European Affairs

Canada: Soft Power Won’t Do It in Afghanistan – or Darfur     Print Email

David WrightWould that we had a simpler world: one in which conflicts end cleanly, the UN Security Council authorizes intervention by well meaning peacekeepers, and former antagonists step back, lay down their arms and welcome them. And the peacekeepers are accompanied by aid workers and civil-society experts who rebuild democratic governments and viable economies. And everyone lives happily ever after.

Sadly, the world does not work like that. Conflicts tend not to end cleanly. The choices governments must make in dealing with international crises are very difficult, often between a bad alternative and a worse one. The risks of intervention are huge in terms of both human life and political life. And of course there are risks of inaction, too; but those are much harder to measure.

In Canada, there is considerable debate about our current deployment of 2,300 soldiers in southern Afghanistan. Casualties are mounting and the purpose of the mission, with its focus on security in the dangerous Kandahar area, is being challenged. Another debate continues in Canada over the world’s failure to take meaningful action in Darfur and what should be done about it.

Let me start with some very basic questions:

1. Should force ever be used to confront leaders who are killing their own people?

2. Should democratic countries ever use military force as part of their efforts to combat terrorism?

3. Should Canada ever be engaged militarily abroad in the pursuit of its own interests and values?

Unhesitatingly, I say yes to all these questions.

But that’s the easy part. The harder part lies in deciding on what military engagements are to be taken: Where and for how long? With what mandate? With what mission? With what resources?

In 1999, when NATO countries debated the decision to take military action to combat then-Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, I remember we asked one of these very basic questions: “Can a dictator be permitted to kill his own people?” NATO answered that question by launching air strikes against Milosevic. It decided “in practice” to act, even though it could not agree on the “theory.” The then-19 members of the alliance had differing reasons in deciding to act. There was no unifying legal basis for their action. The UN Security Council had not explicitly authorized the use of force: Russia would have vetoed it. Yet NATO acted – rightly and successfully, in my view.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at the time: “No government has the right to hide behind national sovereignty in order to violate the human rights and fundamental freedoms of its people.” But many were troubled by the lack of a common set of rules to govern such actions, necessary as they may have been.

After Kosovo, the UN General Assembly, spurred by Canadian leadership on the issue, set up an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. That commission developed the concept of the responsibility to protect. The main theme was that “states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens from avoidable catastrophes – from mass murder and rape, from starvation – but when they are unwilling or unable to do so, that responsibility must be borne by the broader community of states. There must be no more Rwandas.”

The “responsibility-to-protect” doctrine has been widely, although not universally, supported. And a very obvious case has been staring us in the face for over three years – Darfur. Darfur has been called a “genocide.” An estimated 200,000 people have died.

The Government of Sudan is complicit in this tragedy. If ever there was a classic case for responsibility to protect, Darfur is it. Yet action to date has been shamefully weak.

An ill-equipped African Union force of 7,000 has been largely ineffective. It is struggling and has just recently extended its commitment to the end of the year. The Security Council has authorized a UN peacekeeping force, but Sudan has refused to accept it and China’s veto has ensured that the UN does not push Sudan too hard. China protects the Sudan government to ensure a steady supply of oil.

The truth is that very few countries with real military capabilities want to intervene in Darfur. They don’t want to take the military and political risks. They don’t want to invade Sudan. And African sensitivities about so-called “neo-colonialist” Western forces are a convenient reason to support the African Union’s presence, as Canada has done very extensively, but not to push for much more.

There should be no illusions. A Western force in Darfur would involve bloodshed and sacrifice. There would likely be fighting and casualties. And the op-ed pages that have called for action in Darfur could then well be debating “how did we get into this mess?”

Governments are right to be very cautious about the use of force. And it is much safer to make speeches about “never again” than to engage in a long and costly military struggle.

And even if Canada were willing to send combat troops and to pressure Sudan into acquiescence, who else would join us? The United States is so tainted by its presence in Iraq that its direct involvement would probably be toxic and counterproductive. So it would have to be the usual suspects – our European NATO allies plus a few others. But I sense little willingness on their part to engage militarily in a robust operation in Darfur.

Especially not with the other demands that are being placed on Western military forces in other trouble spots – like Afghanistan and Lebanon (and Iraq for the unfortunate few countries that are left). That doesn’t mean that public pressure shouldn’t continue. It should. Perhaps positions will change. But I am not optimistic on this one, especially after three years of dithering. History will not judge the international community well on Darfur.

This brings us to the broader issue of deployable troops, resources, and burden sharing in this turbulent world.

Canada has a remarkable history of peacekeeping, including Lester Pearson’s 1957 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Suez crisis. However, the era of straightforward peacekeeping in relatively benign environments is largely past. Some in Canada now argue that Canada should stick to traditional, old fashioned, safe peacekeeping. They do not like the more muscular and dangerous approach that Canada and NATO are pursuing in Afghanistan. Sadly, they are out of touch with contemporary reality. Peace building environments are less permissive, more hostile than they once were. Troops engaged in these complex tasks need to be highly trained and capable – as Canadian forces are. But few countries have forces of this quality. And thus the most demanding tasks tend to go to the most capable countries.

As a wealthy country with a population of 32 million, with interests all over the world, it should not be a stretch for Canada to field at least 3,000 soldiers for extended periods of time anywhere in the world.

The case of Afghanistan is an example of the new peacekeeping environment. A mission that once was widely supported in Canada has become controversial. Each soldier or civilian killed or injured is a human tragedy and the casualty level has been growing.

The origins of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan are in the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Within hours NATO invoked, for the first and only time in its history, Article 5 of its treaty: An attack on one is an attack against all. Canada has been in Afghanistan virtually from the outset – both in a fighting role alongside the United States and in peacekeeping and Peace building. We are now part of a force that is UN-approved, NATO-led, and to which we have committed ourselves until February 2009. And we are deployed in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan – Kandahar and the south.

As is often the case in missions like this, circumstances evolve and goals become crystallized. To me, the key task for now is to keep the Taliban from returning to power; to reduce the threat to the security of the country. Some in Canada argue that we should be focusing on the “softer” side of development rather than the “harder” side of security. Building a prosperous democracy in Afghanistan, while desirable, is a very long-term proposition indeed. Canada has been enormously generous in its aid to Afghanistan – our largest aid recipient in the world. But if the security situation regarding the Taliban is not stabilized, no progress will be made on the important broader goals of nation-building. Building schools and hospitals only to have them destroyed is futile. So the security focus is the right one, for now.

We mustn’t forget that the Taliban were one of the most reprehensible regimes we have seen on this planet in decades. Women were oppressed, girls were not permitted to go to school, historical monuments were blown up. Life was deprived of any joy under the dark shadow of this regime. Terrorism was harboured and nourished and we all know the results. Anyone who thinks that all we have to do is negotiate with the Taliban is naïve.

Part of the problem in Afghanistan is with burden- sharing in NATO. Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. have undertaken the most dangerous tasks while some of its NATO allies, like Germany and France, have put caveats on their soldiers’ deployments that limit their interoperability and restrict them to less risky and less crucial tasks. This issue has to be addressed urgently.

Some have argued in Canada that Afghanistan is not our war and that we have no interests there. This is wrong and short-sighted. Does Canada not care about violation of human rights or the nurturing of terrorism? Are we not engaged in the world and vulnerable ourselves? Of course we are. And are we suited only for the exercise of soft power and unsuited for the exercise of hard power when it is needed? Of course not. Canada must do its part in meeting the global challenges of combating terrorism and protecting human rights.

And arguing, as some do in Canada, that this is President Bush’s war and that this is all about the United States, is intellectually dishonest. We mustn’t confuse this multilateral mission with an unpopular and misguided U.S. campaign in Iraq. Indeed, one of the many downsides of the U.S. involvement in Iraq was that it followed too closely on the heels of the Afghanistan mission and, as a consequence, the U.S. never committed adequate resources to finish the task in Afghanistan.

Could Canada do Darfur as well? Yes, we could. But we would need real engagement by other serious allies, especially from Europe. And democratic countries would have to push Sudan much harder. This is not an issue of resources. It is an issue of political will on the part of all democratic countries.

That holds for Afghanistan too. Clearly, Canada should not bear a disproportionate burden in any of these dangerous missions. But we must not retreat at the first signs of danger and naively wish for a simpler, risk-free world. Demands have changed from the early years of peacekeeping for which some seem still nostalgic.

When it comes down to it, each government has only one well of political capital to draw on, one set of armed forces to deploy, and one budget to spend. Each government has to judge how, where, and to what extent, to engage its assets. In doing so, leaders must determine their countries’ interests and values, and must assess competing demands in a turbulent world. That is what Canada is doing.

We are blessed in Canada in many ways. Among these are our remarkably capable and professional armed forces. Their engagement in Afghanistan, and perhaps someday in Darfur, is a key part of Canada’s contribution to a world that needs them. For a country with global interests, as ours certainly is, this is part of our world citizenship.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 3-4 in the Fall/Winter of 2006.

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