Canada has turned down the command of a major UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, giving the general touted for the post another job at home.
The United Nations had asked Canada to send Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie as the commander of the 20,500-strong peacekeeping force in Democratic Republic of the Congo. But on Friday, the Defence Department announced Gen. Leslie will take on the job of helping redesign the post-Afghanistan Canadian Forces.
Command of the Congo mission would have been a symbolic reconnection with UN-led peacekeeping missions, which the Canadian Forces have largely eschewed since the 1990s.
But the Canadian government decided not to take a high-profile command of a troubled mission, even though it would have meant committing only a few dozen troops, while the Canadian Forces are still heavily engaged in the war in Afghanistan.
The decision to assign Gen. Leslie at home came after Canada decided not to take command, sources said, although a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon refused to confirm that Canada has told the UN it will turn down the command.
"We're fully engaged in Afghanistan until 2011, and that's what we're concentrating on for now," said Mr. Cannon's spokeswoman, Catherine Loubier.
Canada has a dozen soldiers currently assigned to the UN mission in Congo, known by the acronym MONUC, but it appears unlikely those numbers will be substantially increased.
Governor-General Michaëlle Jean's visit two weeks ago to the African country fuelled speculation that Gen. Leslie would soon take command of UN forces there, despite concerns inside the Harper government.
The decision to decline a UN request to play a bigger role in a failing state racked by violence between factions and widespread rape brought political criticism.
"If there's ever a place where Canada should step up, the Congo is it, and instead we are abandoning them," New Democrat foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said in a statement.
Foreign-policy analysts have debated whether Canada should return to UN-led peacekeeping with the end of the Afghan mission next year. But many in the military are wary, and for some, the prospect of sending Gen. Leslie to a complex mission with a handful of Canadians evoked memories of events in Rwanda, when Canadian general Roméo Dallaire was forced to watch spiralling mass killings under indecisive UN leadership.
Canada turned down command of the Congo mission twice before, the last time in 2008, and experts say doing so now can't be taken as a definitive choice against taking a bigger role in future UN-led missions.
"The other issue here is that it is the Congo. And it's a tough mission," said Jane Boulden, an international relations professor at the Royal Military College of Canada who wrote a 2001 book on UN peacekeeping in Congo. It is perhaps not the peacekeeping test politicians would choose, she said.
UN troops from almost 20 countries face violent confrontations in a country with poor infrastructure, where nearly a dozen factions engage in clashes in disparate regions, while UN peacekeepers have been accused of folding in adversity and even complicity in corruption and rape. Congo President Joseph Kabila has said he wants them out next year.
Gen. Leslie, meanwhile, will become Chief of Transformation for the Canadian Forces. That post is intended to make him the senior adviser to Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk charged with leading the revamping of the military for a new future after Canadian troops leave Afghanistan next year.
One of a handful of three-star generals in the Canadian Forces, he takes over a post that has not existed in the military for several years, when it was held by Gen. Natynczyk, then a two star major-general.