Wednesday, 18 April 2018


 On March 19th of this year the Government of Canada announced that as “a part of Canada’s return to peace operations” they had committed to deploy an Aviation Task Force to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) for a period of 12 months. The Aviation Task Force is to include Chinook helicopters to provide “urgently needed transport and logistics capacity for the MINUSMA mission”, as well as Griffon helicopters to provide armed escort and protection. The Task Force is also to be accompanied by a number of Canadian Armed Forces personnel for support.

The government’s decision to undertake this mission is widely seen to be a function of both domestic and international politics. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had stated in 2016 that Canada would contribute up to 600 troops to UN peacekeeping operations.  After a review of the commitment in November of 2017 the government backed away from that pledge.

According to Adam Chapnick, a professor of defence at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC), “the government is developing domestically a narrative of [a big] posture of international support, and taking a step towards building this ‘Canada is back’ narrative.”

The commitment of military force to Mali is also seen as part of the government’s campaign to get a seat on the UN Security Council. When Trudeau pulled Canada out of its pledge to assist in Mali it was reported that some allies warned that our bid for that position could suffer.

The government may feel that a commitment of troops and equipment to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) supports it politically, but the questions remain. Will this commitment help Mali and how much danger are our troops in? What is the goal, besides supporting the Liberal government, and do we really know what we are getting into?

Writing for Foreign Policy Robert Malley has summarised the situation in Mali, he wrote that “Mali’s 2012 crisis, which saw the Malian army routed from the country’s north, a coup that overthrew the government, and jihadis holding northern towns for almost a year — illustrates how quickly things can unravel. Since then, implementation of a peace deal that aimed to end that crisis has stalled, while instability has spread from the north to Mali’s central region as well as parts of neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso.

Dynamics in each place are local, but governments’ lack of authority and their inability to stem — and, at times, their frequent contribution to — violence is a common theme. Weapons that flooded the region as Libya collapsed after Muammar al-Qaddafi’s overthrow have made local quarrels deadlier. The instability has opened a rich vein for jihadis, who piggyback on intercommunal conflict or use Islam to frame struggles against traditional authorities.

As the situation has degenerated, the regional and international response has focused excessively on military solutions. Europeans in particular view the region as a threat to their own safety and a source of migration and terrorism. In late 2017, a new French-backed force known as the G5 Sahel — comprising troops from Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania — prepared to deploy into a field already crowded by France’s own counterterrorism operations, U.S. Special Forces, and U.N. peacekeepers. While military action must play a part in reducing jihadis’ influence, the G5 force raises more questions than it answers. It lacks a clear definition of the enemy, instead envisaging operations against an array of jihadis, traffickers, and other criminals. Disrupting smuggling in regions where that business represents the backbone of local economies could alienate communities. Regional leaders also appear likely to misuse military aid to shore up their own power”.

On March 19th of this year Conservative defence critic James Bezan was quoted as saying "Mali is a war zone. This is a combat mission and there is no peace to keep."  While some experts have managed to convince themselves that this is a low risk engagement, for example Jocelyn Coulon, an expert on peacekeeping at the University of Montreal who previously advised then-foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion, dismissed such a description."Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen are war zones. In Mali, there is no bombing and killing every day. Perhaps, two attacks in Bamako in the past few years,"

On the other hand UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres's most recent report on Mali, published at the end of December, reported  that “the deteriorating security situation is exacerbating an already tense political environment and continues to claim the lives of civilians, Malian uniformed personnel and (UN) peacekeepers."

In point of fact Mali has the sad distinction of being the most dangerous peacekeeping mission in the world; 162 blue helmets have been killed in the country since 2013, 99 of them through what the UN calls "malicious acts."
Writing in “The Future of War, a History” Laurence Freedman pointed out that: “The category of Civil wars has never been clear-cut because internal conflict often prompts external intervention-by like-minded militants supporting a religious or ideological cause, neighbours with local security interests, and major powers acting out of humanitarian or security concerns. At times external forces have sought to hold the ring or monitor a fragile ceasefire in the guise of a peacekeeping force. Sometimes there was no peace to keep, and external intervention effectively took sides, either by preventing on side from winning by unacceptable means-starving or massacring civilians, for instance, or ensuring that the most ideologically sympathetic party came out on top…”
 “What might have started with enemies being rolled over by the sheer weight of firepower and sophisticated equipment turned into long, complex and messy campaigns. Their troops entered into a world of shadowy militias, with accomplished bomb-makers, angry mobs, cynical warlords, and energised youngsters brandishing their AK-47’s. “

Given this background it is difficult to know what, aside from scoring points in both the domestic and on the international scenes, the government hopes to accomplish. The nature of peacekeeping has changed over the past couple of decades, to the point where the term is rarely used and has been replaced with the more accurate "peace support operations."

In point of fact, alongside the UN ‘peacekeeping’ mission, France is leading a counter-insurgency mission in Mali and the surrounding area with 4,000 or 5,000 French personnel searching, tracking, and destroying insurgent groups. Canada will be sending two Chinook transport helicopters and four smaller Griffons to act as armed escorts for the larger aircraft, which will be based at the UN's base in Gao where Germany and the Dutch have previously operated. As well as the UN mission they will be supporting the allied counterterror effort.

There is no reason to believe that these efforts will have any effect. Writing in “Discussing the Continuities of War and the Future of Warfare” H.R. McMaster points out that the conviction that “future conflict will be fundamentally different from all historical experience” is a fallacy that seems impossible to eradicate.  Such beliefs, he believed, fail to recognise the “uncertainty of war, the trajectory of which is constantly altered by varied interactions with determined and elusive enemies.”

 In other words, large numbers of smart, aggressive, trained, motivated and armed people will be doing their best to thwart any goals, including domestic political ones, the government may have. They will also be doing their best to kill as many Canadians as they can.

It would appear that just as Canada is becoming involved in Mali the goal posts, such as they are, are being move. It is reported that Canada’s decision to send military helicopters to Mali has coincided with a major UN review of the peacekeeping mission there to determine whether it is on the right track or needs to change to better support peace and stability in the country. It is expected to address such fundamental questions as why the mission exists, whether troops are operating in the right areas and, ultimately, whether it is set up to help bring peace and stability to Mali. Unfortunately it does not appear that the Canadian government has asked, let alone answered, any of these questions.

While some of the governments goals are clear what is not clear is what Mali can expect from Canada’s involvement in their country. It seems unlikely that their wishes in the matter have played much part in the decision to deploy Canadian Forces to that region. What is also not clear is what the consequences will be for Mali, and for Canada, if this African adventure should end in tragedy.

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