For years, it was Canada's biggest effort against terrorism in West Africa: hundreds of Canadian soldiers were deployed in a massive U.S.-led program to train Mali's soldiers to face northern rebels and other threats.
But now the top U.S. commander in Africa is criticizing the $500-million training project as a badly flawed effort. It was too focused on tactics and equipment, he says, and it forgot a crucial lesson: democratic values.
The criticism by General Carter Ham, commander of the U.S. Africa Command, has serious implications for Canada, which places a high premium on its perceived expertise in military training after many years of work in Afghanistan.
In the past year, Mali's army has perpetrated a series of brutal abuses, including a military coup and dozens of reported executions of civilians.
The extent of Canada's involvement in Mali has never been fully reported, but U.S. military journals have revealed new details of the Canadian presence. Up until shortly before the coup, Canadian soldiers were deployed in Mali on a range of training and mentoring missions. Some even participated in a U.S.-led logistics and resupply training program in the central Mali town of Sévaré last February – just a few weeks before the military coup, and while a rebellion in northern Mali was already under way.
Small units of Canadian special forces troops were also active as trainers in Mali up until shortly before the coup, as part of a broader U.S.-led counterterrorism training program.
But now the training program is under fire. "I believe that we focused exclusively on tactical and technical [aspects]," Gen. Ham said. "We didn't spend, probably, the requisite time focusing on values, ethics and military ethos. … When you put on the uniform of your nation, then you accept the responsibility to defend and protect that nation, to abide by the legitimate civilian authority that has been established."
The first signs of failure became clear on March 22 last year, when Mali's recently trained officers led a military coup against the elected government. The coup leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, was himself a graduate of the U.S. training program. That was "very worrisome for us," Gen. Ham said this week in a speech at Howard University in Washington.
After the coup, Gen. Ham said, the U.S. military began to ask some key questions. "Did we miss the signs that this was happening? And was there anything that we did in our training that could have been done differently, perhaps, and have caused a different outcome?"
The answer, he said, was "a little bit of both."
The Globe and Mail asked the Canadian Forces for the number of Canadian soldiers involved in training missions and exercises in Mali; when they began and ended; and whether those missions included teaching military ethics. A spokesman said they were unable to respond by press deadline.
But a defence department source, who was asked whether Canada shares Gen. Ham's regrets about Mali training, said that parallels between Canadian and U.S. training cannot be drawn because the scope and size of the efforts are vastly different.
"Whenever Canadian soldiers are participating in training, whether at home or abroad, they always do so in accordance with Canadian values and international law," he said.
Canada is planning another military training exercise in Mali's neighbouring country, Mauritania, next month. And it might consider a further training mission to Mali in response to an expected United Nations appeal for military aid for Mali at a donor conference next week.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay has expressed pride in Canada's military training efforts, and as recently as last month, he suggested that Canadian soldiers could again provide training in Mali.
"Training is something that Canadian Forces are particularly adept at doing," Mr. MacKay said. "We have demonstrated that repeatedly."
He said 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."
But the Canadian and American training was not enough to fix Mali's badly disciplined army. After leading the coup and toppling the government, Capt. Sanogo and other officers have remained highly influential in Mali's political landscape, forcing the resignation of the former prime minister last month when he became too difficult to control.
There are mounting reports that Mali's army has been guilty of executions and human-rights abuses, especially since the French military intervention began this month.
Malian soldiers have executed an estimated 33 people in several front-line towns and villages, dumping some of their bodies in wells or burning them, often targeting people simply because they were light-skinned or lacked identity papers, according to human-rights groups.
With reports from Campbell Clark and Colin Freeze