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Mali is in a mess. Last March, a military coup overthrew a democratic government there; a combination of Tuareg rebels, al-Qaeda jihadis and former Gadhafi mercenaries took advantage of the chaos to take over northern Mali and institute a jihadi regime.

On Dec. 20, the United Nations Security Council urged member states to help quash the uprising. Canada was apparently asked to help, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper has decided against any Canadian intervention in Mali. Sooner or later, however, Ottawa will again be asked to contribute to some seemingly worthwhile military mission. Any decision regarding the deployment of Canadian troops should be based on lessons learned – some of them bitter ones – from our involvement in Afghanistan.

The most important consideration is how prepared the federal government is to explain the mission to Canadians. It must tell the nation plainly why Canada should be involved and why the possible loss of Canadian life will be a necessary sacrifice to Canadian interests and/or values.

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This will be particularly hard for Ottawa to do, because few Canadians know anything about Africa – except possibly for its interminable civil wars, atrocities and even genocides. Nevertheless, it must be done, not only in a full debate in Parliament that culminates in a parliamentary resolution to send troops, but in regular consultations with Canadians to make sure the doings of their troops are always transparent. Without the support of Canadians, the mission won't be sustainable.

Ottawa should have a clear idea of the political objectives of the larger military mission and should do its own evaluation as to whether they're achievable while guarding against the "mission creep" that tends to inflate small missions into big ones. It's simply not good enough to base Canadian decision-making on French or American (or UN) evaluations alone.

It's also important for Ottawa to know what other countries will contribute and, in particular, whether the United States will assume the lead role is supplying airlift, communications and logistics support. The U.S. has more carrying capacity than all the "Western" nations combined; supply lines by air (necessary for the landlocked country) will be a key component of any military operation there.

In Afghanistan, we learned the hard way that military coalitions can be very loose and uneven in their command structures, with different philosophies, rules of engagement, standard operating procedures, levels of training and quality and compatibility of equipment among coalition members. Is Canada prepared to tolerate that reality?

Canada should insist on full disclosure from its military allies on what operational and strategic plans they're making and should have a say in shaping those plans. Whether Canada sends 10 people or 500, all those Canadians are Ottawa's responsibility and all need to be protected against their misuse by our allies or against poor strategic decision-making.

Ottawa should make very sure of the human and physical geography of the area that Canadian troops might be operating in and know what dangers (such as open borders offering sanctuary to an enemy) lie in the offing.

Ottawa should also realistically assess the costs of the operation and how those costs will be paid for. The government must not take the funds for any new military mission out of the Department of National Defence's already stretched budget.

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Canada has good reasons for saying no to a mission in Mali. The war in Afghanistan is not quite over for Canada – about 900 troops will remain there for another year or so – while the military (especially the army) badly needs rest and re-equipment after a decade of war. The country is battling debt and deficit, and the defence budget has been drastically curtailed.

But Mr. Harper's stand reflects another reality: It's a sobering, but necessary, reminder to Canadians that, no matter how worthy a cause may be, our capacity to battle evil everywhere and in any form is quite limited.

David Bercuson is a distinguished research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and director of international programs at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.

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