Northern Alliance

Canada's defense minister talks about security in the Americas -- and Afghanistan.


Canada's defense minister, Peter MacKay, talked with The E-Ring last Friday following his Pentagon visit with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. MacKay said that Canada is playing a critical role in North American security by fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, providing high-level training to U.S. and Canadian partners, and urging European NATO members to do their fair share for collective security across the Atlantic.  

Canada’s defense minister, Peter MacKay, talked with The E-Ring last Friday following his Pentagon visit with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. MacKay said that Canada is playing a critical role in North American security by fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, providing high-level training to U.S. and Canadian partners, and urging European NATO members to do their fair share for collective security across the Atlantic.  

MacKay said all of that and more will be under discussion at the fourth annual Halifax Security Forum in November, North America’s highest-level defense gathering. Coming less than two weeks after the U.S. presidential election, MacKay said it will provide an opportunity to "reset" some security challenges. Here is an edited transcript of his discussion with Kevin Baron.

FOREIGN POLICY: What did you and Secretary Panetta talk about today?

PETER MACKAY: Well, we always begin by delving into — not doing too much navel gazing or reflecting on the Canada-U.S. defense relationship. But that’s where it starts and finishes, and we’re — we closely monitor and cooperate with one another on so many of the vital defense relationships: operations, missions, training sets, and Afghanistan inevitably factors into that.

Our training mission, we’ve evolved from a combat mission into training missions. We’re the second largest contributor, in fact, in that regard in Afghanistan. Secretary Panetta and his predecessor, Secretary [Robert] Gates, both were extremely magnanimous and quick to point out how much they valued Canada’s contribution in that regard.

We talked a lot today about the [upcoming] Conference of Defense Ministers in the Americas, and the evolving challenges in our own backyard, in our own neighborhood throughout the Caribbean, and how Canada in niche areas can play a vital role. We’re already quite engaged with island countries like Jamaica. We’ve been working closer with countries like Peru; we’re going to be in Uruguay for the upcoming defense ministerial. And all of this is about demonstrating in a tangible way Canada’s commitment to defense, our engagement right here in the Western hemisphere. We’re lockstep through NORAD in the defense of North America, including the maritime approaches. But [we’re also] going a little bit further afield and into the Americas writ large and our own hemisphere.

So, what we inevitably talk about and how the discussion evolves is into developing, reinforcing, how our regional relationship in the Americas can benefit and elevate the security quotum there. Because, as you’re aware, it’s a very complex part of the world when it comes to narcotrafficking, human trafficking, smuggling of all sorts of contraband. North America is not immune from these threats, and yet if we can work closer not only with one another but in partnership with these burgeoning nations and some of those that are trying to develop their own security forces, that’s going to be key.

And so promoting the defense ministerial relationship there, the IADB [Inter-American Defense Board] which is the body in which Canada currently holds the chairmanship… they work closely with the OAS.  And what we’re trying to do is find a more meaningful and tangible role for Canada to train, in some case equip and prepare, some of these nations to take on a greater security responsibility. Because we’re direct beneficiaries when that security capacity improves.

Just as we are — to go back to Afghanistan — seeing the Afghan security forces improve their professionalism, their capabilities, enabling them to do for themselves what we’ve been doing for them in many cases, in protecting their people, their villages, their sovereignty. Everybody wins in that scenario. So we do inevitably spend a great deal of time talking about that coordinated effort. In addition to the big security picture and the hot spots, whether it be the South China Sea or, clearly the Middle East is on everybody’s mind, parts of North Africa, and issues that relate directly on our joint efforts to improve the security in many of these parts of the world where we will find ourselves for the foreseeable future.

FP: Tell me more, if you can, what are Canada’s niche capabilities. You mentioned training, is there anything else that’s uniquely Canadian in the offering?

MACKAY: Generally speaking, Canada’s reputation in the area of peace-building and peacekeeping and training, imparting the type of skills to nations like Afghanistan, and before that, in parts of the Balkans, where we’ve had a presence in previous missions, we’ve developed a certain approach that some countries do emulate. And that is working in the "whole of government" fashion. NATO refers to it often as the comprehensive approach, where you’re working closely with your development agencies, your public security agencies, and to use the most recent example of Afghanistan, working with our agriculture department, where we were able to improve their irrigation system, improve their infrastructure. These are things not always associated with military operations, but having a place like Kandahar province in Afghanistan connect communities by building roads and bridges and water systems, giving them generators that will allow them to have an economy that will allow them to engage in commerce — well, if they’re picking up hoes and shovels, they’re not picking up AK-47s — and if we’re able to connect some of these communities to trade goods, that’s also going to focus their attention away from insurgency. If we’re building schools and medical clinics, that is obviously going to give their kids a future and hope for a better life.

It sounds sometimes a bit grandiose, but the "books rather than bullets" is one of the first lessons that the soldiers learn. They want to build a security environment that is going to allow these things, these development projects and all that flows from development, to foster a better future. I’m very proud of Canada’s reputation in that regard, but we can’t do it without reliable, strong partners like the United States. We inevitably work in such a coordinated fashion in that regard. We saw it in Afghanistan. We saw it basically around the globe, where in military terms we’re a force multiplier. We’re actually able to bring a unique brand and a unique style of both military development, security building, and capacity that we think is value-added, unique to our country. And we can talk the same language; we’re inevitably able to plug into various efforts that, in some cases, the Americans were leaving, as was the case with ISAF. But we have a commonality in our vision, in our institutions, and in our military history, and in our interoperability, which is something that we can’t lose sight of.  Highly-technical equipment is being used now in the protection of many communities on these missions. Our ability to have the plug-and-play concept, which is another expression you’re probably hearing more and more, we’re able to do that. We are very often, again to take the analogy further, on the same frequency — that shared history, the common values, common ethos of our military makes us a formidable partner with the United States. And I’m proud of that result.

Polio eradication in Afghanistan is one of the great results that happened under the umbrella of security. We were able to build a lot of schools and put in place a number of programs on the agriculture side that got some of the local farmers … away from poppy crops and growing cash crops like beets and barley and wheat. Again, it may surprise you to hear a defense minister talking about this, but had I not seen it with my own eyes, and saw the pride and purpose that our military took in seeing these things literally, pardon the pun, growing right in front of their eyes while they’re out on patrol, and clearing the path for these farmers to make these types of decisions — really inspiring stuff.  Seven million more kids going to school now in that region where we were operating. That’s the kind of thing that soldiers come home and really tell the story and talk about why we undertake these missions in faraway places.

FP: To stay with Afghanistan, two things on Canada’s participation: One, the decision to get out of combat and stick with training, and then this year the decision to not suspend joint operations the way the Americans did. Do you think Canada made its choice to pull out of the combat mission too soon, given what’s happened since then, this rise in green-on-blue attacks, the re-commitment to 2014, and statements by Secretary Panetta that some of the heaviest fighting is still to come for the East? That’s one question. The second question: Explain why Canada did not suspend its joint operations, or did not feel they needed to.

MACKAY: Well, first of all, I say with some degree of pride that we held the fort in one of the most difficult, dangerous parts of that country, down in Kandahar province. This was the spiritual home of the Taliban, as you would know. And when we showed up in ’06, that was some of the fiercest fighting that you would find anywhere in that country. And going back further than that, we were there from the very beginning. We were part of the initial decision to go, we went there, of course, with the Security Council backing and the NATO-backed mission. And so our heavy lifting in that region, when a lot of other NATO partners and non-NATO partners did not want to deploy into that part of the country, is something that we feel we have pretty strong credentials to refer to.

When we decided to end the combat mission and transition into training, we were doing essentially what others had already undertaken. And some, of course, were quite heavily caveated and hadn’t been doing combat, had been doing strictly training, so this was all part of the transition. It was part of the overall NATO plan led by people like David Petraeus and now General [John] Allen to turn over security responsibility to the Afghan security forces, to have the Afghan government itself play a larger role. And you know, part of that decision of where we deployed and what work needed to be done was very much in concert with the NATO leadership itself, the secretary-general, the organization, and the alliance’s need — what were the holes that had to be filled? And one of those big challenges was training, was to accelerate the pace and the quality of training for Afghan soldiers, in particular.

I do want to come back to your reference to green-on-blue because this is a very serious issue for everyone. Sadly, the United States, Great Britain, most NATO countries have experienced that pain. And you know we’ve been part of the planning at NATO in all of the efforts to try and filter out those who pose a risk to the trainers, those who infiltrate. It seems to be less the latter where it’s planned insurgent attacks as opposed to sometimes a cultural breakdown or an individual frustration or a mental health issue. It’s a big, big challenge and we want to do everything that we can to protect all our allied forces there who are engaged in this Herculean effort to turn over those responsibilities ultimately to the Afghan security forces.

You can’t talk about Afghanistan without mentioning Pakistan, and therein lies perhaps the biggest challenge of all. And that is, how do we stop the flow of insurgents into Afghanistan and the constant interference that that causes in reaching our eventual goal of a stable, secure country? That would take a lot longer to delve into that discussion, but I can assure you we work very, very closely with the United States and with the entire NATO contingent that’s inside Afghanistan still. Our commitment is until 2014; that was a basically result of a parliamentary motion in our country. It’s the way our system works, and the way that our government has committed to Parliament is that we will go back and consult. That was how we arrived at the original date, and we have, in fact, extended on previous occasions. 

So, to come to your last question, why did we take the choice of continuing to train as opposed to the combat mission? You’ll know that the NATO mandate itself reaches out to that date, there’s kind of a culmination, a number of countries that fixed on that date in consultation with President Karzai’s government, that that was the turnover of the entire territory, that all of the regions of the country will be under Afghan security at that point.  And then we assess what more needs to be done. The development I talked a lot about, that’s part and parcel and key to Afghanistan’s future. Not just the security, but everything that flows underneath it.  Not the least of which is governance. There’ll be an election in Afghanistan’s future. They’ve had two previous elections. While you can question the process itself, it did work, and considering their democratic history, they had to be deemed a success. And so it’s an extremely complex investment in nation-building. It has paid dividends already, continues to pay security dividends. North America is no longer under attack from a terrorist inside Afghanistan. And that goes back to the very root cause of how we wound up in the country and it can inevitably be traced right back to 9/11.

FP: You said you’re working closely with the Americans on the flow of terrorists from Pakistan. Exactly how? If you’re not involved in combat, what’s the Canadian role there?

MACKAY: Well, we’re not involved in a combat role, so the Americans have the lead in that regard. There’s intelligence sharing, there are efforts, of course, in proving the Afghan security forces’ ability to deal with that very serious problem and very serious flow of insurgents. But that is an area we can certainly share some of our experience that was brought to bear down in Kandahar that has similar border regions to what we’re seeing more up around Kabul.

But training more Afghans equals more security equals more sovereignty — that’s our primary focus at this point. And I say again for emphasis, we’ve played a major role: the second-largest training contingent, we have people within the chain of command, we have a great deal of experience, high-ranking Canadian officers have filled key billets in that capacity and there’s a great deal of respect and gratitude that flows both ways between Canada and the United States.

FP: Explain a little about Canada’s role in "smart defense" and European defense. If NATO’s looking for a more collective kind of defense and sharing capabilities, where does Canada come into that equation?

MACKAY: NATO just hosted, well your country just hosted, the big NATO meeting, the summit in Chicago. While Afghanistan was a big subject of discussion there, there are ongoing efforts to improve the institution itself. We had, I would point to, considerable success in the Libya mission, which also demonstrated the importance of partnerships between NATO and other countries, including some of the, what you wouldn’t consider traditional allies of NATO, but have proven to be very important, like the UAE, like Jordan — Arab League countries that really stepped up. But in terms of the apparatus and the inner working of NATO, we’ve always been closely aligned with the United States, looking for ways in which we can, in this time of fiscal restraint, when all defense budgets are under pressure including our own, we’re looking at ways that we can align our equipment. So, interoperability, things like re-fuelers, things like the type of equipment we used in Afghanistan to great effect.

And making NATO itself, I guess as a general comment, a more lean and effective organization, including the command structure; making it more fit for the type of expeditionary mission that we saw in Afghanistan. Keep in mind that was the first out-of-area mission that NATO’s undertaken, and ironically, the first time that Article 5 was invoked was an attack on North America.  Because I can tell you as one of the two transatlantic partners from North America, it’s not always atop the minds of European allies to think of things in terms of North American security. So we, the United States and Canada, very often find ourselves making the point and putting down markers that the goal, the aim of NATO, is security well beyond the confines of Europe — although that was certainly the concern at the time of NATO’s standup over 60 years ago.

But we need to forge closer working relationships with some of these European Union countries where their security interests are aligned with ours. I think of counter-piracy as an example, where there’s a growing recognition that we need to keep these maritime superhighways open and goods flowing. I think of some of the hotspots where we had hoped that we could perhaps disengage more than we have to date. But we still have NATO missions that are ongoing, including in the Balkans. We know that there are regions of the world where we’re going to have to sharpen our attention and our focus. I mentioned regions around the South China Sea. I just came back in the spring from the meeting in Singapore, where at that security conference, it was evident to me from both Secretary Panetta’s comments about what they’re calling the Pacific shift, or "pivot," to talking directly to some of our non-NATO partners there, that there’s a great deal of activity — I would say volatility — in the region that we need to be cognizant of. And while Australia and New Zealand are not NATO partners, they certainly share a perspective and a security vision and outlook very much in line with the Canada and United States and are members of the "five eye" security community, so sharing intelligence is also a big, big part of our security apparatus. And so, you know, NATO still remains the quintessential security organization and the cornerstone of our international contributions.

FP: Given all the responsibilities you’ve just laid out for NATO, do you have confidence though that the other NATO members, the European members, will be able to fund those requirements? They were hit pretty hard by Secretary Gates on his way out, and like you said, do you have any confidence in that?

MACKAY: Yeah, I very often read from the same song sheet as Secretary Gates in encouraging our NATO partners to not abandon the fight and to continue to fight internally to keep their budgets and to keep their militaries strong. NATO, of course, allows us collectively to be certainly much stronger and more secure than anyone could be alone. That’s the, that’s the tie that binds. We have to, in those forums, in Brussels, time and time again stress the importance of keeping a stronger, more capable European defense network. That’s why we want to keep the doors open as well. Just as one small example, look at Croatia now: a contribution partner in Afghanistan that was a recipient nation just over a decade ago of NATO forces. I’m not suggesting for a minute that we’re going to see Afghan forces deploying anytime soon to build security somewhere else, but there are tangible examples of where we have succeeded.

Didn’t talk a lot about Libya, but there’s an example of NATO partnering with other nations in a successful security building exercise that helped that region and end a regime that was brutal and was attacking its own people.

And so I think NATO is again going to be a major player in the future, and it’s something that we’ll be talking about, quite frankly, at the Halifax Security Forum. We’ve had a lot of participant nations, a lot of defense ministers, a lot of foreign ministers, in fact, that came from NATO countries show up at Halifax and in a relatively informal setting put down their notes, put down their prescribed positions and really talk openly about how we build the trust, build the capacity, figure out what we can do in our collective best interest for security. And this is in keeping with how we designed the Halifax Security Forum. I hope you might attend. It’s proving to be a really interesting line-up this year, and we’re hoping it coming right on the heels of the presidential election gives a chance to hit a bit of a reset on how we improve our collective efforts going into the New Year. And it’s a very, very interesting place where we can put a whole mix of different perspectives forward and hashed out in a way that allows for people to really be heard, and sometimes some of the countries that don’t often get the floor have a great deal to contribute to the discussion.

So I’m excited about Halifax this year. It’s the fourth annual event. It’s the only event — I would describe it as the pre-eminent security forum in North America — and a lot of very interesting participants coming that I think will have a lot to contribute to the discussion.

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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