David Bercuson is the director of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary and a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Last Friday, the Liberal government finally announced that Canada's return to United Nations operations was imminent. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau had promised in last year's general election that the Liberals, if elected, would bring Canada back to its glory days as a UN "peacekeeping" contributor, in obvious contrast to the "war making" of Stephen Harper's Conservatives.
Earlier this month, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan toured Africa to judge for himself the conflict situations in several countries in an effort to decide where a Canadian mission might be most valuable. The actual country where Canadian soldiers (some 600), aid workers and police will go has not yet been decided, although Mali is said to be favoured.
What was notable in the government's official press release is that the word "peacekeeping" did not appear. The operative word is now "peace operations" because as both Mr. Sajjan and Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion have pointed out on several occasions, any mission to Africa isn't the "peacekeeping" of old, but far more dangerous and even likely to produce Canadian casualties.
At heart, then, the government may claim that Canadian soldiers sent to, for example, Mali, are going under the rubric of "peace operations," but in a country where a civil war is still raging (despite an ostensive ceasefire) and several groups of Islamic jihadis are operating, Canadians are joining a war in progress. In fact, at least 44 UN troops have been killed by rebels, jihadis or others in ambushes, bombings and IED strikes there over the past several years. With some 13,000 UN troops trying to keep a lid on the multifaceted war in Mali, it's hard to see how Canada's contribution of 600 will affect the conflict, although it will give the government here the ability to claim that another election promise has been fulfilled.
The Canadian government and military learned hard lessons from its deployment in the Balkan civil war of the 1990s and Afghanistan from 2002 to 2011. Since the government insists on sending troops to join a war in progress, it should study those lessons, not repeat them.
First: Make sure Canadians don't mistake this mission for the Lester Pearson style of "peacekeeping" that Canada practised during the Cold War, and start by telling its ministers – such as Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale – not to call this mission "peacekeeping"; otherwise, Canadians will be greatly shocked when soldiers suffer casualties on this mission. In fact, many more Canadian soldiers have been killed on various UN operations since 1957 than in the Afghan war, but Canadian governments shamefully did their best to play down those casualties.
Second: Do not rely on the mercenaries in blue helmets of Third World countries – who participate in UN missions to earn hard cash for their governments – for Canadian force protection. They have proved in UN mission after UN mission to be essentially unreliable. There have been exceptions, but there is a world of difference between a British battalion and one from, say, Bangladesh.
Third: Ensure that heavy fire power is available when Canadian soldiers need back up. When recently asked what he needs most in Africa, a high official from the UN Peacekeeping Office in New York said "attack helicopters." Point taken.
Fourth: Ensure that NATO-trained and -equipped partners provide the medical evacuation, logistics, communications and engineering if Canada cannot provide some or all of these essentials.
Fifth: Ensure that Canadians are equipped with the weapons they can use to defend themselves and are given rules of engagement that will allow them to use those weapons when necessary to fulfill their mandate.
Finally: Decide what Canada is supposed to accomplish and what metrics will be used to measure that accomplishment. Mali and places such the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and South Sudan are going to be fighting insurgencies and civil wars for decades to come. Do Canadians really want to keep a handful of troops in these dens of hell for a prolonged period of time?