If Canada's military is itching for a fight, it won't be in the Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is not Canada's next big military mission.

The UN has asked for a Canadian commander, Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, to lead its peacekeeping mission in the African nation. But the debate inside Ottawa is about whether a Canadian general would go with a handful of troops, or a few handfuls, perhaps 50. If he goes.

Ottawa has not yet given Gen. Leslie the go-ahead because of concerns about costs and the potential for Canadian responsibility for a large and difficult mission to eventually creep into something bigger.

Even with small numbers, however, it is part of a major decision: Canada will have to decide what its post-Afghanistan military will do. Accepting command in the DRC would mean returning to UN-led peacekeeping operations, which Canada has largely left behind since the mid-1990s.

There are calls in some quarters for Canada to do just that: the Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistan is ending, and they argue that the UN has improved the oversight of peacekeeping. But while many Canadians see UN-led peacekeeping operations as part of their identity, many Canadian soldiers view them as a past they'd rather not revisit.

This week's visit to Kinshasa by Governor-General Michaëlle Jean fuelled speculation that large numbers of Canadian troops will soon be deployed to the DRC under Gen. Leslie's command. But the debate in Ottawa over smaller numbers probably says more about the wary attitude toward such missions.

The diplomats, as a rule, view the potential appointment of Gen. Leslie as a feather in Canada's cap, and a useful contribution to multilateral diplomacy in Africa. Canada's efforts to secure a seat on the UN Security Council this year would only be aided. But they'd be willing to see Gen. Leslie go with a corporal's guard, perhaps a dozen aides.

That makes some military officers queasy, however. They remember Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire being forced in 1994 to watch the swelling of genocidal killings in Rwanda because of declining troop numbers and waffling UN orders. They think Gen. Leslie, if he takes command, would need dozens of Canadian officers and aides, perhaps 50, to establish a headquarters that he could rely on to exert effective command and control. They fear a Canadian general will be left in a position where he has little control.

Inside Ottawa, one reason Gen. Leslie's appointment has not been quickly sealed is a concern about mission creep: that once commanded by a Canadian, the demand for troops might rise, perhaps to 150.

The peacekeeping mission in the DRC, which began in 1999 to monitor a ceasefire and has grown amid regular flare-ups in several regions, now numbers 20,500 troops. But the UN mission is regularly castigated for interference or folding to rebels, and its underpaid troops sometimes accused of complicity in corruption, black marketeering and rape. President Joseph Kabila has called for UN troops to start withdrawing in months, and be gone by next year.

The UN troops come from almost 20 countries, including seven big contributors like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Many of Canada's old soldiers just don't think the bureaucratic UN can run a shooting war, unless it hands the whole operation over to one country.

"The UN force in Congo finds itself supporting a shaky government, pursuing rebels in the jungle, killing people who have raped and murdered their way through villages," said retired major-general Lewis Mackenzie, who commanded UN troops in Sarajevo in 1992. "The UN has extreme difficulty commanding and controlling those types of operations."

"My only recommendation would be, 'don't touch it with a 10-foot pole.' "

But some argue that's out of date. A recent paper published by the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute argues the UN's peacekeeping-mission control has improved, and Canada should consider a return to peacekeeping.

But when it comes to the DRC, the government is in no rush to go big. Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon's stand-pat answer on the issue in the Commons Wednesday reflected the ambivalence: Canada has given money and supports the mission's goals, but when it comes to sending a commander, the government is still "analyzing."