Canada’s military heads to Mali — does it know what it’s getting into?

Ousmane Aly Diallo peels back the layers of complexity surrounding UN peacekeeping efforts in Mali and suggests what could actually make a difference.

By: /
March 23, 2018
Mali peacekeeping
A United Nations peacekeeper secures the MINUSMA base after a mortar attack in Kidal, Mali, June 8, 2017. MINUSMA/Sylvain Liechti handout/Reuters

This week, the Canadian government announced it would finally be contributing troops as part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali.

The March 19 announcement by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland comes after several political and military visits to Mali, identified as a possible theatre for the deployment of Canada’s blue helmets, and neighbouring countries since early 2016, after the Trudeau government was elected, pledging new contributions to UN peacekeeping efforts.

The goal of these visits was to assess the needs in Mali and how Canada can have an impact on the country’s stability, but it is very unlikely that those needs will be met by Canada’s projected deployment of two Chinook transport helicopters and four Griffon attack helicopters, along with the estimated 250 troops it may be sending to Gao, Mali.

Since 2012, Mali has been in the throes of a complex civil war involving a vast array of actors, ranging from ethnic self-defence groups to Islamist terrorist factions. The signing of a peace agreement in 2015 between the government and two rebel coalitions has done little to improve the security conditions for local populations. Worse, the violence that was mainly localized to the northern regions (Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu) has progressively spread to the country’s central regions (Mopti and Ségou) and spilled over to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. The government’s hold over territory has diminished over the last five years, as several parts of the centre of the country have fallen under the control of local Islamist factions affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and been excluded from the peace process. This is despite the presence of a French counter-terrorism operation in the Sahel (called Operation Barkhane), a 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the progressive deployment of a regional joint force (the G5 Sahel — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) to deal with the spread of the Islamist insurgency.

"Canada’s federal government has so far failed to walk the talk."

Given the stark situation in Mali and the expectations raised around peacekeeping by the Trudeau government, the projected contribution in Mali is, to say the least, underwhelming. Expectations were high because Canada has historically played a leading role in UN peacekeeping operations, from Lester B. Pearson’s idea of “peacekeeping” to monitor the ceasefire during the Suez crisis, to the country’s continued support of UN peacekeeping during the Cold War. Expectations were also high due to the Trudeau government’s pledge to reverse the country’s progressive disengagement from the international scene during the nine years of Conservative rule under Stephen Harper.

Canada’s current federal government has so far failed to walk the talk. It is only committing to MINUSMA after much pressure from the Netherlands and Germany. It is interesting to note that Canada’s projected one-year deployment of helicopter troops will relieve the German armed forces’ in-kind contribution of NH-90 transport and Tiger attack helicopters to MINUSMA, which relieved, in January 2017, the Dutch contingent’s contribution of attack (Apache) and transport helicopters. Canada was rumoured to replace the Dutch helicopter contribution in 2017 when Amsterdam decided to scale back its contribution in Mali, but that did not happen. Germany stepped in when Canada did not, to support MINUSMA and to protect its own 570 troops.

Let us be clear. In August this year, with such a small contribution, Canada will be supporting MINUSMA rather than the local civilian populations in Mali if things stay as announced. And although those two aims are more often than not synonymous, that is not always the case.

Differing views on strategy

African actors, including the Malian political class and the citizenry, have high expectations towards MINUSMA and they are very unlikely to be met by Canada’s proposed contribution. Although these expectations are sometimes unrealistic, they are illustrative of the progressive disillusionment towards the peacekeeping mission, despite its important impact on the populations living in areas where they are most present.

MINUSMA is operating in what has been called a “bad neighborhood” and is trying to keep a peace that exists only on paper. Despite the repeated revisions of its mandate to make the mission more “offensive,” Malians and even neighbouring heads of state do not hesitate to vent their frustrations towards the thousands of blue helmets corps accused of not doing enough given the worsening security environment. “La MINUSMA” it is often derided, a play on “l’amusement,” a rather unfair nickname.

While these discussions sometimes reflect an ignorance of MINUSMA’s mandate by civilians and sometimes even politician, especially when it comes to engaging with spoiler groups — peacekeepers are not a counter-terrorism unit after all — they also highlight the doctrinal differences on peacekeeping between the African Union and the United Nations. African troop-contributing countries (TCCs) are more willing to engage with spoiler groups such as al-Shabaab in Somalia through its mission there (AMISOM), while the UN is still wrangling internally with how to adapt its traditional peacekeeping approach to the complex nature of contemporary theatres of peace operations.

"It can do more by providing surveillance and aerial intelligence not only to MINUSMA but also to Sahelian countries."

Canada’s limited engagement after much enthusiasm in 2015 is certainly due to these considerations, which are also important for several other Western countries keen on reassuring their domestic constituencies. MINUSMA might be the “deadliest peacekeeping mission in the world,” as the Washington Post has called it, but the troop casualties vary a lot between TTCs. When looking at the 160 MINUSMA casualties since 2013, most of them have been from African TCCs. And although any loss is a tragedy, Western casualties have been relatively low (at nine), due to their better preparation and training but also to the strings attached to their activities by their national governments, such as patrol duty only during the “golden hour,” referring to the immediate hour after a traumatic injury of a soldier where emergency care can be the difference between life and death for the wounded. (The deployment of Canada’s Chinooks will in fact enable the peacekeeping operations to better follow this protocol.)

The recent Cruz report on the fatalities in UN peacekeeping missions, which was requested by the UN Secretary-General in November 2017, recommended TTCs have a robust “posture, mindset, training and proper equipment” to effectively impact the mission and limit their casualties in peace operations. The 2015 High Independent Level Panel on Peace Operations recommended that the UN privilege politics over military responses in complex theatres, and be more field-focused and people-centred in the conception, development and implementation of peace operations.

Canada’s federal government, if we consider its foot-dragging over the last two years and its intended minimal contribution to peacekeeping efforts in Mali, will only marginally meet the recommendations of these two seminal reports. It will help the UN peacekeeping mission meet its mandate in monitoring the ceasefire agreement, despite repeated violations by the parties, and will support the implementation of the Agreement of Peace and Reconciliation in Mali. It will also definitely help the peacekeepers on the ground who are exposed to a hostile environment. For these reasons, the recent announcement is still laudable. But even the Netherlands, which had deployed a helicopter contingent, justified its withdrawal in 2017 by the limited impact it had on the ground.

Canada will certainly not make its return to a leadership position on the global stage if all things remain equal. It can do more, for starters, by providing surveillance and aerial intelligence not only to MINUSMA but also to Sahelian countries engaged under the aegis of the G5 Sahel against the local jihadist factions. This is a critical asset that can positively impact the ability of these countries to degrade AQIM and its local affiliates in Mali.

In a vast, sparsely populated region of more than a one million square kilometres, the detection of armed convoys, logistic depots and other hideouts can make the difference. And more importantly, this support will be much less costly in terms of potential fatalities and will have a longer-lasting impact than the projected deployment, which might not even be noticed in the context of the security jam in Mali.