By Jesse MacLean, M.A. in Global Governance, Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo
Canada’s government is currently undergoing its first Defence Policy Review since 1994, welcoming public consultations and engaging with experts in order to determine what defence policy Canada should pursue in the security environment of 2016. The fundamental areas under discussion in the review are: 1) the main challenges to Canada’s security, 2) role of the Canadian Armed Forces in addressing these challenges, and 3) the resources (read: funding) needed for the Forces to carry out their mandate. When the review wraps up at the end of July, it will guide the foreseeable future of the Canadian Armed Forces. This review offers an opportunity to examine and define what role counterterrorism holds in the priorities of the Canadian military, and predict how this role might be evolving.
The consultation paper provided for the review defines three main roles for the Canadian Armed Forces: “defending Canada, partnering in the defence of North America with the United States, and providing meaningful contributions to international peace and security” (pg. 5). Terrorist attacks can strike Canadians at home or abroad, as they did earlier this year when six Canadians were among twenty-eight people killed in an Al-Qaeda strike on Burkina Faso. Terrorism can also threaten our neighbours in the United States, and demonstrably destabilizes international security when groups like the Islamic State commit atrocities while overrunning considerable portions of territory.
This makes terrorism relevant to all three of the main roles of Canada’s military, and therefore to the three fundamental areas being examined by the defence policy review. As long as this remains the case, Canada’s Armed Forces can be expected to remain involved in counter-terrorism tasks. The consultation paper reflects this in stating that terrorism is a “key feature” of the current security environment, and that the military has a “vital role” to play in keeping the threat from Canadian shores (pg. 12).
However, the Mandate Letter from Prime Minister Trudeau to Defence Minister Sajjan does not mention terrorism anywhere in its text, possibly implying a lowered priority for counterterrorism as a military role. Furthermore, the consultation paper adopts a critical tone when questioning how Canada should fight terrorism, noting the complex interaction of “regional historical, economic, social, religious, ethnic, and demographic conditions” which root most modern terrorist groups (pg. 9). The paper recognizes that these situations are not easily addressed by any single policy approach, including military missions. It should also be noted that the Liberal government has stated their desire to create a more ‘agile and lean’ Canadian military, which some have interpreted to mean that cuts are imminent. This may indicate a reluctance to commit troops to costly combat missions abroad.
The experience of the Canadian Armed Forces with fighting terrorism offers likely indications for why the Liberal government is sounding this tone. Fifteen years after the September 11th attacks, modern transnational terrorism continues to blur distinctions between policing, intelligence, military, and social challenges. The governments of the world continue to search for an effective approach to fully address the perpetually-evolving complexities of the threat while respecting civil liberties and democratic principles. Despite having largely protected our country against direct attack, Canada’s record in engaging with these challenges through armed conflict remains mixed at best. After more than a decade of bloodshed and Canadian sacrifice in Afghanistan, that country remains beset by corruption and instability, with an insurgency that continues to launch offensives. Canada’s bombing participation in the campaign against Islamic State (IS) terrorists in the Middle East achieved only modest results, and our six fighter jets have since been withdrawn by the new government. Even as IS loses territory in Iraq and Syria thanks to military action, it continues to demonstrate its ability and willingness to incite terrorist attacks overseas, whether through operatives it has directly trained and commanded, or through ‘lone wolves’ radicalized through propaganda.
There are demonstrable limits to what military force can accomplish against terrorist threats, especially for a ‘middle power’ like Canada whose military is perpetually constrained by budget. While there will always be a role for troops and jets to keep cities out of the hands of would-be conquerors and in kicking down the doors of terrorist leaders who are beyond the reach of law enforcement, the Liberal government is de-emphasizing these tasks for our military as they overhaul defence policy. Instead, the Liberals are re-engaging with Canada’s tradition of peace operations, and putting our troops in a training and support role in the fight against the Islamic State.
With this in mind, defence observers can expect that the defence review will result in counterterrorism continuing to be a major role for the Canadian Armed Forces. However, they can also expect that the Liberal government will de-emphasize ‘sharp end’ combat missions like Afghanistan and bombing Islamic State, both out of budget considerations and concerns regarding the effectiveness of military engagement as a tool to defeat terrorist threats.