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Stephen Harper is gun-shy. After Afghanistan, and now in the midst of defence budget cuts, he might never approve a foreign military mission again, let alone send Canadian troops to fight al-Qaeda in the vast desert expanse of northern Mali.

He sent fighter jets to Libya, but that mission was a distant air war, and since, defence budget cuts are making Mr. Harper and other Western leaders cool to committing to overseas operations. And the hard knocks of the military mission in Afghanistan made Mr. Harper think of dusty ground fights like Mali as politically unprofitable and possibly unwinnable.

But the job in Mali would not require sending combat brigades to fight in Timbuktu, as the Afghanistan mission required Canada to do in Kandahar, or to stay to fix a fractured country. The request is to help stop jihadists from holding unquestioned sway over a wide swath of Africa. That requires Western military backing. It does not require sending thousands of Canadian troops for a vast counter-insurgency.

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Reluctance to rush into Mali's mess is not foolish, but it seems Mr. Harper's unwillingness to involve Canada is part of a long transformation from hawk to wary non-interventionist.

Back in 2008, Mr. Harper warned that future threats will require a robust military "backed by the political will to deploy." But Afghanistan's frustrating complications, and now budget cuts, have dented that zeal.

On Tuesday, Mr. Harper said Canada will help Mali through humanitarian aid and diplomacy, which he once deemed ineffective for confronting extremists. He said his government "is not considering a direct Canadian military mission."

Some Western diplomats said they still believe Canada will eventually contribute a few trainers. But one source said U.S. officials were told Mr. Harper is not interested.

Perhaps the lessons of Afghanistan have been taken too broadly. There are useful things Canada could do in Mali, just as there are things to avoid.

Mali is a mess. After a March coup, it still has an illegitimate, military-controlled government. Tuareg rebels joined with foreign jihadist fighters to take over the vast north in April, then Islamist jihadists marginalized the Tuareg nationalists and instituted harsh Islamist rule.

Diplomacy can be useful. Western nations want a road map to electing a legitimate government. J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council said that's probably a prerequisite to make the Tuaregs turn against the jihadists.

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But for Western nations, the goal of a military mission cannot be to make Mali work again. They should avoid tying it to nation-building, as in Afghanistan. The goal must be to reduce the capacity of al-Qaeda to operate freely.

Northern Mali is vast but has only three large towns – Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal – separated mostly by empty desert. It's not a battle to hold a thousand towns, as in Afghanistan, but to kill and remove extremists from control of a few places.

Mali's army is supposed to lead, but it might field only 6,000 right now. West African nations are mustering 3,300. The European Union will send 400 military trainers to help build Mali's forces and prepare West African troops.

African Union chair Thomas Boni Yayi, the president of Benin, called on Tuesday for NATO to join, but real numbers must come from Africa. Most Western leaders face war fatigue and budget restraints. But only Western nations can provide crucial military capacity to make the mission work.

That includes surveillance, satellite communications, drones and aircraft to watch Mali's north. The United States and France will lead, but others, including Canada, could help. That might mean sending dozens of Canadian troops to operate equipment and train, not thousands.

Mr. Harper acknowledges the danger. There are good reasons to deploy. But he has lost the will.

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