military engagement – a distinction that should be central to decision-making criteria for deploying Canadian military forces to foreign multilateral operations.

2. Recognizing the limits on the utility of force in promoting international peace and security, which has implications for both the nature of military engagements and the range of non-military engagements that are essential to making complex peace operations successful.

3. The core requirement of strategic consent in peace support operations – pointing to the diplomacy and reconciliation efforts that are essential to ensuring the constant renewal or recovery of political consensus in support of multilateral peace operations.
It is important to say at the outset that, whatever the terminology or the mission, collective military contributions to peace support operations are inevitably dangerous and always and ultimately dependent on the courage and willing service of skilled and dedicated men and women of national military forces.

A. 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, and still do, multiple operational models. But at the core is a basic distinction between “peace support operations” and “war-fighting” missions. The former include:

  • traditional consent based “peacekeeping,” designed to preserve the peace where fighting has been halted by virtue of a peace agreement;
  • “robust peacekeeping,” also to preserve peace where there is consent at the strategic level, but where international forces are engaged at the tactical level against spoilers;
  • “peace enforcement,” in the absence of consent and designed to support the political restoration of peace or political consensus; and
  • actions to “extend the authority of a national government,” a consent-based effort to help a state exert control over its national territory and to recover its monopoly on the resort to force (UN 2008; de Coning & Hojem 2008; Jones 2009).
    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, already is mandated to ask whether “the peacekeeping operation will take place alongside a process aimed at a political settlement to the conflict.”

A similar point is made by the International Crisis Group (Grignon & Kroslak 2008): “The military component of a peacekeeping mission is only as effective as the mission’s political masters make it.” Salim Ahmed Salim, the African Union’s Special Envoy for Darfur, when asked whether 26,000 troops would be enough to make UNAMID (African Union / United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur) effective, responded that it was not the numbers that mattered but the political context within which those troops would operate: “without an agreement on peace, even a force of 50,000 can’t change the situation here radically” (Grignon & Kroslak 2008).

It was no doubt an overstatement designed to energize peace efforts, but the central point about political context is clear. Bruce Jones (2009, p. 80) makes the same point regarding efforts to extend state authority – efforts that “are likely to be effective only under specific conditions: when the state has sufficient political support from domestic actors, the UN and regional powers.”

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 a 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.1

Because military forces in peace support operations are intended to aid political process, the absence, as in Afghanistan, of a sustained political/diplomatic effort to resolve the core conflict renders such operations unviable in the long run.

B. The Limits to Force

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 everything else fails, 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. In fragile state situations each factor will, by definition, be a work in progress, but the absence of discernable action on any one of these jeopardizes the entire peace support effort and, in particular, threatens to convert the collective military effort into a counterproductive engagement that emboldens the spoilers.

  • Political consensus – A primary requirement for the effective use of collective military force is the presence or active pursuit of a basic political consensus in support of the political/economic order that the military interveners are sent to protect.
  • Legitimacy – The legitimacy of those in charge of an emerging governance system and public institutions depends not only on how they are chosen, but also on their being accountable to and guided by public, rather than private, interest. Force in support of governmental authorities that are widely regarded as illegitimate is necessarily experienced by people in a host country as a hostile effort to give power to leaders that are not trusted.
  • Military restraint – Collective international military force that abandons restraint and fails to respect the safety of civilians caught in the crossfire undermines support for foreign security forces and, in turn, support for the leadership and institutions that those forces are there to uphold.
  • Regional support – The introduction of international forces into a conflict zone without the cooperation of neighbours courts ongoing malaise and even spreading armed conflict. Zones of conflict are not hermetic enclaves. Because moral, political, and materiel intrusions from neighbours cannot generally be blocked by military force, those neighbours must be influenced and accommodated, especially when conflicts span decades and are in regions of entrenched patterns of interaction.
  • Peacebuilding – The ongoing resort to force in the absence of measurable improvement in the daily lives of people is experienced as yet another adversity for residents already overwhelmed by trial and hardship. If peace support operations are to make an effective contribution to reversing state failure they must above all ensure that the everyday lives of people are improving.

C. Losing and Recovering Strategic Consent

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 following explores five key realities focused on the question of strategic consent in peace support operations.

1. Manufacturing consent: The foundational principle of 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.

War-fighting is obviously quite different. On October 7, 2001, when the US, with the active support of some of its NATO allies, launched the attack on Afghanistan, the point was to depose the Taliban Government, not seek its consent – and few doubted that the overthrow would be accomplished, and accomplished quickly. The same is true of the US attack on Iraq – few were surprised when in 2003 the US President was able to announce “mission accomplished” only six weeks after the initial invasion. In both cases, as long as the mission was simply to depose a regime, the war-fighting model worked efficiently.

But the crucial question of strategic consent could not be ignored for long. In Afghanistan in early 2002, the Bonn process soon led to a peace agreement and the establishment of an interim government, along with electoral and other processes to legitimize that new government. So when the multinational peace support force, the International Security Assistance Force, was established, it was understood that for it to be successful it would have to enjoy the broad support or the strategic consent of Afghans – that is, support from all the key stakeholder communities.

The assumption was that the parties to the Bonn process could deliver such consent. So when that turned out not to be the case and strategic consent eroded, key elements of the ISAF mission changed from the peace support model back to a war-fighting model. The UN guidelines (2008, p. 32) put it this way: “in the absence of such consent, a [multilateral peace support] operation risks becoming a party to the conflict; and being drawn towards enforcement action, and away from its intrinsic role of keeping the peace.” Without “strategic level consent,” international forces move from a peace support role to being a party to the conflict.

2. Strategic consent and tactical combat: Consent in today’s complex peace support environments, however, is not the same as in traditional peacekeeping. Because contemporary conflicts that draw international attention are inevitably rooted in a complex of social, religious, cultural, and economic rivalries, a negotiated political accord, even if it is comprehensive and seemingly conclusive, cannot guarantee the end of all conflict or violence. Even with strategic consent for foreign forces in place, there can obviously still be challenges to the new order. Spoilers or smaller pockets of resistance, or organized criminal elements, can be expected to take advantage of the fragile situation and the absence of well-established security institutions.

“The fact that the main parties have given their consent to the deployment,” says the United Nations (2008, p. 32) in the context of peacekeeping operations, “does not necessarily imply or guarantee that there will also be consent at the local level.” So a multilateral force that enjoys strategic consent may still be required to actively conduct tactical law enforcement and combat operations to apprehend or in some way deal with such spoilers. But, by virtue of the comprehensive peace agreement, the context should be one of broad public support for the newly established authority and support for operations to control the spoilers – largely the situation in Afghanistan in 2002 to 2005.

3. When tactical resistance erases strategic consent: There comes a point, however, when tactical operations against spoilers escalate to such a level that they effectively nullify strategic consent. That is in effect the point at which the tactical operations become strategic-level operations against a broad-based political opposition movement that can boast a significant constituency of political support. When that happens there has in reality been the de facto withdrawal of consent at the strategic level. And at that point the military operation has switched from a peace support operation to a peace enforcement operation – that is, a war against insurgents.

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.

That is arguably the story in Afghanistan since 2005.

4. Restoring or recovering strategic consent: History and a myriad of specific cases confirm that to rely heavily on greater force to recover national consensus and restore strategic consent simply does not work. In other words, the loss of strategic consent is rarely reversed by military means alone, or even primarily. The basic reality is that insurgencies with a significant base in part of the population are not readily amenable to military defeat.

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% “were penetrated and eliminated by local police and intelligence agencies”;
  • 43% “reached a peaceful political accommodation with their government” (in negotiations they moved to progressively narrower demands);
  • 10% won; and
  • in only 7% of cases did “military force [lead] to the end of terrorist groups” (Jones & Libicki 2008, p. 1).

Similarly, a University of Barcelona study (Fisas 2008, p. 18) looked at 80 civil and interstate armed conflicts, and, of those that ended during that period (just over half):

  • less than 15% ended through victory of one side or the other; and
  • the rest through negotiations.

In Afghanistan international forces face the additional problem that the peace accord that was the source of Afghan consent did not include the political party or movement that had been in control of most of the country only a few months earlier. The assumption that the Taliban had been vanquished did not meet the test of time or combat. For the past five years at least, tactical military successes have been accompanied by steady strategic retreat, leading our own Prime Minister to conclude on CNN last March: “My own judgment is, quite frankly, that we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency” (Boadie 2009).

The noted British military commander of a variety of collective security operations, General Sir Rupert Smith (2007), insists that no strategic objective can be achieved through military force alone. Military force can meet tactical objectives, but these must in turn serve a strategic plan that engages a much broader range of non-military measures to resolve conflict and to build conditions for a durable peace.

Thus, military force is not self-sufficient. It can depose governments and 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. The effectiveness of military force is constrained by the environment in which it functions, just as the effectiveness of peacebuilding depends on the environment in which it is pursued. Because there are inescapable limits to the effectiveness of force, which cannot be overcome simply by the application of greater force, there is a need to refocus the political agenda on the renegotiation or recovery of strategic consent through a new comprehensive peace process.

5. Recovering strategic consent 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. It too needs to be constantly and continually renewed.

Again, the UN guidelines (2008, p. 32) are instructive: “In the implementation of its mandate, a [peace support operation] must work continuously to ensure that it does not lose the consent of the main parties, while ensuring that the peace process moves forward.”

But there is also a much larger point. The legitimacy of a new political order or new government is not established once and for all – it is earned and renewed, or eroded, on a daily basis. But it is equally important that the legitimacy of an international security assistance force be earned and renewed on a daily basis. 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.

When strategic consent and national consensus are lost, central to their recovery must be a new and comprehensive peace process leading ultimately to a new political agreement or framework for a rejuvenated national consensus. It is a political initiative that cannot be left to a host Government that has lost the confidence and consent of large sections of its population. The international community has the obligation to encourage and mount an inclusive process for political renewal.

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. A detailed analysis for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Seybolt 2007, p. 211) on the utility of international collective military intervention generally in saving lives and advancing stability not surprisingly reveals a mixed record that “leaves plenty of room for improvement.” Nevertheless, the record also shows that “using military force to save lives is not a fool’s errand.”

If the challenges of Afghanistan are turned into lessons to be applied to future deployments, Canadian forces will continue 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.



  1. The point here is not that war-fighting operations are by definition illegitimate; rather it is that war-fighting operations are fundamentally different from peace support operations. For example, when the international community, under UN authority, forced Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991 it was unambiguously a war-fighting operation. That is, it clearly set aside a political process – it eschewed negotiation and ongoing Security Council diplomacy in favour of war. In the process, it must be said, it upheld a key principle of international law and produced the primary desired outcome (the restoration of sovereignty to Kuwait), one which has proven sustainable. Whether intensified diplomacy and sanctions could have produced the same result at less human and material cost can be debated, but as a war-fighting operation it is broadly judged a success.


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

de Coning, Cedric. Julian Detzel & Petter Hojem. 2008. UN Peacekeeping Operations Capstone Doctrine: Report of the TfP Oslo Doctrine Seminar, 14 & 15 May 2008, Oslo, Norway.

Fisas, Vicenç. 2008 Peace Process Yearbook. School for a Culture of Peace, University of Barcelona, 2008. .

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

Grignon, François & Daniela Kroslak. 2008. The Problem with Peacekeeping. International Crisis Group, April.

Jones, Bruce. 2009. Peacekeeping in crisis? Confronting the challenges ahead. The RUSI Journal 154: 5, pp. 78-83.

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

Regehr, Ernie. 2005. Reshaping the security envelope. International Journal LX:4, Autumn, pp. 1033-1048.

Seybolt, Taylor B. 2007. Humanitarian Military Intervention: The Conditions for Success and Failure. Oxford.

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United Nations. 2008. United Nations Peacekeeping Operations: Principles and Guidelines. United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations and Department of Field Support.

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