With more than a decade of stability campaigns under its belt, it may seem rhetorical for the Canadian Forces to ask the question: Are we learning? But the scope and complexity of modern campaigns, with an every-growing array of national and international actors influencing the outcome, has compelled governments to reflect on how such operations are conducted.

In the fall of 2005, the US Defense Department issued a directive that put stability campaigns on par with combat. For soldiers who have been conducting stability campaigns of a fashion for the past 15 years, the directive carried little weight. However, for the first time, it made stability a primary US mission objective. It also recognized that while combat is the purview of the military, in stability campaigns it is but one player in a complex environment that is demanding new ideas from, and teaching new lessons to, military and government officials.

In June, together with Queen’s Centre for International Relations and the US Army War College, Land Force Doctrine and Training System will host a two-day conference to explore how those lessons are being learned. Drawing on the experiences of academia, military, government and international organizations, it will examine how best to prepare commanders and government officials to plan and conduct today’s multi-dimensional stability campaigns.

MGen Stuart Beare, commander of LFDTS, the army’s intellectual development and training centre, acknowledges a sceptic might suggest lessons are not being learned. He believes they are but wants to understand whether ‘full spectrum operations,’ which seek to affect all factors in an operating space that relate to self-sustaining security and stability, are being conducted with a view to learning.

We’ve got massive focus on a current theatre of war in Afghanistan and we’re fighting warfare in a very modern way. But how are we learning? Are we doing it by design or by accident? Or a bit of both?

If you look at our competency in contemporary operations, from the national to the tactical, clearly we are still organizing and adapting as we go. The government is taking initiatives with Foreign Affairs, CIDA, DND, the Solicitor General, Corrections and others to get a Canadian national intervention strategy together, but we’re still learning how to ‘operationalize’ that on the ground with things like the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), the Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (OMLT), and the military police company working with the Afghan National Police.

In the military, we speak of unity of thought, purpose, and action. So what are the unifying concepts, doctrines and procedures that should inform operations like the ones we’re doing today? And how are they being provided to the actors involved? Where are the schoolhouses and training centres that will allow us to repeat and adapt as we go? What are the feedback loops to our concepts and doctrine to design and deliver professional development not just to those going overseas, but also to the institutions in Canada? Do we learn from the operations themselves? And what are the best practices for those types of operations?

If you don’t know where you’re going, any direction will do. We have to understand what we are trying to achieve in the first instance. Why are we seeking to create stability in these unstable regions? How do we use the sources of power – developmental, diplomatic, military or international partner influences – to actually deliver those strategic outcomes? And then tactically, what are the best practices for military, diplomatic or developmental force to capacity-build governance, rule of law, security, economic stability?

We’ve had to be adaptive. Within the past 12 months, Joint Task Force Afghanistan went from preparing for classic counterinsurgency to actual combat operations where we had to throw back in tanks, to conventional close combat with new electronic and surveillance systems, to capacity building through the OMLT, the PRT and a headquarters with a 3D engagement. How are the institutions back home adapting to those changes?

This symposium is going to allow us to expose doctrine writers to operations, trainers to doctrine, and the cycle of doctrine, training and operations to an audience beyond the military. This is an opportunity to break from the contact battle and reflect holistically on what we seek to do with intervention operations, from the strategic to the tactical, and then ask what we are learning and how that becomes enduring so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of yesterday.

We’re seeking to create a shared understanding of the whole spectrum – the concepts, doctrine and training that need to precede operations – so that when we intervene, we do it holistically.

In the Canadian Forces, we’re still learning to do these things. We were built for a combat feedback loop. Combat operations may be complicated but conceptually they are a simple process; whole-of-government interventions are conceptually much more complicated. We are learning to create new ways of doing a whole-of-government stability campaign.

Intellectually, we’re already there – we’ve been learning since 1992. But we did it from a combat baseline. Now we’re saying we will train to be competent in three types of operations: offensive, defensive and stability. These operations are not an end in themselves, but rather the means to an end – to achieve an intervention campaign objective. The objective in Afghanistan is a self-sustaining Afghanistan based on their form of governance, rule of law, economic system, security and so forth.

In the Balkans, for example, the mission was not to deliver a self-sustaining Bosnia but to enforce the terms of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina; it was looking in the rear view mirror instead of looking forward. Rather than working towards an endgame together, you had rotations of international forces – military, police, governance, judiciary – enforcing an old agreement. But how does that get you to a new Bosnia? The answer is, it didn’t. We were doing 3D of a style but, I hate to say it, it was sustaining a version of the status quo.

We’ve learned a lot from a decade of Balkan-like experiences. In Afghanistan, we have an international and Afghan agenda based on the Afghan National Development Strategy to get to a new endgame, a state where Afghanistan can go it alone.

We’re conscious of the perception that the CF is driving the 3D agenda. That’s not our intent. But we can provide the venue to train [other department’s] teams within the team. Where are the intellectual and academic centres for whole-of-government operations? Who is unifying training and education programs to inform institutional leaders and operational commanders who will work in this environment? That piece is still a lingering question for all of us.

We can almost write the sequel to Andrew Cohen’s book, While Canada Slept. If I had to coin a phrase, we are at a period when Canada woke up. That “expeditionaryness” that he writes about can be recreated. The opportunity is there. We’re certainly not driving it but we are creating part of the playing field to allow it to happen.

The conference will be held in Kingston from June 26-28. For further information or to register, contact 613-533-2381 or email quawc@post.queensu.ca.