Canada faces fresh calls to help fight terrorism, facilitate peace talks in Mali

·3 min read

OTTAWA — Canada is being urged to step up its presence in Mali, including through the provision of military assistance to help fight Islamic militants in the region and a diplomatic push to lead peace and reconciliation talks. 

The calls for greater involvement follow a coup in August that has once again left the West African nation under military rule even as fighting between different armed groups — including some Islamic extremist groups — continues to spiral out of control.

They also come more than a year after Canada wrapped up its peacekeeping mission in Mali, leaving only a handful of troops and police officers to continue supporting United Nations’ efforts to bring peace and stability to the country.

French military and diplomatic officials were among those asking for more Canadian involvement in Mali during a panel discussion last week on the situation in the country hosted by the Ottawa-based Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

France has been leading efforts to counter the growing threat of Islamic extremists in West Africa and the sub-Saharan region since a previous coup in Mali in 2012, with French forces involved in combat operations against jihadist groups.

Canada has provided some support to that French mission, which is known as Operation Barkhane, notably the occasional provision of military transport aircraft to help move troops and equipment around the region.

French Brig.-Gen. Cyril Carcy, who until August commanded Operation Barkhane, thanked Canada for that contribution during the CDAI conference even as he hinted at talks between Ottawa and Paris around the provision of more assistance.

“I do believe that discussion is already underway to ask for additional contributions,” Carcy said in French before listing several ways in which the Canadian military can help French and local African forces fighting terrorist groups in the region.

Those include more intelligence and sensors to help locate and identify Islamic militant forces as well as air-to-air refueling to support French fighter jets operating in the region.

“The Canadians can therefore participate without necessarily being present in Mali in the combat sense,” said Carcy, who is now the French defence attache in Washington, D.C.

The growing threat posed by Islamic extremists was underscored by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in his most recent quarterly report on Mali at the end of September, which noted that such groups are expanding their activities and influence.

“Time is of the essence as the security, humanitarian and human rights situation continues to deteriorate as a result of intensified activities by terrorist groups in central and northern Mali,” Guterres wrote.

International observers have expressed repeated concerns over the years that instability in Mali will spill over into the surrounding region, providing a potential base of operations for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.

At the same time, the UN chief reiterated his previous concerns over the Aug. 18 coup that saw the Malian military wrest control of the country from the government of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, ostensibly to deal with the rampant corruption in the capital city of Bamako.

While Ottawa was quick to condemn the coup, experts have suggested that Canada is increasingly disengaged from Mali due to a lack of political will and interest. That is despite the peacekeeping mission and hundreds of millions in foreign aid over the years.

Former Canadian ambassador to Mali Isabelle Roy, who was speaking on the same panel as Carcy, voiced some of those complaints as she called on Canada to become “more present” in the country — including by participating in peace and reconciliation talks.

“I believe that Canada in fact could do more on the mediation front, as we did during the 1991 transition period and as we continued to do for the northern part of Mali,” Roy said in French.

For his part, France’s special envoy to the Sahel told the panel that his country sees Canada as an important partner in the region.

“Of course, we always hope that Canada does more,” Frederic Bontems said in French. “But Canada is already very present on the ground.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press