February 2013 Commentary

Mali and Peace in Our Time

by J. L. Granatstein

The situation in Mali remains complicated and unclear. In the midst of an Ansar Dine  and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] attempt to take over the country for militant Islam, there is also a historic north-south division and rival Tuareg factions in the north struggling for dominance in their long battle for independence. The small French-led intervention quickly pushed the Islamists away from the major towns, but it is likely to be a long slow struggle to root them out of the desert.

The Canadian Forces' role has been a minor one – a CC177 transport aircraft continues to carry French soldiers and material to Mali and a small Special Forces team has deployed, apparently to protect the Canadian Embassy and its staff in Bamako. Prime Minister Stephen Harper made clear that there will be no members of the CF in combat in Mali.

The political response to the Canadian effort in Mali surprisingly was generally positive, both Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party and Bob Rae of the Liberals supporting the government's actions. However, the response of the pacifist left, usually one that slavishly follows the NDP line, this time spun off on its own.

First, there were complaints that the French, even if led by the Socialist president Francois Hollande, were up to their old neo-colonialist games in a former colony. That France had few commercial assets in Mali and most French citizens there were dual citizens of Malian origin did not matter. But surely there were Canadian interests there? A few relatively small gold mining operations in Mali were either wholly or partially-owned by Canadians, but scarcely enough to explain the Harper government's support for the French.

Then there were the concerns, better founded, that Mali was not really a democracy and thus not worth supporting. A military coup by the Mali army – much better at staging coups than at fighting--had toppled the country's government in March 2012. Canada had cut its aid efforts as a result and continued to press the interim government to hold elections and return to the democratic path, even as fighting raged.

But the major thrust of the opposition to Canadian efforts, led by Stephen Staples of the Rideau Institute and his Ceasefire.ca website, was a concern about "mission creep". We had seen mission creep in Libya in the NATO operation that toppled Gaddafi, the argument went, and now the same process was underway in Mali. First, as Staples noted, Canada was “contributing very large transport planes… [and this] is direct involvement, it is flying into a combat zone, it is transporting light tanks, vehicles, supplies for the French military into Mali, so it is playing a direct role.” Canada had deployed one aircraft, and it was flying into Bamako, the capital, 700 kilometres from the fighting, but a reliance on facts has never been Staples strong suit.

Then it was the Special Forces commitment. Given the secrecy of JTF-2 operations, who knew what they were doing today and might do next week? Prime Minister Harper's statement that the Canadian Forces would not see combat in Mali was immediately discounted. As one comment on Ceasefire.ca's blog put it, JTF-2 were only "licensed thugs paid to do the government’s dirty work. With someone as morally bankrupt as Harper generating the targets, heaven knows what they’ll be doing in Mali." The vision of the Prime Minister sitting in his Langevin Block office and directing JTF-2 to take out an AQIM camp in the sand dunes was clearly a captivating one.

What was completely missing in the comments from the Staples crowd was the obvious: the Ansar Dine-AQIM attempt to take over Mali had to be resisted in order to prevent the creation of an Islamist stronghold that could shelter terrorists and serve as a base for expansion throughout the Sahel and North Africa. The draconian brutality and nihilism of the Islamist occupiers of Timbuktu and other towns has been widely reported, and there were likely links between the Mali Islamists and the terrorists who had killed so many in the Algerian gas plant attack.

Islamist terrorism is a threat to democracies everywhere, but those who oppose any military intervention anywhere – unless it is United Nations blue helmet peacekeeping which is, by definition, always good – seem blind to the realities of 2013. Stephen Harper bad, military intervention of any kind bad, mission creep inevitable and bad – it's a tiresome refrain. How fortunate that the Opposition parties had better sense in this instance than the Rideau Institute and Ceasefire.ca.

J.L. Granatstein is a Distinguished Research Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.


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