Wednesday, 2 January 2013


 In late December, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for African troops to help Mali combat Islamist forces occupying the northern part of the country. On Sunday, Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay  suggested the Harper government could contribute to a training mission in the African nation of Mali.

Mackay was quoted as saying “We are not at a point where we would be making an announcement, but as you know, training is something that the Canadian Forces is particularly adept at doing," MacKay said. "We've demonstrated that repeated in the last, well, throughout our history, but certainly the training mission in Afghanistan is a testament to that commitment and that ability and something that has garnered the admiration of recipient nations but also other countries who emulate Canadian training techniques.”

This emphasis on training is important because the UN Security Council resolution passed in late December didn’t contain a timeline, but did state that no military intervention would take place before the Mali government is stable and its military, which is notorious for human-rights abuses, is properly trained.

These are the same soldiers who, on March 21, invaded the presidential palace. The fall of the nation’s democratically elected government at the hands of junior officers destroyed the military’s command-and-control structure, creating the vacuum which allowed the rebel groups to move in and al-Qaeda to consolidate its power.

It is in the area of Special Forces, more specifically counter-terrorism training, that the Canadian military would likely make the most immediate contribution. Briefing records for the commander of the country's special forces show members of a highly-trained, ultra-secret regiment have conducted at least three training mission in the country between 2010 and 2011.

A Sept. 27, 2011 briefing to Brig.-Gen Denis Thompson read, in part "Each involved embedding training Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) trainers within training units from other countries”. The memo emphasized that there would be no combat, and much like Afghanistan, the troops would be restricted to inside the wire instruction. "This task is limited in scope to training only. CANSOFCOM members will not engage in any form of operational mentoring of Malian forces,"  The memo added that Canadians retained control of the training teams, but also the engagement in Mali was considered by former chief of defence staff retired general Walt Natynczyk to be a "recurring operation in the Trans-Sahel Region."

A recurring operation in the Trans-Sahel Region! Can anyone at all tell us why this is a good idea? Is there any reason at all why Canadian troops and treasure should be “invested” in Mali?

From what might be termed a realist point of view it is hard to understand what Canada’s security interests in Mali are. How does stability in Mali add to Canadian security accept in the most general sense? How in the final analysis does it benefit Canada?

From a liberal point of view it is possible that an argument can be made that a middle power like Canada should aid those countries that need it. In this case it is not clear how any assistance Canada gives to the Military Autocracy now running the country could do any good.

In the realm of ideas it can be said that the idea of a democratic, stable, Mali is an attractive one, what is not obvious is how military aid can bring about the evolution of this idea.

The fact that this is a classic “Bad Idea” from any point of view is not lessening interest in it in some quarters.

Walter Dorn, a professor of defence studies at Kingston‘s Royal Military College, advocated Canadian participation in what he said would be a “cutting-edge mission” involving counterinsurgency, arguing that Canadian personnel should provide planning, intelligence gathering, and equipment.

Prof. Dorn said this would be consistent with the UN resolution, and said that some training could be done outside Mali. He compared the context to the mission in Afghanistan: “If you don’t deal with Taliban now, they tend to come back to haunt us.”

It should be noted that until the coup in March, Mali has been one of our biggest recipients of foreign aid. Although criticized in the past by the opposition parties for not helping out in the region, Mali is on a short list of “countries of focus” for foreign aid, giving it more than $100-million in annual support. The country had a democratically elected government since 1991, something which CIDA, Canada’s federal aid agency noted, referring to Mali as an “example of democracy in the sub-Saharan region.”

In addition, Canadian forces had also helped to train the country’s military. They had spent about $2-million for a peacekeeping school, and Canadian soldiers helped train Mali’s counterterrorism units. This training made little difference in the poorly equipped Malian army, which is known for corruption and human-rights abuses.

On another note, and one which will undoubtedly have no influence on the Governments decisions in this matter, Canadian businesses have also invested in the country with investments of about $300-million from 20 mining companies.

With no strategy, exit or otherwise, Canada is contemplating becoming involved in hostilities in a foreign country, a country as large and as dangerous and as complicated as Afghanistan. Nobody knows why.  Nobody knows where it will end or what end-state we desire. The Armed Forces do not need a war to justify their existence or their budget. Canada does not need a war to feel good. The world does not need another western intervention in the third world playing out against a background of social media and a twenty-four hour news cycle.  

Does anyone doubt that if we were to take the money we propose to spend on "Training" and use it for almost any other purpose in Mali it wouldn't be better spent. We could give it to competent organizations that help the people of Mali. We use the money to enable Canadian business provide jobs in Mali. We could pay people in that country to support the government of our choice. Even that cynical use would be better for Mali and better for Canada.

On the other hand, Canadian military intervention in Mali is a prescription for disaster.

Since 1972, the Canadian government had a strong partnership with Mali in support of democracy and progress in that country. The two nations also collaborated on matters of peace and security on the African continent. Since the coup d’etat of March 21, 2012, Canada has suspended aid programs involving direct payments to Mali but continues to provide humanitarian assistance through international and non-governmental organizations.

Capital: Bamako

Population (2011): 15.8-million

Gross national income (per capita in 2011): $610 (U.S.)

Population below poverty line ($1.25 a day/2007-2010): 50.4 per cent

Human development index ranking (2011): 175 out of 187 countries

Life expectancy at birth: 51 years

Adult literacy rate (2005-2010): 31 per cent

Bilateral trade between Canada and Mali (2011): $27-million, including $878,000 in imports to Canada and $26.2-million in exports to Mali

Developmental assistance from Canada to Mali (2010-2011): $110-million