The Trump administration has given the green light to Canada to dispatch up to 600 soldiers on a United Nations peacekeeping mission to Mali, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is holding back approval as he assesses the volatile risks of fighting Islamist rebels who use child soldiers.
A new Canadian Armed Forces directive, published last week, warns troops that child soldiers are likely to be encountered "on an increasing basis" in future UN or NATO-led missions and cautions them if they are not sufficiently armed they could be vulnerable to "human wave attacks" employed by child soldiers – frontal assaults where the target is overrun.
Canada does not require U.S. approval to deploy troops, but in late 2016, the Trudeau government paused a decision, originally expected by December, on where it would deploy peacekeeping troops. The Liberals wanted to obtain a better sense of what the Trump administration expects of allies and ensure it wasn't offside with the new President who has repeatedly accused Western countries of falling short on basic defence commitments and has said he wants the NATO military alliance to focus more on counterterrorism.
A senior Canadian official, however, told the The Globe and Mail that U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis raised no objections to a Mali peace mission during recent talks with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Trudeau cabinet is still mulling the pros and cons of committing Canadian troops to a dangerous UN peace-support operation, which defies the traditional label of peacekeeping.
While Mali might appear remote to Canadians, this West African country is on the front lines of the fight against terrorism, including al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. It's a safe haven for terror groups despite French military intervention and a UN stabilization mission. Mali has, at times, served as a base for Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a terrorist leader who is the target of an RCMP arrest warrant for holding two Canadian diplomats hostage in Mali in 2008 and 2009; his extremist group also claimed responsibility for the deadly assault on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako in November, 2015. In 2013, he spearheaded an attack on an Algerian gas plant that killed at least 39 foreign hostages.
More than 110 peacekeepers have been killed over the last four years in Mali; the location has become the deadliest ongoing UN peace operation today. UN records say 72 of these deaths were attributed to "malicious acts." The security environment in that country sharply deteriorated in 2013, but French and African Union forces pushed back Islamist rebels who had taken control of the country's north.
"It is the most dangerous UN mission but at this juncture … it is way, way less dangerous than any phase we were in in Afghanistan," a second senior official said. "If you look at the 114 casualties, a majority of them came from very poor tactics, very poorly trained troops and really crappy equipment that ran over clearly visible road mines."
The first government official said the Trudeau cabinet will not commit unless there is a carefully laid-out plan to explain to Canadians why such a peacekeeping mission is in the country's national interest. The official said there needs to be "Canadian buy-in" before approval is granted and that may be months away.
Uppermost in the minds of federal policy-makers is the disturbing likelihood that Canadian troops would encounter battle-hardened Islamist militants including child soldiers, who are recruited as suicide bombers, fighters and spies.
A warning of what to expect came in a new Canadian military doctrine released last week that serves to prepare soldiers for clashes with underage fighters.
"Personnel must be prepared for the possibility they will have to engage child soldiers with deadly force to defend themselves or others," the military warned in a document meant to prepare Canadian soldiers for future missions.
The Forces' directive cautioned that soldiers from Canada could suffer major psychological trauma should they find themselves firing on children. "Encounters with child soldiers during operations can have significant psychological impacts for the personnel involved, particularly if those encounters involve engaging armed children," the Canadian Forces doctrine said.
The Forces' document advised Canadian soldiers to shoot first at adult combatants if they come under attack from children. "If the adult leader is killed or forced to take cover, the whole organization may break down," the new directive said, quoting a warfare expert.
The current UN mission to Mali includes about 13,000 troops and 2,000 police from Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Burkina Faso, Bangladesh and other countries in Europe, Africa and South Asia.
Denmark withdrew its troops and commander at the end of December, and France has been pushing Canada to step in with 600 troops and 150 police officers for the African mission.
If Canada went, its troops would back up a separate French-led military operation across the broader region, which is going after Islamist terror groups operating in the northern part of Mali.
Code-named Operation Barkhane, the French counterinsurgency mission is on the front lines that span the border of Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger.
The UN force in Mali is still looking for a commander for its perilous mission holding the line in the fight against Islamic extremists in North Africa. The mission's deputy commander, a general from Senegal, is currently the highest-ranking officer.
The new Forces' doctrine note released last week also serves as a wake-up call for the Canadian public on what to expect should the Liberal government deploy soldiers to a peacekeeping mission in a location such as Mali.
It said Canadian troops, in future such missions, may be required to provide security for the local population to "prevent local armed groups" from recruiting child soldiers.
The doctrine also highlights how child soldiers taken prisoner should be handled differently from adult combatants, noting international guidelines place a "greater focus on rehabilitation" and stipulate "they should be rapidly separated from adult fighters and handed over to an appropriate, mandated civilian process."
A decade ago, the Canadian Forces came under tremendous scrutiny regarding the way in which Canada's military commanders in Afghanistan handed over detainees to that country's notorious National Directorate of Security in 2007 and 2008.