Two federal ministers, John Baird and Julian Fantino, will go before the Commons foreign affairs committee Tuesday to talk about the situation in Mali. The question they still have to answer is whether Canada will return to the West African country in the days ahead.
The main offensive, launched by France a month ago to stop the advance of Islamist rebels, is basically over. Mali's north, or at least its major towns, are in the hands of French and Malian forces.
But weekend fighting by Islamists who emerged from hiding to take over a police station in Gao, northern Mali's biggest town, is a sign that a second phase has begun: hide-and-seek insurgency and guerilla war aimed at testing their control. France's forces are supposed to leave in April, to be replaced by Mali's weak military, African troops, and possibly UN peacekeepers.
The Harper government has ruled out combat, but hasn't made it clear what else it will, or won't do: send military trainers, send money for African troops, or continue the military support it offered the French.
Ottawa's reluctance to play a bigger role has surprised many other nations, from the French, who have fought a 30-day war, to European allies planning a training mission, to African nations who have called for Canada to do more.
Before a March coup, Canadians have been relatively present in Mali. It was one of Mali's biggest aid donors. It regularly sent military trainers to help its military prepare to fight off jihadists. And Canadian mining companies like Toronto-based Iamgold have developed gold mines there.
Since the coup, government-to-government activity has declined, and mining activity declined with the January advance of Islamists. Iamgold cut back its exploration, even in southern Mali, far from the fighting. This piece in the Wall Street Journal even suggests that the signal that Mali is secure will come when Canadians start drinking in Bamako's bars again.
For Mr. Baird, the Foreign Affairs minister, and Mr. Fantino, the International Co-operation Minister, the question is whether Ottawa will offer more support for international intervention, or wait till it's over. Ottawa has offered $13-million in humanitarian aid, a modest sign that it's willing to provide emergency money for the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by famine and war. But the Mali military intervention is not over.
There's no doubt that Mr. Baird and Mr. Fantino will stick to the government line that Canada won't put combat troops into the country. But that's been clear from the start. A poll released Friday, which reported that Canadians are overwhelmingly against a combat mission, showed it would be bad politics to change that tune. And anyway, France, the western country that did intervene, is making its plans to get out.
But there are questions that remain for Mr. Baird and Mr. Fantino.
– Will Canada send trainers? The European Union is mounting a 15-month mission, sending 250 trainers to help Malian and West African forces train to control the country. Canada has attended EU meetings to organize the force, kicking the tires, but hasn't said whether it will take part.
– Will Canada provide funding for African troops? The U.S., the EU, the African Union, and many other countries pledged funds for a West Africa force now in the midst of deploying to Mali. Will Canada follow suit?
– Will Canada keep its C-17 in the air? The Harper offered one heavy-lift cargo plane to help the French ferry supplies to Mali, but it's tour is slated to end on Friday. Will Ottawa extend that mission, and expand it to include support for African forces?
– Does Canada back a UN mission? There's now talk of sending UN peacekeepers, which means a bill for western nations like Canada. Is Ottawa in favour?
– What role will Canada play in diplomatic efforts to pressure Mali's interim government to keep its pledge to hold elections in the summer, and to seek a lasting peace deal with ethnic Tuaregs in the country's north?