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Editorials Globe editorial: On Mali, proceed with maximum caution

François Hollande, the French President, visited Mali earlier this month, just a few days before Islamist terrorists carried out a particularly savage attack in that central African country.

That ought to be a vivid reminder of the risks that the Trudeau government may be taking before long in Mali, too. The Liberal Party promised in its election platform to revive Canadian peacekeeping, and it is now expected that the government will send as many as 600 troops to Mali this year to support a beleaguered United Nations mission there.

They will be walking into a war zone. The jihadi terrorist attack in the northern part of Mali killed more than 70 people at a camp housing pro-government forces. Last year, at least 17 UN peacekeepers were killed in terrorist attacks; 68 have been killed since the mission began in 2013.

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The UN mission to Mali is not the peacekeeping of old, in which troops wearing blue helmets kept warring factions apart but were largely insulated from any fighting. In northern Mali, there are at least five terrorist groups in operation, and they are happy to target anyone they associate with the government.

As well, a chief aspect of the UN mission is to protect civilians, which means personnel are allowed to conduct pre-emptive strikes against militants. But few, if any, of the Canadians would be experienced in this semi-desert warfare – this country's fraught mission to Afghanistan would be the closest equivalent.

President Hollande's commitment to Mali is rooted in the former French empire in Africa. Canadian companies do have mining interests in Mali, but that has little or nothing to do with the notion of Canadian military personnel in that country.

Canada may be on the verge of putting many of our soldiers in harm's way in a country where we don't have an interest that would merit such a move. In fact, the only discernible motivation is Ottawa's desire to re-establish Canada as a peacekeeping nation, after the previous government backed away from that role.

How many young Canadians will have to die or be injured in order to fulfill this election promise? Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan should exercise real caution, rather than getting too caught up in uplifting notions.

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