“When you’re facing a counterinsurgency war, if you get the strategy right, you can get the tactics wrong, and eventually you’ll get the tactics right,” Robert Killebrew, a retired US special forces colonel once said of the war in Vietnam. “If you get the strategy wrong and the tactics right at the start, you can refine the tactics forever but you still lose the war.”

That maxim is no less true today for what are being called “continuous wars amongst the people,” tribal rather than state-driven conflicts that are not defined by national borders nor necessarily controlled by recognized governments.

“Most people realize that what we are experiencing in Afghanistan, and have experienced in the former Yugoslavia and Somalia, are not anomalies,” says Douglas Bland, professor and chair of the Defence Management Studies Program at Queen’s University. “They seem to be suggesting the kinds of conflicts and crisis that governments are going to be facing in years to come. Everyone is now moving to the realization that this is not something that can be handled by armed forces alone, but needs a more comprehensive government approach.”

The manner in which conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan have unfolded has forced governments to become reacquainted with a broader understanding of intervention. Getting the development and reconstruction efforts right are as important, if not more so, than the correct application of military force.

And once a decision has been made to intervene – no small task in itself for a fickle international community – what then are the best multi-dimensional resources – diplomatic, military, police, development – to be used to manage or resolve the conflict? In what combination? And in what magnitude?

“It’s the geographic and economic circumstances in which these conflicts are taking place that requires this joining together of forces in ways that we haven’t done much in a long time, especially during the Cold War era,” Bland notes. “All countries are learning how to proceed in these conflicts and they’re looking around to their allies for good ideas and suggestions on how to go ahead.”

Military doctrine, observes Major-General Stuart Beare, commander of the Canada’s Land Force Doctrine and Training System, has given us “a foundation of principles, lessons and approaches that provides the model for intervention. While it’s easy to say, ‘no one goes it alone,’ unfortunately we don’t always behave like it’s a no-brainer.”

So what are we gleaning about approaches to stabilization and peace building operations today that might be transferable to future conflicts looming elsewhere around the globe? That’s the question before the Kingston Conference on International Security this June.

Hosted by the Queen’s Centre for International Relations and Defence Management Studies, the Land Force Doctrine and Training System and the U.S. Army War College, the annual event, now in its third year, is steadily gaining prominence as a key venue for debating these issues.

The focus this year is on experiences drawn from conflicts in four regions: West Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and from what the organizers term “new wars.”

“I think it’s probably premature to say what specific lessons we might get because some of those cases have been successes, some have been failures or are continuing, and the picture is not clear yet,” says Charles Pentland, director of the Queen’s Centre for International Relations. “To me, the real value is having them all in a comparative framework and to be able to see, perhaps for the first time, what the parallels might be across the board.”

Rather than attempting to apply one doctrine such as Responsibility to Protect to a conflict, Bland wants to understand some of the root causes and areas of commonality. “We’re looking for patterns and experiences to see if there is some common set of circumstances that we need to address,” he said. “Going the other way is to try and situate the conflicts so it fits your ideological view, and that’s usually a poor way to begin.”

Though international policies such as R2P have their place in the debate, Beare hopes that “we focus more on if and when we chose to intervene in different regions, who and how should you intervene to be effective.”

Neutral ground
If the first year of the Kingston Conference looked more like a gathering of military personnel, by 2007 suits and ties had begun to equal uniforms. It’s a trend Beare wants to see continue, especially on the development front.

The forum, he says, offers “neutral ground” for military, diplomats, NGOs, public executives and academics “to communicate, share ideas and challenge the status quo.”

“If you listen to any intervener – be it military, civilian, government or otherwise – everybody wants unity of thought, to a form, unity of purpose and unity of action to deliver a unified, legitimate result. And the venues to confirm what people mean by that don’t exist in great numbers. We’re not putting a military stamp on this. We see this as a community of institutions creating a venue for all institutions to participate.”

The event has attracted not only Canadian and American military and government officials, but also representatives from NATO and other countries. And it’s become a venue for analyzing the Canadian government’s comprehensive approach to intervention.

“When we started, I don’t think we quite knew how long this might run; whether it would simply be a one-off,“ said Pentland. “The first theme was on the topic of defence, development and diplomacy and the whole-of-government approach. As it’s turned out, that’s been a thread running through all three conferences. This year, we’re breaking it out into a broader geographical scope, but, again, the whole-of-government approach and the idea of learning from experience are both carried over the previous two.”

It may be too soon for the ideas generated from past conferences to be bearing fruit in various departments, though Beare says the military has taken away much on the “intellectual end of the whole-of-government approach.” However, it is furthering recognition of just how challenging these conflicts have become.

“One of the values of a conference that joins militaries, academics and public servants is that, for academics like me, we don’t necessarily see the results and the benefits of the conference immediately,” says Bland. “But it does help provide ways to look at difficult issues, to frame the wars that we are facing now in new ways and to understand more deeply the ideas and the problems and the environment in which we’re working. From that, eventually, we will produce descriptions and themes and, perhaps, even theories about the kinds of conflicts we’re involved in and how to manage them.”

“The Canadian forces has a fairly robust professional development framework that is driven by modern doctrine, which today fully incorporates the comprehensive, whole-of-government approach to win wars in the failed and failing state environment,” Beare adds. “It educates people not about their craft but about the nature of conflict and how interventions may or may not succeed, and, if you do intervene, how to do that with your partners – what principles to apply, what philosophies to apply and, more practically, how to execute them. So this is definitely feeding back into the professional military education domain as well as the public sector.”

With Royal Military College, the Canadian Defence Academy, the Peace Support Training Centre, the Army Simulation Centre, and many other intellectual development and operations organizations all located in Kingston, that cycle is likely to continue.