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The Harper government is so obsessed with stressing what it's not going to do in Mali – combat – that it fumbles whenever it talks about what it will do.

It's been a pattern of miscommunication: Let every smidge of information about Canadian involvement dribble out elsewhere, preferably on Twitter or overseas. Then deny it. Wait. Then confirm it. Keep everyone guessing.

The result is that the government is sending not the message it intends, but the opposite: that Canada's being dragged in little by little.

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That's not really true.

Stephen Harper's government has avoided deep involvement in Mali. He set limits: no combat. What he hasn't set out is a clear idea of what the Canadian role should be. His government has hesitated and delayed.

It's odd considering that the Canadian government used to say it had a pretty significant role in Mali, as a major aid donor and sometimes, trainer of its troops.

The message was bobbled in ways ranging from odd to surreal. News that Canada would send a C-17 cargo plane came first from a Malian Twitter feed. And after International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino personally announced humanitarian aid, at a conference in Addis Ababa on Tuesday, his spokeswoman denied any announcement was made. Then she later confirmed it.

It all dates to December, when Defence Minister Peter MacKay said the military was considering what assistance, like training, it might offer to an African mission for Mali, but the Foreign Affairs Department contradicted him.

After France sent troops Jan. 10, things changed. France asked Canada for transport help. One Sunday night, Mali's President, Dioncounda Traoré, via Twitter, revealed Canada was sending a C-17. No, the government insisted late that night, Canada's "position hasn't changed." France hasn't made a formal request. The next morning, Ottawa announced the plane was going, but only for a week.

Turns out it's harder to respond to global events on your schedule in the Twitter age. But the government wasn't forthright, either. When France's President François Hollande called Mr. Harper two days later, the PMO summary of the call didn't mention that Mr. Hollande personally asked him to extend the C-17's tour and send more planes.

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Then there was more hesitating in announcing the extension for the C-17 until the full week was up. The government repeated: no combat troops.

That's why leaks that special forces were guarding Canada's embassy in Bamako made news, even if it was just prudent. The government says little about special forces, and real security concerns do matter. But what the government said after the leak – steps were taken to protect diplomats – could have been said earlier to forestall the notion of secret ops.

Even basic questions about Canada's past training for Mali's soldiers, in 2011 and 2012, little noticed at the time, meet a wall. The Globe asked Friday how many Canadian soldiers went, and when, but still, no answers.

Lest one conclude there's something to hide, consider the bumbling when there's something to announce.

On Tuesday, as representatives from around the world met in Addis Ababa to pledge funds for an African force for Mali, the African Union tweeted a roll of pledges. There was no mention of Canada's.

But Mr. Fantino had spoken at the conference and announced $13-million in humanitarian aid, on camera. When the CBC asked about it, citing his own words, Mr. Fantino's spokesman said Canada hadn't announced anything. It didn't happen. Until press releases followed to say it did. It might be flubbed international co-ordination, but then it was the office of the Minister of International Co-operation. Governments typically trumpet aid announcements, rather than playing hide-and-seek.

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Meanwhile, at a conference to fund African troops, Ottawa hadn't yet decided what to do on that score. Mr. Fantino said Wednesday the government didn't want to make a hasty decision, which makes you wonder why half the countries on the planet were ready to make a pledge, but not Canada.

Communications fumbles aren't much next to fighting in Mali. But the wobbly performance raises the prospect Ottawa will back away from things it can do, like training, so no one doubts the Harper government means it when it rules out combat. Gee, how could anyone get the idea it isn't being clear?

Campbell Clark writes on foreign affairs from Ottawa

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