In The Media

How 9/11 redefined Canada's role in the world

by Amanda Connolly (feat. Ferry de Kerckhove)

September 11, 2016

Fifteen years ago, my Grade 6 teacher walked into a room packed with bleary-eyed eleven-year-olds just starting their school day and said one sentence that has stayed with me ever since: “Something has happened that will change the rest of your lives.”

He was right. Those four planes — American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 77 and United Airlines Flight 93 — and the 2,996 people killed because of their hijackings changed the world as it had been until then, with consequences that still reverberate through global defence and security policies.

For Canadians, the attack and the 13-year war it spawned for Canada in Afghanistan changed our most fundamental understanding of the world and our place within it.

The lessons of that mission were sorely received. As Roland Paris, former PMO advisor and recently-returned University of Ottawa International Security and Governance Research Chair, wrote in a March 2014 policy brief for the Centre for International Policy Studies, “tactical gains, while often hard won, were rarely sustainable” — particularly once the enemy switched their focus to guerrilla insurgency and forced the military to rethink how it could deal with unconventional conflict.

As Canada prepares to embark on a new, still-to-be-determined peace support operation in Africa, that decision-making process is still hazy with the fumes of Afghanistan’s legacy — that of a mission that became a quagmire and that ushered Canadians into the bloody realities of unending, asymmetric conflict against a constantly shifting enemy.

“That’s something that also is tied to 911. With terrorists, we’ve started engaging in endless wars because we never really hit the enemy,” said Ferry de Kerckhove, formerly Canada’s ambassador to Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan, and now a senior fellow at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. “That’s what scares us today in deciding where we’re going.”

As Defence Minister Harjijt Sajjan has warned repeatedly in recent months, the peacekeeping legacy Canadians cherish has no place in the middle of modern conflict.

Instead, “peace support operations” will require the public to be willing to spill blood in countries where there is no peace to keep and hope that a Canadian contribution can help stabilize and constrain conflict on the ground.

But understanding the legacy of 9/11 and the wars it sparked in Afghanistan and also in Iraq means understanding that this new mission will not come neatly wrapped with clear objectives, a clear enemy and, most critically, a clear end game.

“There’s not going to be a clear victory parade to any of these missions,” said Steve Saideman, the Norman Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University and author of the book NATO and Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone. “It’s more just ‘well, we’ve done our share for long enough, it’s time for us to go.’”

That’s not to say warfare before Iraq and Afghanistan was neat and tidy, Saideman says.

But with the length, complication and cost in blood of that mission, Canadians saw firsthand the demands of engaging in conflict where the actors are no longer traditional states and instead focus on murky, shifting targets who don’t abide by the conventional laws of war.

The conflicts in Libya and Syria have driven that point home even more, he says, and that legacy has shaped how politicians frame the discussion around where to go next.

“I think it made Canadians clear about the stakes of international relations, the stakes of intervention,” Saideman said. “I definitely think that Canadians are going to be more reluctant to do anything like that again and so that’s why you have politicians promise that whatever interventions we’re doing, we’re not engaged in combat, which of course creates more confusion.”

The protestation that Canadian Forces troops will not be engaged in combat is one that has dogged the current mission against the Islamic State — which the government now refers to as “Daesh” — in Iraq.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper faced criticisms for calling the mission a non-combat operation after news broke that some of the 69 Special Forces soldiers stationed in Iraq to advise and assist had engaged in multiple firefights after being confronted by Daesh militants.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government faced the same debate earlier this year when it withdrew Canada’s fighter jets from the bombing mission in Iraq and Syria and refocused the mission to one that tripled the number of soldiers on the ground and was criticized for increasing the potential for those troops to be in harm’s way.

Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance has also stressed the current mission is not a combat one.

“We are using a technique that is relatively new, borne of the lessons of Afghanistan,” Vance said in February 2016. “A ‘train, advise and assist’ mission clearly falls into the non-combat realm, whereas a combat mission is largely distinguished by the fact we are the principal combatant.”

Under the new government, the approach is increasingly to focus less on a purely military response and instead incorporate a whole-of-government approach to tackling an issue.

Given the complexities and multi-layered nature of modern conflicts, that’s critical, said one former military member.

“The game has changed,” said Tony Battista, CEO of the Conference of Defence Association Institutes and a four-time Canadian defence attaché who spent 40 years in the Canadian Forces. “You cannot deal with them only with the military.”

Recognizing the adaptability of new enemies like Daesh, as well as their lack of centralization and ability to influence others to act on their behalf around the world, means conventional strategies won’t work and no one can expect to just step into the fray and not get stuck.

“I have learned that when you step on a pile of manure with your boots, a number of things happen. First of all, you spread the shit all over the place. Secondly it stinks even more. And third, you get your boots dirty,” Battista said. “You have to learn to use policies —what I call the anaconda policy — that constrict the enemy.”

But the messy, if pragmatic, realities of containment and mitigation don’t always make for an idea that can win over hearts and minds, or spark support among a country where the sacrifices of a 13-year war are still keenly felt in a new generation of veterans and a public for whom the attack that triggered it is still seared into both collective and personal memories.

Adjusting hopes and expectations to that mentality — that there will be no victory parade for whatever mission we embark on next — is the lasting takeaway from the attacks of September 11 and needs to be top of mind as Canadian politicians steer the country into new and equally dangerous conflict zones.

“Fifteen years later, we still don’t know how to defeat the enemy and in fact we’ve got to cope rather than defeat,” said de Kerckhove.

“We’ll never decimate these guys and it’s nice for us scholars to say, ‘Oh, but there’s a political solution. Bullshit. There’s no such thing as a political solution —it’s fending off the most dangerous and trying to learn how to live with that, and that is the legacy of 9/11.”

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