Afghanistan and Canadian Peacekeeping (A critical appraisal)

Last Thursday Dr. Walter Dorn gave this presentation to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee as part of its study on Afghanistan.

Walter DornProfessor Dorn is Associate Professor of Defence Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada and the Canadian Forces College, and in the last year has been an outspoken critic of Canada’s abandonment of UN peacekeeping.

In his hard-hitting presentation he documented how Canada, which was once the greatest contributor of troops to UN “Blue Helmet” peacekeeping missions, has fallen far down the list of nations supporting the UN.

But even more impressive was Dr. Dorn’s assessment of Canada’s current military mission in Afghanistan, and how far it deviates from the essential requirements of effective peacekeeping and nation-building (an excerpt is below).

Dorn at Rideau InstituteWalter and I are both members of the executive committee of the Canadian Pugwash Group, so I was very pleased to host him for a luncheon following his presentation at the Rideau Institute’s offices where he spoke to a group of people working to put the UN back on Canada’s agenda. He is an important voice for a return to Canada’s contribution to world peace through the United Nations, and a good friend.


An excerpt from Walter Dorn’s presentation to the Common Foreign Affairs committee on  March 22, 2007.

The three central principles of peacekeeping are impartiality, consent, and minimum use of force. Let’s see how these principles apply to Kandahar today.

1. Impartiality

Impartiality doesn’t exist in Kandahar.  We have a declared enemy, given to us by President Bush when he said in September 2001 that the US would make “no distinction between the terrorists … and those who harbour them.”  At the time I recognized this as a recipe for an expanding and endless war.  Instead of isolating Al Qaeda, he widened the war to the country’s regime, giving us the first regime change in the Global War on Terror. The US has not sought and did not receive UN authorization for its war on terror or the operation designed to carry this war out, “Operation Enduring Freedom” (OEF).  Unlike ISAF, OEF has no UN-sanction.  Yet Canada entered Kandahar under the banner of OEF and from that moment on, we could not be labelled as impartial or objective or having the population’s interest foremost in mind. We have become increasingly identified with the global perception of the US around the world as seeking to find and defeat enemies in its national interest. We became one of the conflicting parties and we remain so to this today, even though we are currently serving under NATO.

2. Consent

There is no peace agreement.  We do not have the consent of the main parties to the conflict for our deployments in Kandahar.  Even the consent of the local population is in doubt.  We do have the consent of the Government of Afghanistan, though many inhabitants see President Karzai as a leader hand-picked by the US and legitimized by an election in which they did not vote.

Without winning the hearts and minds of the locals you can never win either the war or the peace, nor obtain their consent to your presence. Canada has for decades urged parties in vicious conflicts around the world to come to the peace table.  But we can’t do it ourselves.

3. Minimum use of force, as a last resort

Finally, we are clearly on the offensive in Kandahar.  The posture is not one of self-defence or protection of civilians but is rather characterized by “search and destroy” missions and large scale offensives, in which civilians are all too often unfortunate casualties. We seem to be producing as many enemies as we are killing, as angry brothers, sons, clan members and other displaced people fill the ranks of the fallen.
We too are losing our young and courageous: namely the 45 soldiers and one diplomat dead on the fields of Afghanistan [The diplomat – whose job, incidentally, I was offered and declined, coincidentally, the day before he died in a “Iraq”-style suicide attack on his convoy. I chose, instead to serve UN peacekeeping.]

We have lost more soldiers in Afghanistan than in any UN operation over a period of 60 years. This was not because Canada did not take risks in peacekeeping operations. As you can see from Table 1, Canada has the second highest level of fatalities in the history of peacekeeping. But the stance the Canadian Forces chose in Kandahar—and its leadership chose early this region and the current posture–under Operation Enduring Freedom and then NATO, has meant that to many we appear as aggressors not defenders.

We deviate from the three principles of peacekeeping (impartiality, consent, and minimum use of force) at our peril.

Tags: Afghanistan, Defence policy