Idealists on the Beat
A review of Worth Dying For: Canada’s Mission to Train Police in the World’s Failing States, by Terry Gould
Terry Gould’s Worth Dying For: Canada’s Mission to Train Police in the World’s Failing States is a vivid cinema-verité treatment of the overseas police-mentoring missions undertaken by Canada’s International Peace Operations Branch, otherwise known as the CivPol (for civilian police) project, in existence since 1989. Of the many intriguing stories that unfold in its pages, three stand out as emblematic of the range of tragic circumstances the program strives to address.
Back in the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Matiullah Qati Khan was a young police officer who defected to the mujahideen after having witnessed a Russian atrocity. Matiullah went on to fight the Taliban, too. After the Taliban were overthrown and Hamid Karzai was elected president, Matiullah applied to get his old job back.
By 2009, Matiullah was commanding the 6,000-strong Kandahar contingent of the Afghan National Police, and he was a rare thing in the Kandahar power structure. He had not bought his position. He had earned it. He was not owned by any of Karzai’s clan bosses. The Taliban loathed him. He had tripled the number of women on the police force. He had fired 140 corrupt officers.
On June 29, 2009, Matiullah was called to attend at a Kandahar detention centre where 40 Kandahar police regulars had gathered in a rage after learning that one of their own was being held on forgery charges. There was a shootout. When it was over, Matiullah and ten other officers were dead.
Compared to the uphill struggles Matiullah Qati Khan was forced to wage in his life, Palestine Civil Police General Yousef Ozreil has had an almost easy time of it.
During the First Intifada—the Palestinian insurrection that petered out following the 1993 Oslo Accords—the Israeli Defence Forces bulldozed Ozreil’s house in the West Bank village of Salfit where he was born. Ozreil was a militant leader at the time, and he ended up spending eight years in an Israeli prison in the Negev Desert. But after the Oslo Accords, Ozreil threw himself into police work and moved up the ladder—police chief in Ramallah, then Jenin, and then to the rank of a Palestinian police general.
By 2010, Ozreil could see light at the end of the dark Israeli-Palestinian tunnel. If the Palestinian Authority could show that it was capable of developing the infrastructure of self-government, embedded in the rule of law and upheld by an accountable police force, then the odds were good that the Islamist gangsterism and extortion-racket militias that ruled Palestinian society and ran the “liberation struggle” in the West Bank might be vanquished. A fully functioning Palestinian state and an end to the Israeli occupation were reasonably foreseeable.
No such hopeful view is available to Jean Maximé, not even in the sweeping vista afforded from the hilltop campus of the Haitian National Police Academy overlooking Port-au-Prince. As the academy’s cerebral young commander, Maximé saw only the anarchic wreckage of a collapsed city. Port-au-Prince was the capital of a country that had been broken by a succession of military coups, parasitic kleptocracies and social implosion long before the 2011 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 Haitians and left 600,000 people sleeping in the streets of Port-Au-Prince in tents and shanties.
Before the earthquake, the vast dystopian gangland of Cité Soleil was already the northern hemisphere’s largest slum. More than a quarter of a million people were huddled in shacks in Cité Soleil without even the benefit of latrines. After the earthquake, even Cité Soleil was a step up from the scores of encampments that had sprung up in the city’s ruins. Maximé had a hard enough time of it just persuading his police patrols to keep an eye on those nightmare zones. As for the squalid encampment of 60,000 people known as Jean-Marie Vincent, adjacent to Cité Soleil, Maximé’s police outright refused to so much as enter the place.
In all these situations, Canada has sent in trained police officers to teach the basics about the rule of law and build national police forces from the ground up. Although the subtitle to Worth Dying For sets the stories of Canada’s little-known International Peace Operations Branch in “failing states,” that term does little to describe the variety of missions and the wildly different conditions faced by officers in the program. Afghanistan, for instance, was long past the point of failing as early as 1990, and was further torn apart during the 1996 emergence of the Taliban. Palestine, in contrast, has never achieved statehood, and the Palestinian Authority represents a semi-despotic government of an Israeli-Occupied embryonic proto-state. And the island slum of Haiti is a United Nations protectorate in all but name.
By Gould’s own admission, the long-term contributions of the Canadian officers are difficult to measure, so parsing out their daily obstacles and describing the Canadian mentors’ relationships with their local students is as close as the author can get to rendering the program legible. Nearly half of the book’s opening section profiles Joe McAllister, CivPol’s national deputy commander of the Afghanistan mission in 2010, who introduced Gould to CivPol’s culture and goals. McAllister, it seems, is a “true believer” in CivPol’s mission of exporting community and ethical policing, but Gould’s profile reveals a man who grieves over the risks his cops faced while accompanying Afghan National Police officers in small, remote substations. During his tours in Afghanistan he formed strong attachments to both his Canadian subordinates and his Afghan pupils, and counselled his Canadian officers through episodes of culture shock and their sense of futility in confronting their gargantuan task; McAllister openly weeps when news of the murder of his beloved Afghan protégé, Matiullah Qati Khan, reaches him in Vancouver. And although defeats were abundant during his tenure, thanks to his work the Afghan National Police saw incremental increases in female officer recruitment, trust in the beats that officers policed and independence from Karzai’s regime.
Through McAllister’s portrait and the portraits of other officers, Gould slowly introduces the tenets, protocols and techniques CivPol employs to sculpt effective civilian police forces. The portrayal of higher-up male commanding officers is paired with the infrastructural improvements CivPol provides through creating call centres and training dispatchers in technical competency and the like. The profiles of the younger women of CivPol’s mission detail both the efforts to train the local police in rudimentary police work and to respect human rights—and the rights of women, specifically.
Canada’s International Peace Operations Branch, though, is shrivelling. Its budget has been frozen since 2006, and in 2012 many of its missions were cancelled while its ranks of enrolled officers were halved. Gould, reading the program’s last rites, calls the project “one of the last vestiges of our Blue Helmet heritage,” which is not stretching things overly much.
From its beginnings in a 1989 state-building effort in Namibia, the program has brought roughly 3,500 Canadian police trainers, mentors and investigators to 30 countries in the grips of chaos. The list of CivPol’s target countries reads like an index for mayhem. It includes Somalia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Haiti, East Timor, Guatemala, Iraq, Western Sahara, South Sudan, Palestine and Afghanistan.
Nowadays, however, the program is down to a handful of Canadian police officers in the West Bank, and a few dozen in Haiti. The program is no longer seen as a coherent fit with Ottawa’s priorities, due to a major foreign policy rethink in 2012 that produced a shift to “trade, not aid,” sharpened Ottawa’s focus on opening up new business opportunities for small Canadian companies, and recalibrated diplomatic efforts to focus on a smaller suite of countries.
Gould’s book was timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the first CivPol mission to Namibia, and Gould is candid about his hope that Worth Dying For might help convince Ottawa that the CivPol project was a good idea to begin with and still is, even in the context of the Conservative government’s narrower foreign policy emphasis on trade.
Gould’s strongest case for CivPol’s survival rests in his intimate portrait of the idealism that animates CivPol’s officers. Gould’s access was enough to give him a year of front-line exposure to the gruelling challenges CivPol trainers and mentors bravely confront, and the result is an honest and healthy collaboration between Gould and the subjects of his inquiries. Each officer he describes has left more comfortable positions on stable police forces in Canada to put up with Spartan barracks across the globe, pinched between their yearnings to help assuage daily suffering and the need to maintain a measured level of respect for local cultures.
Gould shares the zeal that drives CivPol’s officers, but he is at the same time candid enough to notice the project’s occasional disfigurements: it is about “fallible Canadians and a fallible programme run by an imperfect force.” But Gould believes in the project, nonetheless, and he draws from a deep reservoir of investigative and storytelling talent to make his case in Worth Dying For.
The idealism Gould endorses in Worth Dying For rests on the premise that corrupt and broken societies cannot be systematically reformed without the everyday and necessarily mundane efforts of an effective and honest police force. Building that kind of basic state capacity is not glamorous work. It means a lot of classroom time teaching the concept of probable cause, the elements of crime scene investigation, proper ways to interview suspects and witnesses, evidence collection, human rights law, the virtues of community policing—that sort of thing.
It is not the stirring stuff involved in rising to the aid of democratic revolutionaries in the struggle to overthrow tyrants, but the kind of efforts the CivPol project makes are necessary for a civilized social order of any kind to take root. The CivPol training manual is refreshingly unapologetic, meanwhile, about the implications of CivPol missions impinging upon local cultures—perhaps especially in their subjection of women.
“Culture is always in a state of change. It is not static,” the manual reads. “Conflict accelerates changes in culture. As Peace Operations personnel, your job is to uphold what is fair and just, supporting those changes which are bringing more equality between men and women.”
For most people in the dysfunctional places where CivPol programs have been carried out, the local gendarmerie tends to be the face of all state authority and, unless the police treat rich and poor equally, crime will remain a legitimate resort of the poor and the marginalized. So long as elites are allowed to break the law with impunity—so the CivPol argument goes—nobody else will be vested with an incentive to obey the law.
It is a plausible proposition. As evidence for it, Gould cites the spark on December 17, 2010, that ignited the Arab Spring revolutions that went on to convulse the entire region, from Tripoli to Aleppo. It all started in Tunisia, when crooked cops bullied a street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, and confiscated his pushcart. Bouazizi soaked himself in paint thinner and set himself ablaze. The incident set off riots that spread to Egypt, Libya, Syria and beyond, and the tectonics of the entire region are still shuddering from it.
This argument might seem to require cause-and-effect lines that are rather too neatly drawn. But it is fair enough to conclude that cops who see their jobs as the work of administering extortion rackets that benefit a small elite will invariably function as parasites on their fellow citizens. A police officer’s income becomes less a function of wages and salaries and more a matter of subsidies extracted from the public by strong-arm tactics in service of bribery. No reasonably functioning democracy can be built on a foundation that sordid.
Gould is not particularly assiduous in providing evidence for the program’s long-term benefits, but the evidence he does cite is convincing enough.
Public opinion surveys undertaken in the West Bank in 2012 showed that 78 percent of Palestinians held a positive view of the Palestine Civil Police, and 91 percent of poll respondents said they would call the PCP if they felt endangered. PCP general Yousef Ozreil credited Canada’s police mentors and trainers for playing a key role in his agency’s success: “I hope you will thank the Canadian people for helping Palestine,” General Ozreil told Gould.
In Afghanistan, a national survey carried out by the Asia Foundation in 2013 showed that 85 percent of poll respondents considered the Afghan National Police “fair with the Afghan people,” 86 percent said the ANP “improves security” and 80 percent said the ANP was effective in apprehending criminals.
Haiti is a bit of an anomaly. Haitian National Police Academy commander Jean Maximé put it this way: “The people we are taking into this academy have been raised to cheat and steal, with no discipline, no sense of delaying their need for gratification … This is why we alone in the Western Hemisphere need the UN to protect us—from ourselves.”
Gould presents the CivPol cops as “humanitarian idealists” in the same league with the most pure-of-spirit, bighearted and youthful humanitarian aid workers. And that’s fair enough.