They are likely to be welcomed when they first arrive, but Canada's soldiers will be venturing into a dangerous political minefield if Ottawa decides to approve a proposed training mission in Mali.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay confirmed this week that he is considering a possible military training operation in the impoverished West African nation, where Islamist rebels have seized the north. But the reality is that it would be a deceptively risky mission, with no assurance of success.
Mali's army has a history of political aggressiveness, human-rights abuses, chaotic command structures, and resistance to Western training. Those problems are compounded by its uneasy alliance with revenge-minded militia groups. Instilling discipline in this unruly gang could be a near-impossible task.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, a spokesman for Mali's army said it would welcome a Canadian training effort. Yet he also made clear that the army has its own urgent agenda – which could conflict with a more cautious Canadian approach.
The spokesman, Bakary Mariko, said the army is ready to attack the rebels now and won't tolerate any delays. That contradicts the slower-moving Western military plan, which Canada would support. The Western plan contemplates a campaign against the northern rebels in late 2013, after many months of training and preparation.
Mali's army says a long wait is unacceptable. "If we wait for three or six months, it's very dangerous," Mr. Mariko said.
"It allows the Islamist forces to gain time. We have to hurry up and start the operation in the north before it gets more complicated."
The Western plan, including the deployment of 250 military trainers from the European Union, would follow a slower and more deliberate approach because of the failure of past efforts to train Mali's army – and an awareness of the army's organizational disarray today, including a collapsed chain of command and a record of brutal human-rights abuses.
Mali's army is so under-equipped that it doesn't use its weapons in live-fire training exercises. Recent video by a French television crew showed Malian soldiers pretending to fire their weapons in the exercises and making popping sounds with their mouths to simulate gunfire.
The history of Western training missions in Mali is littered with embarrassing setbacks. One graduate of the U.S. military training program for Mali, for example, was an officer named Captain Amadou Sanogo. Instead of fighting for democracy and human rights, he led a military coup last March, and still holds a powerful grip over Mali's government today.
In the northern city of Timbuktu, a large housing compound on the edge of town is a reminder of the perils of Western military training operations. The compound was a base for a U.S. special forces as they tried to teach counter-terrorism tactics to Mali's soldiers. Timbuktu was later captured by the rebels – and is now a key base for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a militant group of kidnappers and terrorists with an affiliation to al-Qaeda.
Canadian special forces troops were involved in several Western training missions in Mali in 2010 and 2011, but it is unknown whether they had any contact with the coup plotters or with the U.S. training operation in Timbuktu.
Canada's stance on a potential military role in Mali is fuzzy. While the foreign affairs department has rejected a "military mission" in Mali, the defence minister says a training mission is still being considered – perhaps along the lines of what Canada has done in training Afghanistan's army.
"We are contemplating what contribution Canada could make," Mr. MacKay said this week. "Training is something that Canadian Forces are particularly adept at doing."
The United Nations Security Council has approved a plan to deploy 3,300 West African troops in Mali to support the Malian army in a campaign against the northern rebels. French general François Lecointre was appointed last week as head of the European operation to train four battalions of Mali's army near the town of Segou, about 250 kilometres north of the capital, Bamako.
Among the risks for Canada is the persisting disagreement over how the Western-backed intervention force would operate. The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, reportedly told diplomats in a private meeting that the European plan was "crap."
The United States would be expected to support the Mali training mission, but its own laws prohibit it from providing military aid to an undemocratic regime. Officially the U.S. and Europe would prefer Mali to hold a national election before launching a military campaign against the rebels, but an election is increasingly seen as unrealistic.
And then there is the question of Canada's potential relationship with the coup plotters in the Malian army. The army still sees itself as a political kingmaker in the country. Last month, after he had repeatedly disagreed with the army, Mali's prime minister was forced to resign – revealing again the army's strong influence over the Mali government.