Elusive Pursuits: Lessons from Canada’s interventions abroad

An excerpt from this year’s edition of Canada Among Nations, which launches this week.

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October 28, 2015
A Canadian soldier from 4th platoon, bulldog company 1st Battalion, 22nd royal regiment enters a house during a patrol in the village of Sarah in Panjwai district of Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, June 11, 2011. Canada will end its combat role in Afghanistan by the end of July, after nearly ten years fighting in Afghanistan. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Every year, in partnership with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs assesses Canada's place in the world via a Canada Among Nations volume. The theme of this year’s issue — which launches in Ottawa and in Toronto over the next week — is on learning the lessons from past interventions. 

Why?  Because we have been profoundly frustrated by the mixed results and by the refusal of the outgoing government under Stephen Harper to learn lessons.

Afghanistan was supposed to be different, as the government did put together a serious lessons learning exercise.  At the end, it was buried — not only have I not been able to access it via Access to Information (my appeal is now more than two years old), but it was also not disseminated to the people making and implementing Canadian foreign and defence policy.

Thus, we decided to take on the task of examining past efforts by Canada to make a difference in the face of starvation, humanitarian disasters, ethnic violence, and terrorism.  With the election of Justin Trudeau and a Liberal majority, participation in peacekeeping is likely to come back into vogue.  To be clear, the Canadian Forces never stopped deploying, but rather the focus went from UN missions to NATO efforts.  Canada has always not just been among nations, as the series title suggests, but in them, seeking to improve the lives of those facing violence, degradation and poverty.

The volume addresses the legacies of the Somalia mission, legal challenges of the Libya mission, Canada's efforts to shape events in the Arab world, the domestic politics of the Afghanistan mission and operations down range (as detailed in the excerpt below), police training in Haiti, and intervention in the form of foreign aid.  Thematic chapters focus on gender in the Canadian Armed Forces, Responsibility to Protect in practice, Harper's interventions, and the challenges of intervening in the future with an older society facing the problems of a younger world.

Our book, edited by CIGI’s Fen Osler Hampson and myself, lacks a conclusion because we want people to draw their own conclusions. 

What did I conclude from this effort?  That humility needs to be a key theme in Canadian foreign/defence policy:

  • Canada cannot and will not operate by itself anywhere, and can only send a fragment of what is needed to complete any operation.  But Canada almost always shows up when allies call up on it.
  • Good intentions need to be carefully examined for their practical impact.  Feeding people is a great aim, but it could alter existing power relations as food aid becomes a commodity in the war economy.
  • Agencies can vary widely even when they aspire towards the same goal.  Improving the position of women in one's agency meant very different processes, goals and doctrines in foreign affairs and in the Canadian Armed Forces.
  • Staying out of a conflict has consequences, too.
  • Canada is just about as impatient as any other democracy.  Police training, for instance, does not happen overnight.
  • How we frame our policies can shape how effective they are. 
  • Being responsible is really hard and very complicated.

Much of this can be distilled into one basic lesson: we need to be humble.  Canada can make a difference in many difficult places in the world, but intervention is hard, it is complicated, and it requires more patience than we usually have.  Choosing not to intervene also has consequences.

What did I learn in the course of shepherding this volume along with Fen Hampson?

  • Canadian scholarship on international affairs has a great future, as about half of the contributors represent the next generation, and they do awesome work.
  • Producing a volume with half of the chapters written by women is actually quite easy as there are many smart women doing terrific work on Canadian foreign and defence policy.  Indeed, it would have required real effort to come up with an all male set of contributors.
  • Canada is a far more interesting and dynamic actor in international affairs than I had thought when I first moved here.  It has its metaphorical hands in heaps of metaphorical pies around the world.

Given that the new Liberal government may be poised to do more interventions — given its stance on peacekeeping operations and its likely re-affirmation of Responsibility to Protect, this volume is especially timely. 


Chapter 3: Lessons Learned? Public Opinion and the Afghanistan Mission (an excerpt). By Jean-Christophe Boucher and Kim Richard Nossal


When the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien announced on October 8, 2001, that it was committing Canadian forces to the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, little did the government — or Canadians — know that this decision would commit Canada to a 12-and-a-half-year intervention in a country in which direct Canadian national interests were not at all clear. Canada’s long involvement in Afghanistan from October 2001 until March 2014 was a transformative event for Canadians in many ways. But now that the mission is over, and the dates of the conflict have been inscribed on the National War Memorial in Ottawa, added to the commemoration of other wars in which Canadians have been involved since 1899, what lessons might we learn from the engagement in Afghanistan that will be applicable to future cases of Canadian intervention?

In this chapter, we argue that one of the key findings from the Afghanistan mission is that much of Ottawa’s policy making on the issue was influenced by the dynamics of domestic politics instead of foreign policy imperatives. During the Afghanistan mission, public opinion in Canada played a crucial role in limiting the Canadian government’s willingness to pursue clearly articulated interventionist policies. While, as Derek Burney, Fen Osler Hampson and Simon Palamar note in chapter 10 of this volume, Stephen Harper began his prime ministership with a strong sense of duty to the Afghanistan mission, it is clear that his government’s policies on Afghanistan were affected not only by the difficulties being encountered by the international mission in Afghanistan itself, but also by domestic politics in Canada. Unable to find ways to dampen public opposition to the mission, and fearful that the mission and its human costs would lose them votes among a highly skeptical public, the governing Conservatives quickly sought ways to limit the potential political damage. The influence of public opinion was thus indirect: rather than prompting the government to embrace new policies (such as an end of the military mission), public opinion pushed the Harper government into actively seeking to limit public mobilization by depoliticizing the issue. In this, the Conservatives found common cause with the main Opposition party during this period, the Liberal Party of Canada. While it was a Liberal government that began the mission in 2001 and the Liberal government of Paul Martin that decided on the Kandahar mission in 2005, the Liberal Members of Parliament who were elected to the 39th Parliament in 2006 were deeply divided on the mission. They, like the Conservatives, had a highly ambiguous view of the mission. This elite consensus, in turn, prompted both parties to collaborate with each other to remove Afghanistan from the Canadian political agenda, and to agree with each other that Canada should withdraw from Afghanistan as soon as possible. Consequently, the Canadian Armed Forces continued with the mission in Kandahar, adjusting to counter-insurgency (COIN), as Caroline Leprince outlines in chapter 5, but fundamentally disconnected from the political process back home.

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Public Opinion and Afghanistan

For much of the time that the Canadian Armed Forces were engaged in Afghanistan, Canadians remained remarkably unpersuaded by the mission. Support for the mission was tepid; opposition to the mission was considerable (see Figure 1).

To be sure, public opposition to the mission varied with the nature of the Canadian role in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014. Many commentators simply aggregate the mission into a single undertaking that, they suggest, ran in an unbroken straight line for 12 and a half years. But this is an inaccurate way to characterize — and thus to analyze — Canada’s contribution to the international effort in Afghanistan.


On the contrary: the mission had four distinct phases. The first was Canada’s participation in the US-led intervention to assist in the overthrow of the Taliban government, a contribution of combat troops that ran from October 2001 until July 2002. The second phase was the stabilization mission under the auspices of the United Nations in Kabul from 2003 to 2005. The third phase was the combat and reconstruction operation in Kandahar between 2006 and 2011. The final phase, from 2011 to 2014, was when the Canadian Armed Forces contributed to the training of the Afghan National Army under the auspices of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

As shown in Figure 1, public perceptions of these different phases present some significant nuances. Canadians largely supported their country’s participation in the “war on terror”; opposition was minimal, varying between 26 percent and 33 percent. The decision to contribute to the UN mission to secure Kabul was also widely approved by Canadians, with only 22 percent of public opinion opposing the deployment.

By contrast, the combat operation in Kandahar from 2006 to 2011 was, for most of the mission, perceived negatively by Canadians. At the outset, disapproval was relatively mild, with 37 percent opposed. However, this figure quickly rose to well over 50 percent, and remained above that level for much of the remainder of that phase of the mission, reaching as high as 59 percent in September 2006 and August 2010. But once the combat mission came to an end in 2011, the decision to engage the Canadian Armed Forces in the training function from 2012 to 2014 was mostly seen positively by Canadians, with opposition hovering around 35 percent.

Figure 1 shows a rational public opinion that was reacting to the evolving nature of Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014. In hindsight, we can observe a Canadian public whose attitude toward the use of force was still highly committed to the “Canada-as-peacekeeper” ideal (Martin and Fortmann 1995; Munton and Keating 2001; Munton 2003; Granatstein 2004; Boucher and Roussel 2008; Massie and Roussel 2008). When military operations focused on securitization (Kabul in 2003–2005) or training (2012–2014) — two activities that are consistent with the broad idea of peacekeeping — Canadians largely endorsed the decision to deploy troops in Afghanistan. On the other hand, when military operations did diverge from the peacekeeping template, as in the deployment to Kandahar from 2006 to 2011, Canadian public opinion remained lukewarm at best and hostile at worst. 

Figure 1 presents an examination of Canadians’ preferences as a coherent, homogenous population. However, when it comes to public opinion, “Canada” is a fictional concept. It is misleading to think of Canada as singular, aggregate entity, where one can observe a comparable attitude distribution from coast to coast. On the contrary: Canada is a collective body politic composed of federated regional population clusters whose preferences vary greatly from one another (Wilson 1974; Nevitte 1995). There is no such thing as one “Canadian” public opinion from which one can extrapolate a tendency over time and across issues; instead, there are multiple “regional” public opinions. Figure 2 demonstrates why a regional understanding of Canadian public opinion is essential.

First, as can be observed, public policy preferences regarding the Afghanistan mission differed dramatically from one region to another. Respondents in Quebec were consistently the most opposed to any involvement in Afghanistan. Throughout the Kandahar deployment, opposition in Quebec rarely fell below 60 percent, and ran as high as 77 percent; overall, opposition in Quebec averaged a staggering 66 percent. On the other hand, Alberta’s respondents were the most favourable to Canada’s various commitments in Afghanistan. On the Kandahar mission, the opposition of Albertans rarely exceeded 50 percent, with an average of 39.8 percent unfavourable opinion. Overall, between 2001 and 2012, the spread between opinion in “dovish” Quebec and “hawkish” Alberta was 26 points.


Public opposition in other regions of Canada lay in between these two extremes. In the case of the Kandahar deployment, average opposition was more important in British Columbia (49.8 percent), followed by the Atlantic provinces (48.2 percent), Ontario (46.8 percent) and Manitoba/Saskatchewan (46.3 percent).

In short, how one interprets Canadian public opinion on the Afghanistan issue during the decade following September 11 depends mostly on where one sits in Canada. From the heights of Mont-Royal in Montreal, one would get the impression of a population hostile to the mission overall and massively opposed to the Kandahar deployment. By the same token, if one were to attend the Calgary Stampede, one would conclude that Canadians supported a combat role for the Canadian Armed Forces. However, from the perspective of the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada would appear to be divided, with more or less half of Canadians opposed to military operations in Kandahar. So which of those points of view is a “true” reflection of Canadian public opinion toward operations in Afghanistan? All of them are representations of Canada, but none of them could be said to meaningfully represent all of Canada. 

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Did Public Opposition to the Mission Matter?

For much of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, political elites — elected officials, members of their staff and public servants — had to try to grapple with the domestic political ramifications of the lack of support for the mission. For example, both the newly minted Harper government and the Department of National Defence were anxious about the public’s reaction to the move to Kandahar in early 2006. A May 2006 internal briefing note on public opinion research submitted to the minister of national defence had indicated that support for the Afghanistan operations was declining rapidly, especially in Quebec. The report suggested that knowledge of the mission in Afghanistan was not improving as much as awareness of the intervention, and that such a gap could “be filled by unfounded conclusions rather than informed discourse” (Government of Canada 2006). Public support in Québec for the mission would never rise above 40 percent. Nevertheless, this was not a problem restricted to Quebec; public support in other provinces, such as British Columbia or the Atlantic provinces did not rise above 45 percent after 2007. While emphasizing and inflating the influence of Quebec, commentators on both sides of the linguistic divide only reasserted a simplistic image of the “two solitudes” and underscored the complex regional ramifications of public opinion in Canada (Boucher and Roussel 2008; Massie, Boucher and Roussel 2010).

One might sympathize with the difficulty faced by Canada’s political elites: they were confronted with a rich environment of conflicting public preferences that differed with mission specifications (stabilization versus combat versus training), allies (UN-, NATO- or US-led operations), regions and contextual events in Ottawa (for example, elections, debates over mission extensions or Afghan prisoners). But the common perception on the part of political elites appears to have been that there was pervasive opposition to the mission among the Canadian public. It was this perception of opposition that appears to have prompted the Harper government to cycle through a chaotic and incoherent set of justifications in an effort to find one that resonated with Canadians (Boucher 2009).

However, any assessment of the influence of public opinion on Canadian policy making must begin with the recognition that the opposition always remained passive. Consider, by way of contrast, public opposition to Canadian participation in the Iraq war of 2003. In that case, there were massive and very active popular protests in February 2003, when more than 100,000 people marched in chilly –26°C weather to protest against possible Canadian participation in the “coalition of the willing” being organized by President George W. Bush for an American-led invasion of Iraq. However, in the case of Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan, what considerable opposition there was never actually materialized into tangible political pressure on the political elites; public demonstrations were either non-existent or minor. Furthermore, Afghanistan was not an important issue during the four federal elections that occurred during the mission. Indeed, the elections of 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011 were all remarkable for the absence of discussion about the mission in Afghanistan. In retrospect, public opposition toward Canada’s Afghanistan policy only manifested itself when pollsters interviewed private citizens, in a passive fashion.

How to explain the passivity of Canadian public opinion that remained so opposed in principle to operations in Afghanistan without being actively expressed? What we see in this case is an example of what the political scientist V. O. Key, Jr. (1964, 268) described as latency: “the opinion discovered by survey questions is often a latent opinion in the sense that the question has not been salient in the minds of the respondents until the query was put to them by the interviewer.” To understand how the public influences policy making on foreign and defence issues, one has to explore how — and why — some public preferences remain latent or passive while others become activated or mobilized. Politicians are less concerned with public attitudes that remain passive — in other words, attitudes that might be identified by polls — but that do not turn into a political force to reckon with (Key 1964; Stimson 1991; Powlick and Katz 1998). Public attitudes may be more or less supportive of some decisions, but if those attitudes do not mobilize into active political opposition, politicians’ room to manoeuvre remains quite significant. Nevertheless, public opposition is a necessary a priori condition for any prospect of social mobilization; for a social movement to mobilize, there must be contention over policies. Stated differently, public opinion and public mobilization are necessary, and jointly sufficient, conditions for democratic responsiveness.

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