To re-commit to UN peacekeeping, Canada should send trainers to Afghanistan, initiate an emergency peace service and restore the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre.
In August 2016, Justin Trudeau’s government said it would commit up to 600 soldiers, 150 police officers and $450 million over three years to UN peace operations. Where should those troops be deployed to keep the peace?
The Canadian government should train the trainers and support security sector reform in Afghanistan, jump-start a United Nations emergency peace service and re-establish the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre. Training soldiers and police forces and contributing to humanitarian and security operations in war-torn nations would signal Canada’s renewed commitment to UN peacekeeping and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as well as burnish our country’s already stellar peacekeeping record.
A chain of events that began on September 11, 2001, led to Canada’s elite Joint Task Force 2 going to Afghanistan. They were followed by other Canadian soldiers who joined American and British troops already fighting to topple the Taliban regime, eliminate terrorist operations and establish schools and institutions, with the goal of creating lasting peace in the troubled country. Under chapter VII of the UN Charter, nine UN Security Council resolutions authorized the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2001. Upon request of the UN and Afghanistan, NATO took command of ISAF in 2003. Canada initially contributed more than 700 Forces members, to be stationed in Kabul and the surrounding area. In 2005, Canada went back to the Kandahar region. This deployment coincided with a resurgence in Taliban activity, and the number of Canadian soldiers who took part in large-scale offensives against Taliban forces, like Operation Medusa in 2006, increased to approximately 2,300.
As suicide attacks killed more military personnel and civilians and the war in Afghanistan became increasingly unpopular, Canada’s combat role ended in 2011, and the focus shifted to training Afghanistan’s army and police force. Operation Attention was the Canadian contribution to the training mission in Afghanistan. It delivered training and professional development support to the Afghan National Security Forces, including the air force and police. In 2014 — due to domestic pressures and political expediency — Canada’s participation in the NATO-led UN peacekeeping operation ceased under Stephen Harper’s government. The last of Canada’s service members left the country in March 2014.
The 2017 World Report by Human Rights Watch says that the Taliban’s resiliency and the emergence of ISIL are resulting in significant territorial losses and casualties among the Afghan National Security Forces. As my co-author Sakhi Naimpoor (formerly senior security adviser to Afghan President Karzai) and I have reported, since Canada withdrew from Kandahar province, the Taliban and affiliated groups have overrun the districts and villages that our forces secured and rebuilt. Now in Panjwaii district it is common to see schools that were Canadian taxpayer-funded projects being operated as madrassas — colleges for Islamic instruction — and administered by the Taliban.
Re-engaging in Afghanistan would still involve risks, as there are in any theatre of war. The death toll from one of the worst terrorist attacks in Kabul’s city centre this year was 150. It is not easy to counsel recommitment to that devastated country, especially from a safe perch in the ivory tower of academe. But the Trudeau government has announced plans to seek a seat on the Security Council in 2021, a role that could come with more than symbolic power. That means Canada needs to reverse the trend of our declining participation in peacekeeping and make a commitment to send peacekeeping trainers to Afghanistan. Rather than wait for pressure to build and for the UN to mandate a new peacekeeping force in Ukraine, we need to realize that the separate Russian proposal for a peacekeeping mission in the region will slow down the prospect of a UN mission. Returning to Afghanistan now could give us a higher peacekeeping profile in a shorter time frame, before 2021.
Returning to Afghanistan, rather than starting anew in Ukraine, to help provide long-term stability would require the direct involvement of Canadian military and foreign service professionals, as well as reservists, to help train Afghan soldiers and police. In the name of the 158 members of the Armed Forces who lost their lives in Afghanistan, Canada should once again take the lead in protecting Afghanistan’s nascent schools and institutions and re-engage with NATO in leading Afghanistan toward security sector reform. If Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan takes the initiative and sends soldiers to train military and police forces, Canada might avoid being accused of dissipating 13 years’ worth of taxpayers’ money.
However, we would again be drawn into the quagmire of the Middle East with all that implies. But we would do so with the support of our NATO allies. Donald Trump recently switched course from his original pledge to withdraw swiftly from Afghanistan; in August he signed off on plans to send 4,000 more US troops, adding to the roughly 8,400 to 11,000 already there. Now, a recommitment by Canada to train the trainers and support security sector reform would likely resonate in Washington and Brussels, as a “fully committed” NATO backs the new US approach on Afghanistan.
But Canada should do more. It should propose the establishment of a standing UN emergency peace service, known as UNEPS. Writing in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Howard Peter Langille first proposed a way to bridge the commitment-capacity gap and help us meet our responsibilities to prevent and protect. With support from the federal government, a new UN 911 force would be inexpensive and small, and it could help prevent armed conflict, stem atrocities and protect desperate civilians and start-up peace operations more promptly. UNEPS would complement existing arrangements, and by providing rapid and reliable first responders, Langille says, such a body “could make a world of difference.”
While it may be unrealistic to expect the government to commit to return to Afghanistan and initiate a UN emergency peace service by mid-November, when the 2017 UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial conference begins in Vancouver, it would take very little time, effort and money to announce the re-establishment of the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre. Such a centre, with its hub in Kingston/Ottawa and with spokes across the country from Halifax to Vancouver, would enable the departments of National Defence and Global Affairs, as well as the Canadian Forces, the RCMP and volunteer civilians, to focus on the threats and challenges of peacekeeping.
Our original proposal to establish a Canadian and multinational peacekeeping training centre at Canadian Forces Base Cornwallis was endorsed by three provincial parties and the premier of Nova Scotia (Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government rejected it). In 1993, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien announced his government’s commitment to convert Canadian Forces Base Cornwallis, in Nova Scotia, into a peacekeeping training centre for UN and NATO personnel. The Lester B. Pearson International Peacekeeping Training Centre (known as the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, or PPC) was established in Cornwallis in 1994. There, the government planned to sponsor training for military and civilian personnel from countries participating in NATO’s Partnership for Peace, as well as from developing countries under Canada’s Military Training Assistance Program. But, from the start, the new centre was plagued by cost-cutting, poor management and infighting about the centre’s remote location.
Eventually the PPC was moved to Kingston, but it was no more successful there in its aim to train Canadian and multinational forces, as was originally envisioned. Experts in peacekeeping still vaunt the merits of the Cornwallis location. As Vesselin Garvalov, the acting director of NATO’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Centre, fondly recalled in an off-record briefing in September, the remote location in rural Nova Scotia forced participants to work together, often for days on end, away from the distractions of the big city. After it struggled for survival for many years, the PPC was closed down by the Harper government in 2013.
Canada, once the leading contributor to UN peace missions, had more than 3,000 troops deployed at the peak in the early 1990s. The Chrétien Liberal government further demonstrated its commitment to the UN and peacekeeping by producing a study proposing development of a rapid reaction capability for the United Nations. The study was submitted in 1995 to the UN on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, but the proposal was stymied by the United States’ opposition to it and the lack of funding.
Eventually a UN standing rapid deployment mission headquarters with a stand-by high readiness brigade was set up, but funding cutbacks led to its demise. Today, only 68 Canadian personnel are deployed in UN peacekeeping operations, which is “the smallest Canadian contribution to peacekeeping since at least 1990.” Now Canada needs to jump-start a United Nations emergency peace service and re-establish the PPC, which could train it.
Donald Trump recently blasted the NATO allies for not spending enough on defence, and on his first foreign trip he pressured NATO members to increase their defence spending to 2 percent of their GDP. In July 2007 then defence minister Peter MacKay asserted in a conversation with me that Canada’s military engagement in Afghanistan gave us a more credible voice in NATO’s corridors. But at what price? The number of Canadians killed in Afghanistan was 158. According to a recent investigation, 54 Canadian soldiers committed suicide after the war, obliging the government to put in place a suicide prevention strategy.
Investing in UN peacekeeping, sustainable development and the environment would do more for North American security than increases in military spending. Dozens of countries already have peacekeeping centres and training programs, and it is time the PPC reopened under the auspices of the Canadian government so a federal government centre can be added back to the UN’s list of peacekeeping training institutions.
By contributing through the UN and NATO to operations that help keep the peace, Canada’s professional soldiers, reservists, civilians and volunteers could acquire the skills and values necessary for contemporary peacekeeping, peace enforcement and peacemaking. Combat-capable enforcement needs to be combined with peacekeeping training on the battlefield and on site at a training centre close to Ottawa, with a substantive online capacity across the country and around the world. A Canadian centre of excellence in peacekeeping and a recommitment to training the trainers in Afghanistan would help fulfill our NATO commitments and maintain our commitment to liberal internationalist values. Alongside the United States and our other NATO allies, we might also prepare the groundwork for Prime Minister Trudeau to propose — perhaps on the 65th anniversary of the UN General Assembly in 2020 — the establishment of a UN emergency peace service.
This article is part of the special feature Peacekeeping Reimagined.
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