November 13, 2012

Telling Truth to Youth

I was taught two lessons this last week. Firstly, everything is connected. This may seem like a sophomoric statement, but the extent of it's accuracy is amazing. The second is a reinforcement of my belief that every Canadian is entitled to being treated with adult intelligence. And that's a great part of raising awareness on strategic issues. "Kids" talk like "kids" because we talk to them that way. You change your end of that, and all of a sudden they impress you.

I was invited to speak in a grade 7 classroom at Beaconsfield High School about the Afghan conflict on the 9th of November, and placed it within the context of remembrance day considering the date. My gracious hosts had given me two broad mandates: to explain why we are there, and why it is so difficult to give these people schools, hospitals and governance.

The first of these great questions is in itself a feat. And a sampling of these students' answers read like a sampling of polling data. "To give them democracy." "Because of 9/11." "To help them with their rights." It turns out these - and many more answers - were self-fulfilling prophecies throughout our engagement in Afghanistan, but to treat this talk seriously was to tell this classroom that we are in Afghanistan because in 1949 we were afraid of the Soviets. That's why we joined NATO, and that's why Article 5 of the Washington treaty was invoked on 9/11. An hour and a half later in my 15 minute lecture, we had discussed the European settling of African borders, asymmetric technology in warfare, the human element in war, a quick bit about Afghan history and some current statistics, elements of Democratic Theory, Corporal Jason Patrick Warren of the Black Watch RHC and the importance of remembrance in a long-since peaceful society.

The second question, partly addressed by my now counterinsurgency-quagmiresque answer to the first, threw in stories of one thousand honor killings, why people around the planet don't think like we do, and why some don't like us. I didn't dare go too much into a religious divide rant after my discussion of the Russians as our "enemies" in the Cold War got one student's hand in the air with the remark "My father's Russian". Nevertheless, this giant unstructured mess of a presentation not only gave me hope for civic education in the next generation of Canadians, it left me wanting more time with students to talk about all of these notions, and others such as the variable value of human life around the world, why we should be proud that there is so much red tape here (it exists in that space where in other countries, the red is of a more visceral character), and oh so many more topics ranging from democracy to strategy.

Thank you BHS for being such great hosts, and for educating such remarkable and courteous Canadians.

We Will Remember Them.

November 05, 2012


Canadians are under-informed as to the threats posed by our international environment. We grow up in a thankfully free, plural and open society. By and large, we espouse multicultural and welcoming views.

To  be sure, these are qualities. These are pillars of a society that relies on immigration and international cooperation for national prosperity. They are societal boons to be protected through policy and education.

However these very qualities are double edged in a world filled with actors who do not share our values. While we have collectively lowered our arms in a half-century bid for "proper" international relations, our enemies have not.

Yes Canadians, we have enemies. Are you Liberally shocked?

Oh, and by the way, we also have men and women waging covert war against these enemies every day of the year. It's just that in Canada, we neither hear about - nor place great value on - these national protectors.

Mr. Dwight Hamilton, a former member of Canada's military intelligence, has put together a very informative introduction to our various intelligence branches and challenges. With Inside Canadian Intelligence, every Canadian can benefit from reading the various chapters, written by three professionals who have experienced first hand the struggles described, and one journalist that has attempted to cover them.

At times, the book also takes shots at the very delicate, yet ever important, debate between democratic values and national security. Whichever side you may associate with on this debate, elucidations about how the intelligence apparatus views your arguments can be educational.

September 07, 2012

Quebec Sovereignty: Flashpoint?

While many populations worldwide live with very immediate and painful results of their strategic plights, strategic studies for Canadians by and large assume interstate conflict away from the shores of a unified Canada.

On the fourth of September, we had a limited glimpse of what others suffer. Quebec went to the polls in provincial elections. Elections are always anxious moments, as centuries-old rivalries boil to the surface in a cauldron of populist manipulation at the hands of the provincial political elite. Quebec is a province of just over 8 million citizens in a country of 34 million. It is isolated linguistically as the only French speaking province in an otherwise mostly Anglophone state, and on the occasion of its elections and some political scandals, it considers the possibility of separation from the Canadian Federation.

It is important to note that of the 8 million Quebecers, over a million feel more affinity with the English language than they do French, never mind the other million who’s mother tongue is neither English or French or are from Amerindian communities (roughly 10% of the population is from a visible minority).

As the question of sovereignty is strongly imbued with French Quebec’s cultural and linguistic anxiety (though not all French would prefer sovereignty), it is a question which fractions the groups within the province along linguistic lines. In a province that already polices the use of English in education and the public sphere, anglophones and allophones fear for their rights and identity when Quebec sovereignty is mentioned.

As the Parti Quebecois won a minority government this last Tuesday, nerves were frayed in all camps. An unaffiliated man discharged a firearm at the Parti Quebecois campaign celebration, killing one and injuring another. As he was dragged away by police, he screamed “les anglais se reveillent” ("the English are waking up" - ironically in French). Madmen such as this one exacerbate political tensions and erode the otherwise surprisingly civil discourse of the province.

To be absolutely clear; the province is nowhere near a referendum on sovereignty, even less a nation-state itself.  Yet a government formed by the flagship party of the separatist movement makes us ponder for the sake of the exercise (without delving into the political debate): Could the worst-case scenario of a civil war happen in the event of a successful bid for sovereignty? While it is difficult to gaze into the crystal ball of happenstance, and a referendum would not cause Quebec to separate overnight (thus avoiding many pitfalls associated with a sudden and unmanaged transition), we may derive potential flashpoints from looking at key actors in the province and their interests.

The Government of Quebec
The GoQ would lack state capacity in its critical transition phase, though it would be better off in this regards than most separatist movements as Quebec has developed a shadow government of sorts over years of jurisdictional battles with Canada. This weakness would be most painful in the security sector, as the new state contends with unrest. The nascent GoQ also risks having a very poor and dangerously reactionary decision-making cycle as it contends with numerous situations spiralling out of control.

The Government of Canada
It is incredibly unlikely that the GoC would resort to arms to keep Quebec within the Federation without additional cause. Canada lacks the capacity, the will and the ideological mindset required for an operation of this sort.

The United States
The US, while having an intrinsic support for the GoC, would now witness instability in its near-sphere of influence.  A separation of Quebec would cost it greatly. The US would do everything it can to limit the scope of escalation. The US’s main interests would be limiting economic disturbance and reorganizing all international treaties and organizations it shares with Canada, such as NORAD.

Mobilized Quebec sovereignty activists
The separatist dream has been a long time coming. French Quebec has had a hard time swallowing historical defeat at the hands of English Canadians. While poems and speeches of liberation would accompany a jubilant crowd of self actualized nationalists, this revolutionary energy would be difficult to control once the time for riots and celebrations has passed. Overzealous nationalists may become a burden after the fact as the GoQ seeks to restore order and calm Federation loyalists. In addition, Quebec does have a history, if relatively minor, with its personal homebrew of nationalist terrorism (still alive and well, as seen here and here). A separation and ensuing conflict with loyalists may galvanize such groups.

Quebec Loyalists to the Federation
Largely in Montreal and towards Ontario, many communities identify themselves as Canadians first. From one day to the next, these communities would be told they are no longer Canadian, and that they have to accept the status quo ante or emigrate. While many would choose to leave, there is a distinct possibility that some would refuse and take to resisting the fledgling state. Entire communities may declare themselves Canadian and demand support from the GoC, causing a difficult political debate there as well.

Quebec Amerindian Populations
“If the French can do it, why can’t we?” Amerindians in Canada have always wanted more autonomy, and the breaking up of the Federation would offer them an incredible opportunity for creating an independent nation. Some communities already manage their own affairs and have small militias to protect territory. They have the greatest potential for a “fait accomplit” throughout the chaos.

Ethnic Communities
While ethnic communities may sway to one side or other of the independence question (the large Haitian population may side with its linguistic sister, while others may feel the sting of Quebec’s nationalism a little too starkly), one thing is certain: Communities will tend to look towards themselves for support and trust in a state defined by homogenous French Quebecers.

The course of relations between these various groups is what would guide any outcome and potential for conflict. As previously stated the governments would attempt to manage the transition in a slow and methodical manner. The two primary actors in many different situations would be the GoC and the GoQ. It is to be noted that while the military should be perceived as a key player and sore point for the deciding of who-gets-what (notably the Royal Canadian Air Force), I believe the cohesion and common experience between Quebec units of the Canadian Forces and their Federation partners would preclude any escalation of military tensions outside of minor and localized rivalries. Yet while wishing for a peaceful transition, the Governments of Canada and Quebec would find themselves at odds over many natural resources, economically joint projects, shared land and marine borders, and accrued infrastructure and assets. The logistical and legal quagmire would offer up many potential flashpoints to be seized upon by non-state actors. It is worth stating that Quebec nationalization of Canadian assets could be one of the few issues changing the strategic calculus for the GoC in favour of a more adversarial relationship, yet still short of open conflict.

The most significant flashpoint comes from the loyalist side, as they are the ones who have most to lose in the event of a separation. The danger here is escalation. Loyalists may choose to partake in resistance actions, and confront the now national SQ police force. As tensions rise – and all it takes is one misguided police action - additional militants may join ranks and up the ante. Once this occurs, the now mobilized sovereignty activists may become a problem in their own right, with the SQ trapped in the middle of a Quebec-wide community clash (undoubtedly centered in Montreal). It would not take many hate crimes, at first by madmen such as the one who struck the Metropolis on election night, to begin drawing up territory as owned by various groups and allowing distrust to spiral to new heights.

The SQ and GoQ would also have to contend with the possibility of whole communities declaring themselves independent or loyal to the GoC, if the GoQ fails to woo them as part of the independence project. What does the SQ do if Oka escorts GoC representatives to its doors? What does the GoC do if towns near the Ontario border hold their own referendums with 97% Canadian intention? What precedents are set by the GoQ that may galvanize sentiments even more? And how are these events viewed from the Federation? What will public sentiment in Ontario look like when a Quebec town revolt is shut down forcibly by the SQ? Would the US be able to mediate the conflict, as the GoC is perceived as too involved to do so?

All things considered, these potential flashpoints amount to a low probability of open international conflict. But the spectre of civil war looms ever quietly in the hearts of non-state actors. Should separation occur, these groups are the ones which will require the most convincing to stave off the worst.

August 30, 2012

Economic Is Just Another Word for Strategic

CBC News does a good job of summarizing a thorny topic in this article.

The PRC is on the prowl for investment opportunities abroad, notably in the energy sector. Canada's blooming oil sands industry are an alluring target for its state-owned industries to purchase. In fact, the purchases have already begun. "In recent years, Chinese energy investments in Canada have grown significantly, with Chinese state-owned companies purchasing minority and controlling stakes in Canadian oil and gas projects worth $16 billion in 2010 and 2011."

In the present case China has made an overwhelmingly attractive offer for Canadian company Nexen, above and beyond the textbook value of the company.

However, as the article states, this move may not so much be about purchasing Nexen, but rather about creating legal and political precedents for Chinese purchases in Canada, which has previously ruled against foreign acquisitions.

I raise several points of contention with the sale, leaving aside the obvious benefit to shareholders.

1. While shareholders seek short term benefit, what of the billions in R&D invested by Canadian tax payers? How will they get their due? While the benefits of a Nexen sale would be private, much of the costs are public. R&D is heavily subsidized by the federal government, and our lands are being significantly damaged by the oil sands industry. It seems that at the very least, it is Canadians that should reap the long term benefit of this industry. In this case shareholders are selling the goose that lays the golden eggs.

2. CNOOC is a Chinese state owned enterprise. Should we allow foreign governments to literally control Canadian economic and strategic assets? Would China allow Hydro Quebec to purchase Chinese damns?

3. Aside from the fact that the oil sands are gearing up to be a significant portion of our economic productivity, oil is a strategic resource, period. Hence its sale should be treated differently than other commodities. Is our government thinking about what the PRC may fuel with our oil?

There may be cases where a sale like this is warranted. But this definetly requires significant pondering, and not just about how this will affect the next federal election.

Picture courtesy of

June 18, 2012

Russian & Chinese Deployments in Syria?

‎"Military tensions around Syria shot up again Monday, June 18, with an Iranian report that a joint Russian-Chinese-Iranian exercise is to take place in Syria, called “the biggest of its kind ever staged in the Middle East,” with 90,000 personnel, 400 air planes and 900 tanks taking part." - DEBKA FILE

Provided that this rumor is true, it means roughly a half dozen interesting assumptions.

1) this is unprecedented use of military force to affect international politics on the part of China, meaning another great and official step in its emergence as a world power; 

2) this is an unequivocal show of support for the Assad regime from the "red" block; 

3) Being a Syrian rebel just went from bad to worse; 

4) The US was about to invervene and this is a preemptive troop positioning to counter that (since the US won't want to engage Russian or PLA troops directly), and;

5) Said "red block" is bolder than ever in their antagonism of US policy, putting their troops on the line and therefore national prestige... something the US will undoubtedly fold against for fear of starting a major power war over very little of strategic import.

UPDATE: This troop movement is reportedly a disinformation campaign on the part of Iran. It is unclear what was  hoped to be obtained from this action however, as reports like these can be quickly refuted in time even by open source research.

February 24, 2012

Top Six Reasons Why a Syrian Adventure Is Not Like a Libyan Adventure

The United States’ reluctance to involve itself in the Syrian conflict is puzzling to most, considering the amount of domestic bloodletting the regime has indulged in. However Bashar Al-Asad has limited the risk of intervention by not letting the conflict spill over beyond his borders. Due to the reasons below, one should not look to Washington, or other occidental powers, for resolution. The best hope for intervention rests with Arab players more capable of untangling local problems and less likely of enflaming grievances. Here is why:

  1. Syria is a close ally of forces opposed to the West generally, and to Iran specifically, making ground action there much more likely to encounter “friction”.

  2. Syria falls under the patronage of Russia, and seemingly now of China, making a move against it a move by proxy against these heavier weight players.

  3. Syria has had a heavy hand in Lebanon over the years, and has several contested border points with it. This makes any outbreak of unrest an invitation for unknown variables and the opening of old wounds.

  4. Syria is deeply mired in the Arab Israeli cold war, with a part in the contested Golan Heights. It is also a commonly held belief that destabilised or weak states make for ideal terrorist safe havens. It is likely Israel actually wants a strongman to retain control of this 90% Muslim population.

  5. Syria is already home to over 1 million refugees that fled the Iraq conflict, and roughly half a million Palestinians. Who would care for them, and who would politely convince these disenfranchised men and women not to see this an opportunity? By the way, this represents over 5% of the country’s population, without citizenship.

  6. Syria produces less than ¼ of the oil output of Libya, making any profiteering incentives unsound.

November 02, 2011

Pax Americana Reaches Uganda, Part 1

US forces are now engaged on yet another front, this time an unexpected one against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. This brings to seven the number of publically disclosed theatres where US forces wage war, six of which are against insurgents of various shapes. One hundred Special Forces troops, possibly the first of several waves, now serve as "trainers" in the central African nation. In this first article of a series on the topic, I review the historic context for the Uganda incursion.

Uganda is a landlocked and impoverished nation. However by African standards, it does relatively well. Due to its colonial heritage its army is one of the most structured and professional in Africa, though that isn’t saying much. However, military efficacy is not the only thing that a colonial heritage handed down to Uganda. Created by lines drawn across a map somewhere in Europe, Uganda suffers from having no common national heritage. Rather, it is home to a plurality of tribes which do not get along. The British amplified this problem by grooming bureaucrats and business elites from the South, and soldiers and workers from the north. Hence under London’s hand the South became rich, while the army became Northern.

Once Britain stepped out of Africa, Ugandans were left to their own devices, and it was not long before a perpetual cycle of civil war wrecked the country. The South would take power, only to face Northern guerrillas. Once they took power, Southern guerrillas would take to the bush. Idi Amin was a product of this equation, and a vicious example of how war is waged by Northerners. The current “president”, Museveni, has been in power since 1986, the latest guerrilla-come-head-of-state. He is from the South, and so a Northern guerrilla movement soon materialized. However this revolution failed to gain traction and changed leadership several times, only to fall in the current leader’s hands, one Joseph Kony.

As the Northern tribe (the Acholi) lost hope and faith in this new movement, now called the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony was forced to reinvent insurgency theory. While most movements count on the population for supplies, shelter and recruits, Kony took what he needed by force. The Lord’s Resistance Army became a self-sustaining bush army, only coming out of the jungle to ransack villages for goods and recruits. Kony will pillage everything in his path, leaving behind nothing but cinders and scars. He takes with him children of all ages, to train most boys as “soldiers” and most girls as “wives”. Those not worthy either end up as workers or worse – as fatal tests of the other children’s loyalty.

The government of Uganda is little better, utilizing this security threat as a pretext to tighten its grip on the afflicted north (see this site for one Acholi perspective). Civilians have been herded into “refugee camps” by the Ugandan forces, so as to “better protect them”. However, these civilians have not been given the choice, and now they are forced to abandon their ancestral lands, and all their worldly belongings, to go live in impoverished – and guarded – camps. There they exist (in contrast to living) at the mercy of South Ugandan and Western aid, and suffer massive abuses at the hands of Ugandan soldiers. All the while, their “unsafe” lands are being auctioned off by the government, perpetuating the crisis beyond this generation.

The world has looked on all the while, without giving much more than lip service to the Acholi's cause. They have stood on the sidelines for many reasons, chief of which is the absence of direct national interest for any would-be helpers. There are no ressources to secure in Uganda. There is no port of interest. There is absolutely nothing in this landlocked country which could have warranted a costly intervention. Hence pressure has been limited to the pearly halls of international justice, from where condemnation is throw at Joseph Kony in the form of an international warrant for his arrest. Ironically this only harms the peace process, as Kony now knows that he can forget about any peace deal involving amnesty for him and his top commanders.

For over twenty years this difficult conflict has raged as much in the souls of Ugandans as on their lands. Anyone under 30 in Uganda has known nothing but horror for as long as they can remember. It is in this context that President Obama has ordered forth the firm hand of US benevolence, as decades of diplomacy and legal pressure have yielded nothing but time for Kony’s bush army to perfect its craft.