Is Canada ready to intervene in rapidly-deteriorating Mali conflict?

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

A RCAF C-17 cargo jet winged its way to France on Tuesday to pick up a load of French military equipment before heading to the war zone in Mali.

According to CTV News, the giant plane will be available for one week to support the rapidly escalating French intervention in the West African country, where an alliance of Tuareg rebels and al-Qaeda-backed Islamic fundamentalists have seized control of the north and were beginning to march south.

It's probably a good time for Canadians to have a public discussion on whether the country should be pulled into another intervention aimed at stopping the spread of Islamist terrorism just over a year after pulling combat troops out of a decade-long mission in Afghanistan.

[ Related: Canada presses Mali military rulers to hold elections, help restore stability ]

As events on the ground move faster than the policymakers' timetable, does Canada risk an incremental commitment in Mali with no real debate?

The Canadian military is facing budget cuts and its ground forces need time to rest and rebuild from the Afghan experience. Are Canadians, many of whom wanted their soldiers out of Afghanistan, prepared for the inevitable casualties if we put boots on the ground, the resumption of the sad cavalcade along the Highway of Heroes?

A plan by the United Nations and African Union to deploy an African intervention force next fall to help Malian armed forces take back the north fell into disarray when the rebels began pushing southward. France, the former colonial power in the region, opted for unilateral action with logistical and intelligence support from allies such as the United States.

Up to now, Canada's official policy seemed to be "hands-off" but the messages were distinctly mixed.

Last month, Defence Minister Peter MacKay directly contradicted Foreign Minister John Baird's statements that no Canadian troops would become involved in the conflict.

“We are contemplating what contribution Canada could make,” MacKay said during a Dec. 30 visit to Halifax, the Globe and Mail reported at the time. “Training is something that Canadian Forces are particularly adept at doing."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper met African Union head Thomas Boni Yayi of Benin in Ottawa last week, rejecting his request that Canada and other NATO countries contribute troops to the intervention force, according to The Canadian Press.

[ Related: African Union head wants NATO to help fight Mali rebels ]

Harper reiterated Ottawa's support for the UN-backed plan but was pretty vague past that.

"We are providing humanitarian aid to this region, which is important and we are consulting with, and working with, and will continue diplomatically with our allies in the west and obviously our friends in Africa on ways that we can be of assistance," he said.

But Canadian forces have been nibbling quietly around the edges of the conflict.

But last week, the Globe and Mail reported Canada would provide military training in Niger, which borders Mali and could potentially face the same kind of Islamist threat. Niger is also expected to be a large contributor to the 3,000-member African Union force destined for Mali.

An RCAF C-17 was in the region delivering roughly two dozen special operations personnel to Niger for preliminary training in advance of Exercise Flintlock, a regional annual anti-terrorism war game run by the U.S. military, the Globe said.

[ Related: Canadian C-17 joins allied efforts en route to Mali ]

Ottawa didn't trumpet this week's C-17 mission either. According to the Ottawa Citizen, the government's hand was forced by a tweet Sunday by the president of Mali that Canada, the U.S. and Britain were providing logistical support for France. At the same time it stressed Canadian personnel were not being put in harms way.

“Today our government received a specific request from the French government for heavy-lift aircraft to assist in the transport of equipment into the Malian capital of Bamako, a location that is not part of any active combat zone,” Harper said in a statement released Monday.

Harper said the government "is not, and will not be, considering a direct military mission in Mali ..."

“The Government of Canada will support our allies in this request and will be providing one RCAF C-17 transport aircraft in a non-combat role to support operations for a period of one week. The RCAF aircraft will not operate in any combat zone.

"At no time will Canadian Armed Forces members be participating in direct action against insurgent forces in Mali."

Some Canadians with experience in Africa certainly are pushing for Canada to take a role in the conflict.

Former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, who was held captive for 130 days by the same al-Qaeda group now fighting in Mali, said the African intervention force stands little chance of wiping out the jihadist threat by themselves.

"Should al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb even partly succeed – in concert with their murderous jihadi brothers in Boko Haram and al Shabaab – it would create an economic and humanitarian disaster of barely imaginable dimensions," Fowler wrote in the Globe last week.

"And we also know that, given such an eventuality, we would then be required by popular insistence (the suffering of Darfur would pale in comparison) to intervene."

Senator and former general Roméo Dallaire, who led the failed UN effort to prevent the genocide in Rwanda, and academic Kyle Matthews of Concordia University, co-wrote a column Monday in the National Post urging Canada to wade in now.

"Not only do Canadian troops speak French, an important skill in this part of Africa, but they also have far-reaching combat and peacekeeping experience," they wrote.

Canada has urged for a return to democratic rule in Mali, where a coup last March destabilized the country and helped the rebels consolidate their position. But Dallaire and Matthews said waiting for that to happen will be too late. They echoed Yayi's warning that "each day that we wait is a bad thing."

[ Related: France steps up Mali operation, Africans try to catch up ]

"France understood this warning," they wrote. "Is anybody else in the West listening?"

For Canadians, the question coming out of this week's development is whether that C-17 should be the limit of Canada's commitment or just the beginning.