Peacekeeping in Africa: sober reflections

JAMES COX  –  Sep 2, 2016

Contrary to current media and public punditry, do not expect a major Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) deployment into Africa anytime soon. Some troops may go, as well as a few police and diplomats, but not enough to have any real effect.

Media jumped on the recent government announcement about re-engaging in United Nations peace support operations and focussed on the related announcement that up to 600 military troops and 150 police personnel could be made available for deployment. Defence commentators were only too happy to raise the volume on the subject.

Let’s step back a bit. Some sober reflection is required.

First, its important to remember that one of the government’s central policy planks during the last election, confirmed in the 2015 Speech from the Throne, was its intention to re-engage in United Nations (UN) peace support operations. Now, one of its priority aims is to gain a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In March, 2016, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion addressed the United Nations Security Council and said:

"After almost 20 years, it is time for Canada to be at the Security Council to address global peace and security challenges. […] We seek a seat at the Security Council precisely because the world finds itself at a time when there is a pressing need to prevent violent extremism, to manage conflict and to respond to humanitarian crises. We know Canada can make a difference."

So, the recent government announcement should have come as no surprise, but it was both less deep and less aggressive than reported.

What government really announced was simply an apparent recommitment to support UN peace operations, to be managed – under the auspices of a new Peace and Stabilization Operations Program (PSOP), with a budget of $450 million over three years – by Global Affairs Canada.

PSOP is Canada’s “comprehensive, coordinated approach to support Canadian interests and UN peace efforts.” The announced details reflect whole-of-government terminology, calling upon diplomatic, development, law-enforcement and other assets, including military. A backgrounder identifies three core PSOP responsibilities:

  • Leadership on stabilization;
  • Support coordinated responses by the Government of Canada to conflicts and crises abroad; and
  • Design and deliver catalytic stabilization initiatives.

PSOP is simply a newer (Liberal) version of the former Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force (START), however, the PSOP promotional text tends to shun militaristic hyperbole, stating its intent to “go beyond military roles and work closely with local authorities and a range of international and regional partners.”

The program aims to concentrate on early warning, conflict prevention, dialogue, mediation and peacebuilding, and the empowerment of women in decision making for peace and security. As stated in a government backgrounder, this whole-of-government effort combines diplomacy, deployment, training and capacity-building efforts, and includes conflict prevention, mediation, peace operations and peacebuilding efforts, all of which constitutes a comprehensive approach drawing on civilian, police and military resources, with protection of civilians as a core concern.

We need not be concerned about another large military deployment because, as PSOP notes, “The Canadian Armed Forces are prepared to contribute personnel across a range of available capabilities, which could [author’s emphasis] include ground troops, leadership for command and headquarters positions, air transport, engineering and medical expertise, military and police training, and capacity building, in order to make a meaningful contribution to peace operations.” This is hardly a call to arms. There is no hint of frontline action here.

Besides, much of Canada’s meagre combat power is committed elsewhere, most field units are disturbingly under-strength and many of the named capabilities do not exist in the Reserve Force. The cupboards, if not bare, are certainly lightly occupied.

Despite this, Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan said, “Canada is committed to re-engaging in a full spectrum of multilateral peace operations. This is why we are making a significant pledge of military personnel and related capabilities for possible deployment to UN peace operations. Minister Sajjan went on to identify his ‘significant’ pledge of 600 troops without any further detail.

Many commentators quickly assumed that all or most of the 600 troops will be deployed on one complex and dangerous peace support mission in Africa, probably in Mali, maybe in South Sudan (both exceedingly difficult to support logistically). However, government pronouncements are far more non-committal than that. Government press notices say that the “exact size and composition of any future CAF deployment to a UN mission will be based on discussions with the UN and Canada’s partner nations, as well as an assessment of where Canada can best make a meaningful impact.”

Where will we go? What will we do? Defence Minister Sajjan has told us that his recent information-gathering visit to Africa provided a variety of authoritative opinions on where Canadian capabilities might best be deployed to have impact. But here’s the rub. If Canada proceeds to simply plug holes where no one else wants to go, it is hard to see exactly what worthwhile impact might be had. Moreover, this government tends to prefer training and support contributions which, while helpful and perhaps gratifying, are never decisive.

Government aversion to anything remotely resembling a combat mission is a guarantee that no large Canadian military contingent will deploy within sound of the guns. In this way, any future Canadian mission will probably reflect, once again, Liberal government (present and past) habits of sprinkling Canadian missions across the globe, simply to show the Canadian flag and create the impression that Canada “is back.” Where a previous government refused to “go along to get along,” the motto of the current government could well be, “how do you like me now?” “Sunny ways” are simply stage lighting for a bit player.

Don’t get me wrong. Whether deployed singly or in small groups, Canadian military, law enforcement, diplomatic, development, or any other personnel will perform admirably, but let’s face it, even if all $450 million were spent on one mission, and all 600 military personnel and 150 troops were deployed on the same mission, it’s not big enough to have a decisive impact on any UN peace support operation. So one must wonder why government makes such a big thing out of not much at all. It’s not such a big deal.

It seems that narcissistic political leadership and partisan hubris, mixed with a reluctance to directly engage nasty adversaries will steer future Canadian contributions away from any really meaningful role. In these circumstances, one must wonder whether it is worthwhile to put Canadian lives in danger abroad, simply for appearances.

Dr. James Cox is a Research Fellow with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. He is a former Canadian Armed Forces Brigadier-General with extensive UN and NATO operational experience. He now teaches civil-military relations in the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, at Carleton University.