Robert R. Fowler was the foreign policy adviser to three prime ministers, personal representative for Africa of three others, deputy minister of defence, Canada’s longest-serving ambassador to the United Nations, and UN Special Envoy to Niger. He is the author of A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda.
Canada sent more than 400,000 soldiers, out of a population of just eight million, to stand with our allies in the trenches of the First World War. We lost 65,000. Twenty years later, we again stood with our friends in the struggle against fascism and genocide, mobilizing 1.1 million troops from a population of 11 million. We left 44,000 buried overseas, and tens of thousands came home wounded from the Second World War. And yet, just a few years later, Canadians fought bravely for international stability under the newly-minted United Nations flag in Korea for the ideal of universally agreed-upon rules to keep peace, to provide security, to avoid another worldwide catastrophe – rules Canadians helped formulate.
Subsequently, over the next three-and-a-half decades, in pursuit of the same objectives, Canada dispatched over 125,000 soldiers and air-force personnel to more than 30 UN-mandated – and largely successful – peacekeeping operations in an effort to help manage an increasingly multifaceted and intractable world, which was growing increasingly impervious to those efforts. But those efforts saved countless lives.
Eventually, however, we in the West lost our way. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya were expensive lessons in ignorance, naivety and hubris. Seven years of conflict in Syria has revealed the extent of the decay of our collective will to manage threats to world peace and security – the founding premise of the United Nations and the specific mandate of the Security Council.
Last week, the Government announced a modest commitment of 250 soldiers and half a dozen helicopters to the 12,000-strong United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) which seeks to assist our African friends, support our European allies and play a very small part in enhancing international order. That decision is very little, very late and far less than what was promised in August, 2016. That a decision regarding where and how to deploy those troops took 20 months beggars comprehension. Notwithstanding its tentativeness and timing, the decision makes sense and is a welcome development. But not everyone thinks so.
Some observers have warned that it will be a dangerous mission. Of course it will! Some worry that the situation in Mali is complex, with little chance of outright “victory” and no exit strategy. All true. But do we maintain a regular force of 68,000 superbly trained service men and women, and 27,000 reservists, only to leave the difficult and dangerous undertakings to others? Do we spend $20-billion a year on defence only to consider risk-free endeavours?
The deployment of Canadian troops to Mali is not an “invasion of Muslim lands,” but rather part of a universally mandated stability operation involving 40 countries from all parts of the world, which is seeking to protect those 100 million people who currently inhabit the nations of the Sahel (and who will number 200 million by 2050). It is very much a humanitarian undertaking.
This UN mission isn’t about regime change or other myths and pipe dreams that have led us astray in the past. Canadian soldiers will not be seeking to turn Mali into Alberta, nor trying to substitute Malian values with ours. Rather, the main thrust of the MINUSMA mandate is to encourage the implementation of a treaty between the ever fractious and belligerent Touaregs and the weak and impoverished national government of Mali. However, a key, if understated, focus of the mission is also to reduce – the less squeamish French say “neutralize” – the jihadi threat to the most defenceless people on the planet, who inhabit a 7,000-km swath of desert and near-desert stretching across the widest part of Africa, from Somalia to Mauritania. Once reduced, perhaps Mali and the other countries of that troubled region will be able to contend with such a threat themselves.
It is true that neither this mission, nor Canada’s small contribution, will offer a permanent solution to the challenges facing Mali today. But, even if there is to be no “Mission Accomplished” moment, and the jihadi threat to the Sahel region will not be eradicated, the mission will improve the lives of millions of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.
Canada has long maintained a robust development program in Mali that has often reached $100-million a year. In the Western Sahel alone, donor countries have collectively made an enormous investment of approximately US$80-billion. If we do not act to stabilize ethnic tensions within Mali and reduce the predations of the jihadis, we risk the obliteration of everything we have sought to achieve over 50 years with that investment.
There is a further reason why Canadians should support the UN mission in Mali. To a significant extent, we helped break it, and we have an obligation to help fix it. Slow to understand the law of unintended consequences, we in the West, through our ill-considered intervention in Libya in 2011, caused the massive armament of the jihadis, and particularly Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This gave them the wherewithal to occupy the Northern two-thirds of Mali just over a year later, and pose a continuing threat to the entire Sahel region. Five years ago, my captor, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an AQIM leader, gave an interview to the Mauritanian news agency, ANI, in which he said, “We have been one of the main beneficiaries of the revolutions in the Arab world. … As for our acquisition of Libyan armament, that is an absolutely natural thing.”
The Islamists are focused on spreading – by the sword – their distorted understanding of the will of Allah. They hate everything we represent, everything we hold most dear – liberty, democracy, equality, free will – all things they believe are the province of Allah rather than of men.
They also hate the United Nations with a vicious passion. They have attacked UN facilities and personnel (in Baghdad, Algiers, Abuja, Mali and beyond) precisely because the UN and its various humanitarian programs and agencies are protecting, feeding, housing, healing, teaching and training the citizens of countries such as Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. In so doing, the UN offers the prospect of a way of life that is so much better than the cruel regime of servitude and repression which the jihadis seek to impose.
These fanatics were very clear to me about what they hoped to achieve: Somalia-like chaos across much of the African continent. If they are successful, it will further exacerbate the current massive illegal immigration pressures on Europe. Such pressures already are destabilizing the economies and polities of some of our closest friends and most important allies. Helping to alleviate that pressure is surely a worthy goal.
Canadians depend a great deal on the health and efficacy of a universally accepted, rules-based international system for our own peace, prosperity and security. Surely, then, we should be doing what we can to buttress that beleaguered concept – not least in light of the fact that some of our powerful friends seek to tear it asunder in favour of unilateral, me-first doctrines.
Canadians should be bending every effort to help better order the world around us, striving to resolve complex and seemingly intractable international disputes and conflicts, and helping to protect their victims.
Those who criticize Canada’s decision to send troops to Mali under UN auspices seem to believe that we should only have friends who are never in need, allies who never require our assistance, and a world order to which we need not contribute.
Who needs that kind of Canada?