After years in Afghanistan and a quick mission in the skies over Libya, Canadians might wonder whether the country is going to war yet again with its assistance to France’s effort in Mali. As an academic, I could easily say both “yes” and “no.”
Mali is now a country in the middle of a civil war with outsiders supporting both sides. Canada is joining France and much of the international community in supporting the government of Mali, and the rebels are getting support from ethnic kin in the neighbourhood and extreme Islamists elsewhere. So, one could say that Canada is going to a war, but this stretches the concept of “going to war” pretty broadly, since the C-17 is just one plane - a non-combat plane - that will be providing logistical support outside of the fighting areas, whether it is for the originally stated one week or for longer than that.
However, there is much confusion about the effort. A look at two dynamics within the government of Stephen Harper – a refusal to be transparent and a reluctance to engage in new ground campaigns – helps clarify where things stand and where things are likely to go.
The first impulse (and second and third) of the Department of National Defence is to deny. So, while it seems surprising that Canadians should learn of its assistance to Mali via a tweet by Mali’s president, it should not be. The Harper government has been known for extreme “message management” for quite some time – so much so that when Treasury Board President Tony Clement asserted that this government is the most transparent in Canadian history, it could only produce incredulity. Combining Mr. Harper’s previous statements that Canada would not be sending forces to fight the Mali rebels with the initial silence about the C-17 creates some suspicion about likely next steps. Is this part of an escalation process?
My guess is probably not. There has been a consistent post-Kandahar pattern to Mr. Harper’s foreign policies, as Canadian Forces are sent to participate in multilateral efforts in ways that minimize risk and keep the soldiers off of the battlefield. First, the training mission in Afghanistan was designed carefully to make sure that the new training efforts were very different from the previous ones. Instead of embedding, and going into battle with the Afghan National Army (ANA), the Canadians have not only been training ANA forces behind the wire – in bases – but have also been mostly training the trainers. That is, instead of training those engaged in the fighting, Canada has been training those that will train the fighters. This keeps Canadian Forces at a significant distance from the battlefield and from combat, with thus far no serious “green-on-blue” attacks by those they are training. This mission design does not eliminate the risks, but does reduce them greatly especially when compared to the previous mission in Kandahar.
The second major Canadian deployment post-Kandahar was the Libyan air mission. While the Canadian Forces participated in the more aggressive efforts, dropping bombs on shifting targets, Canada did not deploy any forces to the ground, unlike the French, the British, and a few other countries. There were no reports of Canadian Special Operations Forces active in Libya. The Canadian participation in the NATO mission over Libya was risky in the sense that planes could crash and bombs could miss their targets. However, given the destruction of Libyan air defences, this mission was far less dangerous to Canadians than the Kandahar mission.
In this context of a series of low-risk, non-ground campaign efforts, the C-17 deployment to Mali fits right in. It is an effort, like the training mission in Afghanistan and the air mission in Libya, to help allies pursue their goals, but to do so without making a major commitment or putting troops on the ground in harm’s way. While Mr. Harper extended the Kandahar mission in 2008, he did not initiate it, and he lost whatever enthusiasm he had for it, perhaps because it cost him votes back home. It seems to me that Mr. Harper found ground campaigns problematic for a variety of reasons, including the reality that having hundreds of troops in combat costs him control over the messaging, as it means many opportunities for media interviews that cannot be stifled. Limiting Canadian participation to pilots (Libya, Mali) is a strategy that not only minimizes the risks faced by the participants, but also maintains message control in Ottawa. That said, the Canadian media is far more respectful of the secrecy involved in such efforts than the American media is, so Canada could deploy its Special Operations Forces to Mali (or elsewhere) down the road.
Canada should help its allies when they face challenges (while France’s mission is not a NATO one, France remains a Canadian ally) as Canada relies on its allies for its own security. In the larger scheme of alliance relations, we should not forget that the original deployment of American troops to Kandahar, to meet the Manley Panel’s demands for some reinforcements, was facilitated by the French redeployment of troops out of Kabul and into Kapisa – an effort for which France paid dearly. Canada’s participation in the Libyan mission, and this new Mali effort, can be viewed as Canada returning the favour, and as part of an effort to maintain its standing as a reliable partner in the alliance.
My points about Mr. Harper’s defence policies are not meant as criticisms of the C-17 deployment. Instead, my goal here is to clarify the confusion and prompt the government to be more transparent, rather than resort to its usual pattern of being opaque.
Stephen Saideman is the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. This article is published in partnership with the Canadian International Council and its international-affairs hub OpenCanada.