Traditionally, when Canadian Governments have had no convincing idea of what to do on a particular issue, or when they’ve known what should be done but just didn’t want to do it, their preferred option has been to appoint a Royal Commission to study the matter – often with constructive and useful results.

The international community seems to have reached that same point of immobilizing uncertainty when it comes to the collective deployment of military force in support of peace and security in situations of serious conflict – so, perhaps it’s time for another international commission.[i]

In fact, Canada, with a history of involvement in UN Peacekeeping and UN-approved (and not approved, as in Kosovo) peace support operations, is well-positioned to encourage the international community to engage broad questions of the utility and the limitations of collective force, the conditions that have to be in place for it to be effective, as well as the methodologies or rules of engagement that should guide the multilateral resort to force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

One obvious context for such a study would be Afghanistan. The resort to force has certainly been prominent, and the failure to advance Afghan security has been just as prominent.[ii] Furthermore, few would argue that this insecurity could be overcome simply through the application of still more military force – that being the point of the now widely shared recognition that the war in Afghanistan will not end with a military victory over the insurgents. At the same time, it is also a widely shared view that the withdrawal of foreign military forces now would risk the precipitous descent of Afghanistan into generalized civil war with even more devastating consequences for Afghans.

Indeed, this description of conditions, prospects, and risks in Afghanistan broadly conforms to post-Cold War experience in both counterinsurgency[iii] and peacebuilding. Sri Lanka joins some other exceptions to the rule, but it remains the fact that insurgencies are only rarely defeated on the battlefield.

One key lesson from post Cold War military peacekeeping, robust and otherwise, is that international intervention forces depend on key non-military conditions and measures for them to be effective in advancing the safety and well-being of vulnerable people and fragile governments: a broad political consensus or at the very least the active pursuit of one; a host government capable of establishing and renewing its basic legitimacy; economic and social measures that make a discernable difference to the lives of people; and disarmament, that is, a visible and credible effort to gather and control instruments of violence.

Domestic law enforcement is a relevant analogy inasmuch as it too, or especially, is most successful when it is bolstered by a basic consensus as to the rightness or justness of those laws, and when the law-making institutions themselves are regarded as legitimate. In other words, a society can function in accordance with the rule of law when the people overwhelmingly give their consent and voluntary compliance because they believe that to do so is better for everyone, including themselves. The resort to force is thus reserved for the exceptions, for the spoilers.

But, of course, UN-mandated interventions tend to be ordered when there is a catastrophic absence of national consensus and when public institutions have manifestly lost public confidence. Thus, international interventions are by default guided by the basic premise that when this kind of political consensus and trust in public institutions are absent it is a deficiency that can be over-ridden by sheer force. But experience calls that premise into questions. In the absence of a concerted focus on political, governance, economic, social and disarmament measures that are designed to gradually build collective trust, it is genuinely naïve to assume that military forces, no matter how robust, will be able to force consent and thus compliance. Afghanistan is in the process of demonstrating the point.

On the methodology question, the security community continues to be torn on the relative merits of, on the one hand, search and destroy operations against mobile insurgents and, on the other, geographically focused efforts to secure areas and communities where there is a reasonable prospect that it can be sustained. [iv] In Afghanistan, it must be said, the tide may be turning toward the latter.

A recent ICG report argued that international forces “should focus on securing and protecting population centres and roads rather than on large-scale sweeps through areas with a limited Afghan institutional presence.”[v] Canadian officials were also recently reported as saying the focus will increasingly turn to reinforcing security in communities where it can be sustained and allow reconstruction to take hold, rather than expending military resources in pursuing Taliban in far-flung areas of the province where, even if they are located and driven out, there is no possibility of maintaining a continuous presence.[vi]

The UN Secretary-General’s most recent report takes up the issue of military methodology, especially the use of air power and civilian casualties: “It is critical that this fight be conducted in a way that weakens the terrorist threat and boosts popular support. I am profoundly concerned about the risk posed by an increase in civilian casualties and by a type of military conduct that alienates the population from the international community.”[vii]

Similarly, the US General who now heads ISAF has issued a new “tactical directive,” making the point that international forces “must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories – but suffering strategic defeats – by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people.[viii]

So, what would a commission on multilateral military intervention look into? Well, it would look into these very questions of the utility, limitations, conditions, and methodology of multilateral intervention.

In a recent discussion hosted by the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, Canadian NGOs working in conflict zones agreed that the international community would benefit from a collective study that focused on “the efficacy of, limitations of, and institutional arrangements for the military component of UN-led and UN-authorized peace operations.  This would include examining much more closely and systematically the role of multilateral security forces under a Chapter VII mandate for the direct protection of civilians with a view to developing doctrine, standard operating procedures and training.”

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty concluded that in extraordinary circumstances the responsibility to protect vulnerable people from crimes against humanity would have to include the collective resort to force. Now it is time for a successor commission to examine the methodologies and conditions needed to make the resort to force a genuinely constructive contribution to the pursuit of peace and stability in failed or failing states and in support of the safety and well-being of vulnerable people.

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[i] International commissions are almost as ubiquitous as Canadian Royal Commissions once were. Their impact, which is mixed, is explored in:  Andrew Cooper, John English, and Ramesh Thakur, International Commissions and the Power of Ideas, United Nations University Press, 2005.

[ii] The most recent Secretary-General’s report on “The Situation in Afghanistan” (A/63/892-S/2009/323, 23 June 2009) is straight forward in its overview: “The security situation has continued to deteriorate” (para 6).

[iii] The well known and oft quoted study by Seth Jones for the Rand Corporation, How Terrorist Groups End, examined almost 650 terrorist groups from 1968 to 2008. Of those, 268 ended during that period, and the report offers what its authors call “stark” results: “Terrorist groups end for two major reasons: members decided to adopt nonviolent tactics and join the political process (43 percent), or local law-enforcement agencies arrest or kill key members of the group (40 percent) (pp. 18-19). Only seven percent of the groups were defeated by military means. Most groups in the study were relatively small urban organizations and thus not amenable to military action or attacks, but clearly amenable to police and law-enforcement action. (The study defines “terrorism” as  involving “the use of politically motivated violence against noncombatants to cause intimidation or fear among a target audience” - p. 3. Only non-state groups are counted, although the authors acknowledge that states do a times engage in the same kinds of acts – but the current study was confined to looking at non-state groups.) In 10 percent of the cases the “terrorist” groups achieved their aims (an example of the latter being the ANC of South Africa). Indeed, the larger the groups were, the more likely they were to achieve their goals – among large and very large groups, 35 percent and 20 percent respectively achieved their aims. The study also found that the prospects for effective military action against groups increased the larger the groups were. So, larger groups, like the Tamil Tigers and the Taliban of Pakistan and Afghanistan, are at the same time more vulnerable to military defeat and more likely to achieve their goals. Even so, the Rand study found that among large and very large groups, only 12 percent and 15 percent respectively ended because they were militarily defeated. [Seth G. Jones and Martin Libicki, How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, Rand Corporation 2008, 225 pp.]

The 2008 edition of the annual peace process yearbook produced at the University of Barcelona comes to similar conclusions in its examination of 78 armed conflicts dating from the 1970s, of which 33 had ended (another 15 were in the process of being resolved, while the rest remained active). Of the 33 that had ended, 27 (or 82%) ended through negotiated peace agreements, while 6 (or 18%) were ended militarily (in five cases the Governments won, and in one the “rebel force” won – that case being the Rwandan Patriotic Front). [Vicenç Fisas, 2008 Peace Process Yearbook, School for a Culture of Peace, University of Barcelona, 1988.$file/08anuarii.pdf?openelement.]

And a 2004 issue of the Journal of Peace Research focused on the “duration and termination of civil war,” also concluded that the military defeat of rebel groups is the exception in civil wars. Many factors are obviously involved, but because rebels or insurgents can win by not losing – that is, to be successful in pressing their case they have to be able to prolong war, not win it – they are able to force governments into negotiations and then to continue the pursuit of their objectives through political processes. And, by the way, the evidence also suggests that as insurgent or rebel groups enter into negotiations, their demands tend to moderate over time, yielding to accommodation and compromise. [“Duration and Termination of Civil War,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 41, No. 3. 3 May 2004.]

[iv] For example: “Consolidating security and advancing well-being in areas of the country nominally under Government control are critical to prevent the civil war from spreading. So, what is needed is ongoing security assistance to protect reconstruction outside the current war zones and to train and reform Afghan forces—not for counterinsurgency war, but to provide security services that win the trust of local communities.” Ernie Regehr, “A peace to keep in Afghanistan,” The Ploughshares Monitor, Spring 2008, volume 29, no. 1.

[v] “Afghanistan: New U.S. Administration, New Directions.” International Crisis Group, Asia Briefing N°89, 13 March 2009.

[vi] “Canadian officials are planning to direct aid to the most receptive neighbourhoods in and around Kandahar city, leaving out places deemed too far-flung or ‘empathetic’ to the Taliban insurgency….[O]fficials said past mistakes have taught them to apply a ‘direct focus on specific, small areas.’ The intent is to provide the villages enough security and assistance to allow normal daily life to unfold as the Afghan government intends – something that happens in very few places at present….’We can't be everywhere at once, so where do we want to be?’ said Lieutenant-Colonel Carl Turenne, the base's military commander. Delivering aid to key areas of Kandahar city, he said, will likely prove a better investment than setting up outposts in restive rural regions. Several such bases were set up by Canadian soldiers a couple of years ago in hope of taking the fight into outlying regions. But many have since been abandoned or dismantled after proving to be lightning rods for insurgent attacks.” [Colin Freeze, “Canada to focus efforts on Kandahar city,” The Globe and Mail, 21 May 2009.]

[vii] Para 57 (see note ii).

[viii] NATO/ISAF. Tactical Directive. 6 July 2009. International Security Assistance Force, Headquarters, Kabul.

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