It would be morally sound, and in Canada’s self-interest, to offer more logistical support to France’s offensive against al-Qaeda-linked militants in Mali.
The Harper government has extended the tour of a C-17 heavy-lift transport plane shuttling equipment from France to Mali but says it won’t join combat operations there. France has the only Western military force in combat zones, along with the undisciplined Malian army and some badly equipped and insufficiently trained West African contingents.
Because Mali is relatively unknown, many Canadians might have a knee-jerk reaction against intervention. But they would be mistaken.
Mali, to a certain degree, is what Afghanistan was in 2001: a failed state that has become a haven for terrorists intent on waging a holy war against the West. But, this time, the threat is much closer to Europe (and even North America) – just a short flight to Spain or Italy.
The Americans are sending in drones, and Britain and Canada are willing to play a back-up role. True to form, most European governments, while verbally supportive of the French initiative, have shied away from providing logistical help, let alone troops.
Northern Mali has been a lawless zone since a military coup toppled the Malian government in March of 2012. It is part of the Sahel, a huge arid area bordering the Sahara desert where former Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were seized in late 2008 and held for four months by a group called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. AQIM has joined forces with Tuareg secessionists and various jihadist groups that have inflicted a brutal Taliban-like regime on northern Mali’s moderate Muslim population.
Actually, this intervention in Mali is a case of the chickens coming home to roost. France is now trying to clean up the damage resulting from its ill-advised 2011 war against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime – a regime that had stopped being a threat outside its frontiers for more than a decade.
The shifting and dangerous situation in northern Mali is, in part, a direct consequence of the Libyan adventure, in which Canada and the U.S. acted as witless partners. Under the impulsive guidance of then French president Nicolas Sarkozy, NATO foolishly intervened in what was really a civil war. Far from being innocent peaceniks calling for democracy, the rebels based in Benghazi were mounting an armed putsch against the regime.
It was known at the time that Benghazi and the eastern part of Libya were a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and that rebel forces had been infiltrated by jihadists – something that became tragically clear last fall when the American ambassador was killed in the very city the U.S. vowed to “liberate” in 2011.
When Libya imploded, the Tuaregs – who had been some of Col. Gadhafi’s fiercest fighters – went to Mali, bringing with them countless arms pillaged from Col. Gadhafi’s huge arsenal.
Although an Islamist government has succeeded Col. Gadhafi’s secular regime, it’s unable to control the country, which is divided among heavily armed militias fighting against each other. The jihadists who recently invaded Algeria’s In Amenas gas site looking for foreign workers to fuel their lucrative hostage-taking operation came from Libya.
The world has forgotten about Libya. The international press corps has vanished, pursuing more dramatic fronts such as Syria or – again – Egypt, leaving behind the chaos that’s spilling into Mali and risks inflaming the entire Sahel.