Defence Minister Peter MacKay has opened the door to sending Canadian Forces personnel into the troubled West African nation of Mali, citing the contribution of Canadian military trainers in Afghanistan.
The remarks appeared to contradict Foreign Minister John Baird's previous statements that no Canadian troops would be committed to Mali, where government forces are battling militant Islamist forces that hold much of the country's arid north.
"We are contemplating what contribution Canada could make," Mr. MacKay told reporters at CFB Halifax Sunday, where he announced a rent cap for some defence housing.
"Training is something that Canadian Forces are particularly adept at doing," Mr. MacKay said. "We have demonstrated that repeatedly … throughout our history. But certainly the training mission in Afghanistan is testament to that commitment and that ability and is something that has garnered the admiration of recipient nations but other countries as well that emulate Canadian training techniques."
Earlier this month, the UN Security Council voted to send 3,300 African troops to Mali to help rid the country of the Islamist extremists that have taken over the northern half of the country. But there is a caveat that any military intervention will not take place without Malian troops being properly trained. Any effort to take out the Islamists in the north would not likely happen before September or October.
Mr. Baird has repeatedly ruled out sending troops to Mali, including trainers. An official in his office confirmed that again Sunday.
"Canada is not contemplating a military mission in Mali," said Rick Roth, press secretary to Mr. Baird.
He added, however, that the Canadian government is "deeply concerned with the ongoing security situation."
"The return of democracy and territorial integrity remains our utmost concern," he said.
"Canada applauds the December 20, 2012, passage of the United Nations Security Council resolution …," Mr. Roth said in an e-mail, noting that the resolution authorized a one-year deployment of an African-led mission to help Mali in its "recovery of the areas occupied by terrorists."
He added that "Canada stands ready with its international partners to assist the ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States], and the African Union in their efforts to resolve the crisis in Mali."
Mr. MacKay would not say how many troops Canada could commit to a training mission in Mali. "It depends on what the ask might be," he said.
He said that Canada is "regularly called upon when it comes to training missions like this because of the expertise and the quality of training that Canadian soldiers provide."
Canada's military mission in Afghanistan ended in July, 2011, but about 700 Canadian troops are still there on a training mission, stationed mostly in Kabul.
Walter Dorn, a professor of defence studies at Kingston's Royal Military College, advocated Canadian participation in what he said would be a "cutting-edge mission" involving counterinsurgency, arguing that Canadian personnel should provide planning, intelligence gathering, and equipment.
Prof. Dorn said this would be consistent with the UN resolution, and said that some training could be done outside Mali. He compared the context to the mission in Afghanistan: "If you don't deal with Taliban now, they tend to come back to haunt us."
The pressure is on the Harper government to help out, given that until a coup in March, Mali has been one of its biggest recipients of foreign aid. Criticized in the past by the opposition parties for not helping out in the region, it had Mali on its short list of "countries of focus" for foreign aid, giving it more than $100-million in annual support.
Mr. Baird condemned the coup at the time, demanding that the coup leaders respect democracy. The country had a democratically elected government since 1991, something which CIDA, Canada's federal aid agency noted, referring to Mali as an "example of democracy in the sub-Saharan region."
In addition, Canadian forces had also helped to train the country's military. They had spent about $2-million for a peacekeeping school, and Canadian soldiers helped train Mali's counterterrorism units.
But this training made little difference in the poorly equipped Malian army, which is known for corruption and human-rights abuses.
Canadian businesses have also invested in the country with investments of about $300-million from 20 mining companies.
With files from the New York Times, Campbell Clark and Geoffrey York