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In this April 24, 2012 file photo, fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard during a hostage handover in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali. In recent months, al-Qaida and its allies have taken advantage of political instability within Mali to push out of their hiding place and into the towns, taking over an enormous territory which they are using to stock arms, train forces and prepare for global jihad. And as 2012 draws to a close and the world hesitates, delaying a military intervention, the extremists who seized control of the area earlier this year are preparing for a war they boast will be worse than the decade-old struggle in Afghanistan.

AP

In late December, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for African troops to help Mali combat Islamist forces occupying the northern part of the country. On Sunday, Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay suggested the Harper government could contribute to a training mission in the African nation of Mali depending on the "ask" – this, despite the fact Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has repeatedly said Canada is not "contemplating" a military mission in Mali. Should the government decide to contribute, here's how it would come about:

The so-called ask – for troop commitment and what sort of mission Canada would be involved in – would come through the United Nations Force Generation Service (FGS), which is part of its department of peacekeeping operations, according to Walter Dorn, professor of defence studies at Kingston's Royal Military College.

The UN would forward its request to Canada's military adviser at Canada's permanent mission to the UN in New York, who would then send it along to Ottawa and the Department of National Defence, and also to Foreign Affairs.

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The UN Security Council resolution passed in late December didn't contain a timeline, but did state that no military intervention would take place before the Mali government is stable and its military, which is notorious for human-rights abuses, is properly trained. Any military intervention would not likely happen until next fall.

"They're giving it a long preparation time," said Prof. Dorn. "So that means that they're trying to figure out what they would do."

In addition, Prof. Dorn notes that it is not clear whether this would be a "hybrid" mission – one that is jointly commanded by the UN and the African Union – or one specifically led by the African Union, which includes more than 50 African states.

"There will be a lot of tension in terms of who's doing what," said Prof. Dorn. "So one issue will be command and another will be what is the French role – you don't want to be looking colonial – and what's the American role?"

These strategic issues, as well as rules of engagement, still have to be worked out, he said.

"This is a mission where you have to use a substantial amount of force," he said. "It is not a peacekeeping mission."

Prof. Dorn suggests Canada could also contribute equipment needed for air reconnaissance and logistical purposes, including night-vision devices. In addition, in 2005 Canada supplied more than 100 armoured vehicles to African peacekeepers in Darfur. "We have experience of actually bringing APCs into Africa. So we could repeat that," said Prof. Dorn.

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Canadian troops are attractive, too, because of some members' ability to speak both French and English – an advantage in a francophone country such as Mali.

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