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Canada’s Mali Conundrum

Roughly a month after France began its aerial bombardment of Islamic extremists in Mali, Canada’s offering to the western response has remained largely unchanged. Canada announced that it would provide one C-17 heavy-lift cargo plane and $13-million in humanitarian aid announced at an International donors’ conference in Addis Ababa. The government’s reluctance to pledge more resources has come amidst consternation from foreign policy watchers at home. Historically Canada has had a significant presence in Mali as a major donor. It remains one of the Canadian International Development Agency’s (CIDA) focus countries and is home to significant Canadian mining interests. According to Natural Resources Canada, in 2010 there were 15 Canadian mining and exploration companies in Mali with an estimated $230 million in assets.

Moreover, there have been persistent calls from within Canada for the government to take on a more robust role. Interim leader of the opposition Liberal party Bob Rae, in an impassioned speech before the House of Commons on February 6, argued that Canada should step-up its involvement in Mali. Similarly, testifying before the House of Commons committee on foreign affairs, Robert Fowler, former Canadian ambassador to the UN and personal representative for Africa for three Canadian Prime Ministers (including current Prime Minister Stephen Harper), argued that Canada should contribute military assets, including air power, special forces, and intelligence officers.

According to Fowler, who spent 130 days as a hostage of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, millions of people of northern and western Africa are in “significant peril” from Islamic extremists operating in Mali. Yet even in the face of pressure the government has remained uncompromising, refusing to offer more than one cargo plane at funds for humanitarian assistance.

Even Canada’s pledge of $13-million for humanitarian aid seems paltry in comparison to the more than $455-million pledged by other allies, including $96-million from the United States, $67-.5-million from the European Union, and $120-million from Japan. Moreover, Canadian funds were pledged exclusively to UN agencies and NGOs, and not to the two UN trust funds intended to help African forces take-over the mission.

There are a number of reasons that have contributed to the government’s unwillingness to wade further into the maelstrom of internal conflict in Mali. Important among them include the government’s intention to curtail military spending, as part of its promise to balance the budget. The federal government hopes to find $1.1-billion in savings from the defence department. However, even more important seems to be the parallel that many have drawn between Mali and Afghanistan. The potential for the international mission in Mali to devolve into an Afghanistan-like quagmire seems to be one of the key factors holding Canada back. Canada’s Afghanistan deployment, which has been the country’s defining foreign policy commitments over the past decade, came at the cost of 158 Canadian soldiers, five civilians, and more than $11-billion dollars.

Those opposed to greater Canadian-involvement in the international response to Mali have been quick to cite Afghanistan as a precedent. University of Ottawa professor David Petrasek, for example, writing in the Globe and Mail, argued that although the French intervention in Mali appeared legally and militarily justified, and enjoyed strong local and regional support, it was based on the same assumptions as the Afghan mission, and thus inherently flawed.

In addition to the potential human and financial cost of a robust mission to Mali, skeptics, including Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, have also been deterred by the ambiguous results of Canada’s decade-long engagement in Afghanistan. According to journalist Campbell Clark, the military mission in Afghanistan taught Prime Minister Harper to view situations like Mali as “politically unprofitable and possibly unwinnable.”

The idea that the western intervention in Mali could become the next Afghanistan—prevalent in the popular press—has been largely dispelled by a number of scholars and experienced Mali-watchers. Laura Seay for one, assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine, “The idea that Mali is or could be the next Afghanistan is flat-out wrong, as is the notion that France’s role in West Africa is likely to be akin to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. While there are comparisons to be made (e.g., both countries are struggling to combat the presence of Islamist extremists), the two situations are so different that defining them as near-equivalents only serves to muddle clear thinking about Mali’s current and future prospects.”

Nevertheless, the potential for Mali to become an intractable conflict that ensnares the west for decades to come seems to weigh heavily on the minds of Canada’s key foreign policy decision-makers. The legacy of Afghanistan has clearly been influential in the government’s thinking. For instance, Foreign Minister John Baird, testifying in front of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee declared: “I am very cautious about sending in potentially thousands of Canadian troops to Malian soil, as has been called for by others, to what is already amounting to a counterinsurgency…we’re not at the drop of a hat going to get involved in another Afghanistan.”

Canada’s wavering over involvement in Mali has also exposed the broader question of how Canada’s military will be used in the post-Afghanistan period. The Canadian contingent in Afghanistan has drastically declined in recent years. Currently, there are 950 Canadian military trainers in Afghanistan, though even those will be out by 2014.

In the past Canada devoted its military resources almost exclusively to peacekeeping missions. As recent as the early 1990s Canada was a top contributor to UN peacekeeping worldwide, and governments of every stripe in Ottawa evoked Canada’s peacekeeping as a point of pride. It was part of Canada’s identity and received broad support amongst the Canadian public. As recent as 2010, in a Nanos poll Canadians ranked peacekeeping as a top priority, ahead of combat missions like Afghanistan, defending the Arctic, and even North American security.

Despite this wide public support, however, peacekeeping has fallen out of favour in Ottawa. Canada now ranks 53rd in overall contribution to peacekeeping, sandwiched between Paraguay and Slovakia. According to a UN report at the end of April 2012, there were only 33 Canadian military personnel serving in UN missions.

The conservative government has shown no intention of returning Canada to its leadership role in peacekeeping. And though Canada participated in the international intervention in Libya, it has spurned requests to participate likewise in Syria or Mali. If there is a takeaway from the conjecture over Mali, it is that Canada needs to clearly define how it will use its armed forces in the future.