Canada is being drawn into a deeper supporting role for France’s military intervention against al-Qaeda-linked rebels in Mali – assistance that Ottawa originally vowed would be “of short duration.”
Stephen Harper’s government announced on Thursday it was extending to 30 days from one week its contribution of a massive Royal Canadian Air Force transport plane to lift supplies and soldiers to Mali.
The Conservatives appear to be seeking political cover for this lengthening deployment to avoid criticism from rivals for allowing mission creep that might further entangle Canada in the conflict.
Before announcing the extension on Thursday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird discussed the plans with NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, head of the Official Opposition, and interim Liberal chief Bob Rae.
NDP sources say Mr. Mulcair, who also discussed the conflict with Mr. Harper, has obtained two commitments from the government.
The NDP said the Conservatives have agreed to allow a parliamentary committee to examine Canada’s involvement in Mali, and not to use their majority might to force the matter behind closed doors.
The Commons foreign affairs committee would study both “the mission as it is and any commitment going forward,” a senior NDP source said.
“Based on the Conservative commitments to discuss the issue publicly, Mr. Mulcair is satisfied with the extension,” the source said.
For two weeks, French air and ground forces have helped the beleaguered government of Mali push back the advance of rebels, who have controlled the country’s northern territory since April.
France has been vocal about asking Canada and other nations to provide more air-transport help, including assistance to carry a West African force of 3,300 into Mali.
The Harper government was careful to emphasize that its participation in the conflict is still merely a backup role.
“This aircraft and Canadian Armed Forces personnel will not be part of combat operations,” the Tories said in a statement on Thursday.
Senior government officials said they have no plans for further deployment of military equipment to Mali, adding, however, that they would consider requests from the French government if received.
Mr. Baird hinted Canada could do more though, saying “our government also continues to reflect on contributions we can make in other non-military areas.”
Government sources said options include cash contributions to African forces. They noted a donor conference will shortly seek $450-million to underwrite the training and deployment of Malian and other African troops to combat Islamist rebels in Mali’s north.
“We will look at what other allies are doing and make decisions from there,” a Canadian government source said.
Other options include more logistical support such as the C-17 and funds for humanitarian and nation-building efforts in Mali.
There had been speculation within the Canadian military over whether Canada might deploy the smaller C-130J Hercules transport aircraft to Mali.
But Defence officials said on Thursday that there are no plans to dispatch other aircraft on this mission.
To date, a Canadian C-17 heavy-lift transport has made six flights into Mali to deliver 282,000 pounds of equipment and vehicles to the capital city of Bamako.
Canada has come under pressure from African countries for further assistance in Mali. Nigeria, the leading power in West Africa, is asking Canada and other Western nations to provide funding and heavy equipment such as helicopters to back up France’s effort in Mali.
Mindful of the pressure to contribute further, the Conservatives vowed not to turn a deaf ear to pleas for help in a region plagued by al-Qaeda affiliates.
“Canada is a committed partner in combatting terrorism in all forms,” Mr. Baird said. “We recognize the many challenges Mali and its neighbours are facing at the moment, and we are prepared to do our part for the people of the Sahel.”