By Colonel (ret'd) Pat Stogran
In my younger years as a professional soldier, I bought in to the Army position that peacekeeping was a backwater, a distraction from our heroic effort to prepare for war. Indeed, in 1994, after a year in Bosnia, I hated the term “peacekeeping.” Hitherto I had believed that so-called “peacekeeping” was a typically disingenuous initiative of our federal government to grandstand to the world our nation’s commitment to global peace and security while promoting the illusion to the People of Canada that it was a bloodless offering, that our sons and daughters were not being offered as sacrificial lambs to draw attention away from their systematic dismantling of Canada’s war fighting capability. In my estimation, having been seconded to the United Nations as an unarmed military observer in Bosnia, I had been to war!
Years later, Canada’s mission in Kandahar, Afghanistan, was reported as the first time since the Korean War that our government committed ground forces against a declared enemy. Although Canada never formally declared war, Kandahar 2002 was very much a combat mission, so much so that the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), a special operating agency of the federal government, would have nothing to do with the operations, presumably because it would compromise the Agency’s legitimacy in the community of humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
I arrived in Kandahar early in January 2002, shortly after it was announced that a 3 PPCLI task force would be attached to the United States 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) to relieve the Marines who had captured the airfield. That was when I first met General Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, who at the time was their commander at the rank of Brigadier General. He greeted me saying, “Good to have your unit on board. There’s a lot of killing to be done around here.” That impressed the hell out of me. “Finally!” I thought to myself, “I’ve arrived at my calling!” Having endured a military career of bureaucratic bosses and politically correct force determinants, I thought, “The gloves are off and I am going to war!”
However, this was not going to be the kind of war that had been bubble-wrapped and marketed to us in our command and staff colleges. This operation would not be one of Patton/Rommel-style sweeps and clashes between tanks and artillery across the deserts of North Africa that I had been brought up to expect! Very early on in our mission I realized this was going to a counterinsurgency operation, something that my training had not prepared me for. That was not the only new thing I encountered in Kandahar. Fortunately, I was also introduced to Google — it is hard to believe a time ever existed when the world did not have virtually ubiquitous access to such a wealth of information and knowledge — and I spent many, many hours in my office surfing the net to learn as much as I could about relevant precedents and related doctrines for the insurgency that I expected would erupt around us in Afghanistan in 2002.
I very soon realized that countering an insurgency was not all about killing, as Mattis had emphasized. To the contrary, in fact, it dawned on me that the essence of so-called “peacekeeping” is very similar to how conventional forces should approach counterinsurgency interventions: using force by exception and with minimal collateral damage in order to build the trust and confidence of the local population while enhancing the capacity of the host nation government to manage the crisis themselves.
Our so-called “peacekeepers” very quickly demonstrated they were going to be inordinately well suited for operations in Kandahar. Having deployed on countless peacekeeping missions, they had become accustomed to effecting a very delicate balance between being appreciated by local civilians for not disrupting their lives in the area of operations and being capable of rapidly escalating to overwhelming destructive force in the face of a developing threat, individually as we would expect of any police officer in Canada in a life-and-death scenario and, collectively, against manifestations of massed lethal force the likes of which few if any police forces could ever be expected to contend with.
It was my experience in Afghanistan that Canadian troops on their own initiative and without any support of any kind from Ottawa or NGOs participated in soccer games with the locals and “social patrols,” built schools and drilled water wells. They seemed to have a natural proclivity to contribute to the local community. My American boss, however, a veteran of several other American invasions, thought this was a strange way for a combat force to operate. He nevertheless allowed us freedom of action. We were winning the hearts and minds of our Afghan hosts, but had our troops not demonstrated that they were also world-class warriors (read, willing and able to close with and destroy the enemy at a moment’s notice), our task force would not have had any credibility with our American comrades, warlords and local authorities. It was not long before the U.S. military recognized the importance of the soft skills a military must employ to counter an insurgency so, in typical fashion, deployed a huge array of civil affairs assets to fill this cultural void in their combat units.
A couple of months ago I penned an article for Esprit de Corps (Peacekeeping: Is It Worth the Cost for Canada in the 21st Century? Volume 24 Issue 12, January 2018) that was critical of one published in the Globe and Mail by retired Canadian Lieutenant General Mike Day, which questioned whether peacekeeping, given our prime minister’s ridiculously naive intention to return to our glory days of the past, is worth the cost. I know Mike Day extremely well, enough to say that his peacekeeping experiences would have been limited to the frustrating experiences of being a member of armed contingents in Cyprus and Bosnia. In Kandahar, then-Lieutenant-Colonel Day commanded the Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2) detachment whose base was just down the street from ours on the airfield. Their experience on that operation was very different from ours as they focused on strategic reconnaissance and direct action, capturing and killing bad guys. That experience set the context for his article, the bias of which stands in stark contrast to that of the very experienced peacekeeper and my former boss from Bosnia, Major (ret’d) Roy Thomas (‘Peacekeeping’ a Misnomer, Volume 25 Issue 1, February 2018).
Thomas expertly describes an array of operations conducted under the banner of peacekeeping that is so broad and convoluted that they alone render any such single, all-encompassing label virtually meaningless. Coincidentally, in his article Thomas shared the same disdain I once had for the misnomer that peacekeeping is. Notwithstanding, it’s hard to argue that the stability offered by such operations did not save many, many thousands of lives and limited the devastation that all-out combat would have inflicted. Despite the casualties that peacekeeping forces endured, peacekeeping was definitely worth the cost in those situations. I would argue the opposite in Afghanistan, however; that our extended presence, the 158 KIA (killed in action) and countless Canadian lives that were ruined for questionable results of any kind were definitely not worth the cost, and we are tripling down on that failure with our operations in Iraq today. It is clear that our military has lost its way and senior management in government lacks the tools necessary to design and execute operations that satisfy the policy objectives of the government of the People of Canada.
I believe peacekeeping has been wrongly characterized as a type of operation; it is more appropriately viewed as a strategy. Strategy, however, is an elusive concept, and although our elected officials are incessantly preoccupied by strategizing on the political front, they have been derelict in their duties by treating our military like fire-and-forget missiles, plugging them into campaigns orchestrated by the United Nations or another lead nation in a coalition. As a product of higher command and staff training in Canada, the U.S. and the United Kingdom, I found the professional development of our senior military officers as strategist to be severely lacking. On the job I was often critical of what was often referred to as strategies because, in my opinion, the strategies that I witnessed in the military amounted to nothing more than very long-term plans, often times with vague or flexible goals or objectives. Those kinds of “strategies” have their place in corporations, but they aren’t the kind of strategies that win wars.
The best definition I have come across for strategy is the art of advantage. In earlier articles I introduced the tenets of manoeuvre warfare as elements of strategy that were packaged for the mechanized warfare that has consumed our consciousness for the last century. In his classic book The Strategy of Conflict, Thomas Schelling describes strategy in the context of game theory, emphasizing the interdependence of the decisions and expectations of adversaries. The strategy of peacekeeping was based on the presumption that neutral, objective third parties to conflicts — those who pose no threat to any of the belligerent parties — could stabilize the situation and allow negotiation and mediation a better chance of resolving the conflict. Limiting the use of force mainly to incidents of self-defence or to protect non-combatants would prevent as much as possible the peacekeepers from becoming part of the problem. While we peacekeepers on the ground often felt we were victims of neglect from our strategic masters, our presence on the ground as impartial intermediaries between the combatants was supremely advantageous to their efforts to resolve crises.
I believe that our military has, to a large extent, abandoned its traditions in order to emulate the ethos of the U.S. military that was implicit in Mattis’s greeting to me in Kandahar in 2002.
I also believe that the People of Canada and their government would be far better served if senior management in government, the Canadian Armed Forces in particular, was better schooled in the ways of strategy. Next month, I intend to ‘peel that orange’ by positing how it might be possible to satisfy the prime minister’s intent to return to the ‘sunny ways of peacekeeping’ with a strategy that is more appropriate to the contemporary security environment.