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MINUSMA Guinean contingents set up positions on higher ground around Kidal, Mali, in December, 2016.

UN Photo/Harandane Dicko/UN Photo

In a few weeks, six military helicopters and 250 soldiers will begin their journey from Canada to the Sahara Desert, where they will join more than 11,000 international forces in a five-year-old operation known as the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali.

And once again, there is controversy: Are we pouring money and lives into another mission that risks becoming a decade-long quagmire, with unclear goals? Has the Trudeau government pushed our soldiers into this commitment because there’s pressure from our allies and a voter appetite to see maple leaves on the peacekeepers’ blue helmets?

While there’s some truth in both accusations, the Mali mission is not, by itself, an unworthy or imprudent use of our military resources. Mali, a hopeful and comparatively stable country until Islamist forces invaded its north in 2012, needs help rescuing itself from an outside invader hated by most of the population. The UN mission is not a Western imposition or a regime-change operation: Mali’s legitimate government has requested military assistance with what should be a limited operation against a jihadi insurgency – thus the operation’s name.

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That said, there is reason to be gravely concerned about the prospects of this sort of military mission. While this is still officially a peacekeeping operation, in practice it bears no resemblance to the classic conflict-prevention campaigns of decades ago. Its mission is “to help stabilize key population centres and support the re-establishment of state authority throughout Mali, and to develop and implement programs for the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former combatants.” It is, in everything but name, a counter-insurgency operation.

And counterinsurgency operations – designed to neutralize an extremist guerrilla enemy by strengthening a country’s civic institutions and supporting the population – have a terrible track record.

The Mali goals are strikingly similar to those of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, under NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. The stabilization and institution-building operations in Afghanistan were expensively implemented by hundreds of thousands of people, lavishly and carefully designed by scholars and social scientists – and they failed badly.

Last week, the U.S. government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released its report concluding that 17 years of “efforts to stabilize insecure and contested areas in Afghanistan mostly failed,” and that elsewhere the Afghan mission “overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions as part of the stabilization strategy,” and “spent far too much money, far too quickly, in a country woefully unprepared to absorb it.”

As a consequence, “opportunities for corruption and elite capture [theft] abounded, making many of those projects more harmful than helpful,” and “power brokers and predatory government officials with access to coalition projects became kings with patronage to sell, fueling conflicts,” and the many Afghans left outside these power networks “found natural allies in the Taliban, who used that support to divide and conquer communities the coalition was keen to win over.”

This pattern keeps repeating itself: Even the most well-intentioned and well-designed “stabilization and assistance” operations end up benefiting the enemy.

Aisha Ahmad, a political scientist at the University of Toronto who specializes in the financing and economic activities of jihadi extremist groups (patterns she investigates in her new book Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power) has found that most efforts to stabilize and normalize countries are designed in ways that benefit the jihadis more than those they’re meant to support.

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The reason why jihadist groups keep returning to power in African and Central Asian countries, she writes in a new essay, “has remarkably little to do with jihadist ideology or identity politics. Rather, there is a clear economic logic behind these patterns of jihadist resurgence.”

Big international interventions (whether UN or NATO), she writes, “flood conflict zones with foreign resources, which create a series of perverse incentives. These incentives change the cost calculations and the behaviour of local armed groups, especially the international community’s local allies. Too often, foreign dollars socialize and incentivize these local allies to behave poorly — and indeed, even sabotage mission success.”

From the perspective of a poor country’s economy, an international military mission is something like a discovery of oil – a flood of untethered money that risks a “resource curse” effect, making the worst people more powerful. This has a tendency to turn insurgent groups into winners and governments into losers. It is still possible to play an important role in making Mali a better place – but, as Dr. Ahmad concludes, we’d better pay a lot more attention to what our money is doing.

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