In The Media

Is Mali the right job for the Canadian Forces?

by Amanda Connolly (feat. George Petrolekas)

October 20, 2016

The UN mission in Mali is the world’s most dangerous.

Sixty nine peacekeepers have been killed in attacks there since the mission started in 2013. The dynamics on the ground are complex to say the least, with a fledgling peace process being propped up by the blue helmets. A broader French counterterrorism mission across the Sahel is fighting to keep Islamist terrorists from again seizing control of Mali’s north as they did in 2012 amid the chaos of an army coup in the capital. And the country is ground zero for a network of criminal drug and people-smuggling rings that stretch across the region.

That’s the bad news. The good news — at least from Canada’s perspective — is that a Canadian peacekeeping mission in Mali could actually help the situation on the ground.

As speculation mounts across the defence industry that Canada will soon announce a contribution to the mission in Mali, experts say it’s worth considering the ways in which, despite the risk, the mission could benefit from the unique capabilities of Canada’s military.

“Mali has a legitimate peace process ongoing and it needs to be fostered in order for the country not to break out into war again,” said Walter Dorn, a professor of defence studies at the Canadian Forces College and chair of the Master of Defence Studies program at the Royal Military College. He studies peace operations.

“I think that the mission is proving quite successful at stabilizing the situation in Mali and that it’s indispensable for the peace process to move forward. So supporting the mission in Mali would make a key contribution to Africa.”

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in August that Canada will commit 600 troops and about 150 police officers to UN peace support operations. Since then, there has been no specific commitment from the government to any particular mission, beyond an acknowledgement that the mission will be in Africa, that it will be a long deployment — and that it will be dangerous.

But as General Jonathan Vance, chief of defence staff, told the Senate defence and security committee last month, the fact that a mission is dangerous doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable.

“A risky mission that has great potential for success may be a mission that you want to invest in, and in the military, we do risk,” said Vance on September 21. “We’re good at that, if we can mitigate it. If the risk is not mitigatable and is out of all proportion and at the same time there’s no hope of moving forward, then it’s probably the wrong mandate and it would very likely be a mandate on which I would advise the government that it would need to do more work with the UN before you would commit troops.”

And as Senator Mobina Jaffer pointed out in the same meeting, Mali is no Afghanistan.

Canada lost 158 members of the Canadian Forces during that nine-year war but developed extensive expertise in managing insurgent warfare. That knowledge could be useful in supporting allies already on the ground in Mali, given heightened recent tensions there due to terrorist attacks and social unrest.

“Mali fits the capabilities of the Canadian Armed Forces quite well,” said Dorn. “Because of our Afghanistan expertise, we can operate in areas where there are IEDs and we’re well aware of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. So the peace operation there, although it’s a different mode of operation … we still have the expertise in those kinds of environments from Afghanistan.”

Responding to recent attacks, the Mali mission recently expanded by an additional 2,500 troops, bringing the total number of international troops stationed there to just over 15,000.

Most of those soldiers come from African or non-Western nations like Bangladesh and China. Germany maintains a force of 570 soldiers, the largest Western contingent in the UN mission.

The mission now faces a critical equipment gap: The Dutch, citing operational strain, are scaling down and preparing to pull out their Apache attack choppers and Chinook transport helicopters early next year.

Given statements from Canadian officials in the past about the need to identify gaps in existing missions, that raises the question of whether Canada could fill at least part of that operational gap by providing Chinooks to assist with troop transport as it did with the French counterterrorism mission in 2014, when Canada sent Globemaster III strategic lifters.

Canada has 15 brand-new Chinooks, delivered in 2014 at a cost of some $4 billion and currently stationed out of CFB Petawawa, as well as Griffon helicopters mounted with machine guns during the war in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau referenced that contribution of Globemasters during a press conference last week with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. He was responding to a question about whether the subject of Mali came up during his talks with Valls. Asked whether that suggests the government sees the looming helicopter gap as an opportunity for Canada to fill an operational gap, a spokesperson for Sajjan said it’s still too early to say exactly what the mission will be.

“As the government looks to re-engage in peace support operations, we are looking at ‎all the ways in which Canada can contribute. As you saw with our expanded mission in Iraq, one of the things we look to do is find gaps in existing missions and look to filling them,” said Jordan Owens, press secretary for Sajjan. “But still too soon for me to confirm a location or specific contribution.”

Three other missions also come up frequently in discussions about a Canadian contribution: the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

And while iPolitics has reported in the past that South Sudan is not being considered by the government, both the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo present challenges that might suggest they wouldn’t be the best fit for a government looking to make a specific, focused impact.

“(Mali) is clearly one of the more difficult in a certain way, but it’s also one of the more clear-cut missions at the same time in the sense that South Sudan … Central African Republic, you’re wading into in essence a civil war (there) as opposed to a counterterrorist operation, which is really what’s happening in Mali,” said George Petrolekas, who served with the military in Bosnia, Afghanistan and NATO and is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

“The Congo is the largest, best-financed and most enduring UN mission in Africa and it still hasn’t brought resolution to anything. South Sudan and Central African Republic are difficult for me because in a sense they’re civil wars going on and it’s not as clear-cut.

“Mali has its own difficulties, just because of the fact that it’s more of a fight as opposed to classical peacekeeping. So in the Congo, because of its size, we would just be a drop in a bucket of water. The presence wouldn’t necessarily be felt.”

Petrolekas also pointed to the recent increases in allegations of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic and hinted at the negative impact those could have on Canada’s international reputation.

There were 69 allegations made in 2015 against UN peacekeepers — an increase from 52 in 2014 and 66 in 2013 — roughly one-third of that number against peacekeepers in the Central African Republic and 16 against peacekeepers in the DRC.

“When you think of allegations that have been made against UN troops in other peacekeeping missions like in the Congo and the Central African Republic … it doesn’t mean that you’d be doing the same things but you’d be tarnished by the actions of others. There’s less of a chance of that, I think, in Mali,” Petrolekas said.

It’s also possible the mission will be a joint one, with Canadian troops split between several missions in Africa, Dorn suggested. He cautioned, however, that with the DRC being so far behind in development and basic infrastructure, the difficulties in measuring firm progress there might see a smaller contingent of troops deployed there, with a main force in Mali.

“In terms of meaningful impact, both missions would give great opportunities, so it’s quite possible that we’ll make a contribution to both missions,” he said. “I think the main effort will be in Mali.”

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