Opinion: There is no peace to keep in Mali

Whatever it is, Canada’s planned UN peacekeeping mission to Mali has little to do with keeping the peace.

There is no peace to be kept in the West African country. Rather, there is constant conflict as a plethora of militias, armed separatists, criminal gangs and terrorist groups fight it out.

The French are waging war against terrorists in the north of the country. The Americans (aided by a small number of Canadian military trainers) are waging war against terrorists in neighbouring Niger.

Communal violence between different ethnic groups in central Mali has intensified. The central government holds sway only in the south.

Theoretically, there is a peace process in place between the government and two coalitions of armed groups. But as UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres reported in December, it has yielded “few tangible results.”

This is the country into which the UN has sent peacekeepers.

The roughly 11,000 troops and 1,700 police officers seconded to the UN operation in Mali come mainly from poor countries such as Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Chad and Senegal. So far, 162 have died, making this by far the most dangerous ongoing UN mission.

Exactly what Canada will be doing in Mali is not entirely clear.

The Liberal government announced Monday that it is tentatively sending two transport helicopters and four attack helicopters. But Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of defence staff, said that number could change.

The exact number of Canadian troops to be sent is still up in the air, as is the date they are expected to deploy. The helicopters are expected to be used for medical evacuations. But they could be used for other purposes as well, including combat.

The UN Security Council has authorized the Mali mission to employ “all necessary means” to achieve its goals – meaning it can initiate the use of force. Its sweeping mandate includes protecting civilians and restoring central government authority in lawless parts of the country.

For Canada, this promises to be a cross between nation building and counter-terrorism. While Ottawa dislikes comparisons to Afghanistan, there are similarities.

As in Afghanistan, Canada’s role is to help prop up a weak central government. As in Afghanistan, Canada and its allies face adversaries willing to use any means – including improvised explosive devices – to achieve their ends. As in Afghanistan, the internal politics of Mali are ruinously complicated.

The big difference is that – so far – Canada has committed no ground troops to Mali. This war is less likely to produce Canadian casualties than Afghanistan did.

Like Stephen Harper’s Tories before them, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are hoping to keep Canada’s involvement in Mali low-key. The aim is to do just enough to satisfy Ottawa’s international obligations without spooking the voters at home.

Those obligations include doing something to prevent Mali from becoming another breeding ground for terrorism aimed at Europe.

The West’s war on Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was responsible for turning his country into a failed state. The Mali intervention is an attempt to prevent this from happening again. Think of it, perhaps, as penance.

But peacekeeping it is not. In this instance that term is, at most, a useful beard.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs reporter.

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