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A risky game in Mali


We can now put some modest numbers to the Canadian effort in Mali.

An estimated $18.6 million to deploy a C-17 for one month, $11.7 million of that specifically spent on this mission.

Some 351,534 kg of cargo transported from Istres, France, to Bamako, Mali, including armoured vehicles, medical supplies, ammunition and French military personnel.

Some 40 Canadians involved in the support mission, plus an unspecified number of Special Forces protecting our embassy and our plane in the capital and helping train Niger’s armed forces under something called Exercise Flintlock. A fixed end date of Feb. 15 for our commitment to help the French, $13 million in humanitarian aid to Mali, 450 Canadians still in the country advised to get out.

For a little bit of clarity to our involvement to date, we are beholden to Maj.-Gen. Jonathan Vance and Kerry Buck, an assistant deputy minister at Foreign Affairs.

For the lack of any indication of our next steps, or even an overarching rationale for our involvement so far, blame their political masters, who appear to be having some difficulty keeping up with a rapidly evolving situation in the West African nation.

At a parliamentary committee Thursday, Liberal John McKay repeatedly pushed Vance on Canada’s military goal in Mali. Vance repeatedly told him the goal was to help the French until Feb. 15.

Vance, of course, is not setting government policy, but McKay used the military man’s by-the-book answer to point out the government is unable to explain to the nation we are involved in this mission to contain or degrade the Islamic terrorist threat in the region.

But Vance was much more fulsome about what a successful French intervention meant.

Despite some “attrition” among the rebels, there are lots of them left in the northern mountainous regions of the country, near the Algerian border, Vance said, and the rebel population has been steadily growing in recent years.

“It’s impossible to say what the regional Islamic threat will do as a result of the French intervention,” he said. “This will help Mali, but there remains a regional concern.’’

But while opposition MPs pushed on the military aspect of the Canadian effort, Vance and Buck pushed back, pointing out this battle has to be fought on three fronts — a boost to return Mali to democracy, humanitarian help and security.

Forget the idea that “military kinetic action” is some type of silver bullet, Vance said. You are not going to end a terrorist movement with a gun alone. But the situation in Mali is not just fluid, it is unfolding at warp speed.

The French, after taking over the final rebel stronghold in the north, were calling for peace talks between the government and rebels and the Malian government was floating the idea of elections in July.

Even as McKay was pushing Buck on Ottawa’s reticence to help fund an African stabilization force that would follow the French into the country, the United Nations was floating the concept of a traditional peacekeeping force in Mali.

The Associated Press, quoting a senior western diplomat, said a force of 3,000 to 5,000 would be required and the concept apparently has the backing of the United States, Britain and France.

Should such a plan gain favour, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, not a leader to dance to the drum of the Security Council, could face new pressure on Mali.

He resisted calls for Canadian combat troops on the ground in Mali, a sound decision given the fact it appears — for now — that they would not have been needed.

A peacekeeping mission to stabilize the north of Mali, dismissed by opposition MPs on Thursday as premature, is a very different question, although it could be a long, costly mission regardless.

The speedy success of the French intervention in Mali has won praise in Paris, but without a solid next step, the Islamic terrorist threat is sure to come roaring back.

France boasts a modern 21st century fighting force, McKay said, “but the enemy has a seventh century mentality which has no sense of the time that a western nation has. The French can only go as far as its population and its government takes them.

“After a while the enthusiasm for this mission wanes and we leave, and the Islamists will be back.’’

Whatever the next move in Mali, Ottawa will be involved with its allies. If we don’t get it right, we risk a return with a much bigger challenge at hand.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

 
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