Monday, October 10, 2005

The Price of a Blue Beret

The tendency of government to underspend on defence has taken its toll on one of the few things Canadians want to feel proud of: the UN peacekeeping function.

Canadian Press has obtained, under Access legislation, a copy of an internal DND report that's highly critical of the Canadian peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone. (Now I get to listen for crickets when I pose the question, how many people even knew, remembered or cared that we even had peacekeepters in Sierra Leone?)

According to CP reporter Dean Beeby, the report doesn't mince its words:

"The problem is seen to be a lack of depth of experience or 'operational maturity,' particularly in the case of reservists," says a lessons-learned report, obtained under the Access to Information Act.

"Often personnel without the necessary operational experience have been unobtrusively moved to less demanding positions more fitted to their real skills."

Training to prepare Canada's observers for the mission was so inadequate that they were given instructions on how to avoid landmines - even though there was no landmine threat in Sierra Leone, says the study....

A peacekeeping school at Canadian Forces Base Kingston, Ont., briefed soldiers poorly for what awaited them in the tiny coastal state in West Africa.

"The cultural briefings were inadequate, and did not effectively prepare them for the social and security environment in Sierra Leone," says the study, based partly on interviews with returning soldiers.

The problems have remained hidden because operations were in a remote area and involved only about 100 Canadian personnel in total over the years.

Here's an example of underspending. You know what really could have helped here? Intelligence on Sierra Leone. Apparently we didn't have enough of the right type to prepare our peacekeepers adequately for the mission.

Could we have gotten it from other sources? Maybe the U.S. or Britain, but odds are they wouldn't have much, and probably not tailored for peacekeeping purposes. And other countries have been pretty antsy about sharing intel with us anyway.

So we should have gotten it ourselves, and that means spies. But our present government has always been squeamish about getting into the spy business. Not quite fitting with our current image, you see. Far better to be blind.

There is, of course, another and more sinister problem:

Robertson's report questions whether Canada should even have participated, based on a checklist established in 1994 to determine whether Canadian troops should become involved in such peacekeeping missions.

The initial mandate in Sierra Leone was vague and unenforceable; there was no clear division of responsibilities between military and civilian authorities; the operational plan was "unworkable"; and at least one of the parties - the Revolutionary United Front - was opposed to the mission.

These were all contrary to Ottawa's checklist standards.

"The humanitarian disaster in Sierra Leone led Canada's commitment to two tasks, even though neither fully met published policy guidelines," the report concluded.

"In neither case is there any evidence that a review of the prospects of success, a risk-benefit analysis, an assessment of the national interest in the area, or an analysis of adherence to the . . . guidelines, was undertaken."

It's useful to remember that the decision to go into Sierra Leone was Jean Chrétien's, based on the typical Liberal ideology of Canada as "helpful fixer." It was also at a time when real defence spending hit a 10-year low.

It's always been the way: the Liberal government likes to point to UN peacekeeping as a shining example of how Canada has influence in the world. But they have always been reluctant about spending on the resources necessary to back up the missions. They probably figure the UN would pay for them, conveniently forgetting that the UN's track record on fiscal responsiblity makes even Chuck Guité look responsible.

It's not merely a matter of increasing the budget. It's about changing the Liberal mindset: choosing the right mission and then spending the right money to set up appropriate infrastructure, to ensure the mission's success, instead of jumping into any situation without adequate resources just because it looks good in the press.

And the only way that mindset change is ever going to happen is if they get a shock -- like a defeat at the polls.