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foreign affairs

The mustering has begun. African nations are being asked to commit troops to help Mali take back its north from Islamists. European nations are making plans for a training mission. France is offering surveillance drones. The U.S. backs intervention.

Canada will soon face a decision. Stephen Harper's government won't send fighting troops, but it will have to decide if it will send some kind of military assistance. That could include perhaps, after Afghanistan, another contingent of trainers to help foreign troops fight a dusty counterinsurgency war.

The request will come, from allies and others. Canada has a history in Mali. Until a coup in March, Mali was one of Canada's biggest foreign-aid recipients. The Canadian Forces have played a major role in training Mail's military, in regular officer training, and sending Special Forces trainers. Now, with a mission being planned, Mr. Harper's government would find it hard to refuse to provide some help.

Last week, representatives of several countries, including Canada, met at a "Friends of Mali" meeting in Mali, and for the first time launched an examination of what resources are needed to deal with Mali's north – and agreed that what they really face is potential crisis across Africa's Sahel region.

But this mission won't be shipping out for months. Mali's shaky post-coup interim government has been wary of being viewed as reliant on foreign troops. Its neighbours in ECOWAS, the association of West African Nations, haven't offered enough additional troops to fulfill the mission. It's not yet clear who will. France's defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, stressed Wednesday that it's all still in the planning stages.

That's because of problems in mounting a mission, not because the threat isn't real. Mali's north, an area the size of France, has since the spring been under the control of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM. This weekend, Agence France-Presse reported that hundreds of jihadist fighters, from countries across the continent, poured into Mali.

The goal, according to Robert Fowler, the former Canadian ambassador to the UN who was kidnapped by AQIM in 2008 in Niger, is to turn the 7,000-kilometre-wide area from Mauritania to Somalia "into one great, chaotic, anarchic mess in which they believe their jihad will thrive."

The insurrection started out as a rebellion of the Tuareg nomads of Mali's north, the fourth since Mali's independence, said J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center. Mr. Pham frequently advises the U.S. and other governments on African security issues. When AQIM joined them and they beat Mali's military and took the north, it became an international security issue, he said.

But events inside Mali complicated the response. A coup, which started as a protest over military failure in the north, strained relations with the outside world. An interim government has been established, but it has shaky political legitimacy, Mr. Pham said. That makes it hard to build a force to fight.

Mali has about 7,000 soldiers, Mr. Pham said, and ECOWAS has offered to send 3,000. "We're not dealing with realistic numbers for the task at hand," he said. ECOWAS will have to offer more, and other neighbours, like Mauritania and Algeria, will have to be approached, he said.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has said Canada is not contemplating a military mission – but then no Western country is planning to send combat soldiers, beyond a few Special Forces troops to help plan operations. Mali's government wants to be seen to take the lead, backed by African troops.

But Mr. Pham said that even when African troops are offered, they will need Western assistance to mount the mission. There will be a need for training in desert combat and in counterinsurgency doctrine, he said.

Mr. Fowler said Canada could provide several things the mission might need: communications and intelligence, transport planes or helicopters for airlift, for example.

With all the complications, Mr. Pham said, an international mission is months away, and probably will not do much more than get a start in 2013. And after all those delays in dealing with a real threat in an area where Canada has a history, Mr. Harper must have an offer of help ready.