Why should Canada help Mali?
Because our African friends so desperately need our assistance in stopping the threat of a jihadist takeover of northern Africa. And that threat is very real: Al-Qaeda and its allies are preparing to turn an 8,000-kilometre strip stretching across the widest part of Africa into a chaotic and ungovernable zone in which their jihad would flourish. They told me repeatedly, during my 130 days as their captive, that such was their aim: to extend the turmoil of Somalia from Mogadishu on the Indian Ocean to Nouakchott on the Atlantic.
Should al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb even partly succeed – in concert with their murderous jihadi brothers in Boko Haram and al Shabaab – it would create an economic and humanitarian disaster of barely imaginable dimensions. And we also know that, given such an eventuality, we would then be required by popular insistence (the suffering of Darfur would pale in comparison) to intervene.
Surely it makes sense, then, to prevent all that from happening.
We know full well that neither a somewhat better-trained Malian army nor a voluntarily funded light brigade drawn from a dozen African nations stands any hope of eradicating the jihadi threat on their own.
Over the past half-century, Canada and other developed countries have invested more than $60-billion in assistance to the countries of the Sahel. Does it not make sense to protect such a huge investment in the lives and welfare of something like half a billion Africans?
We also need to accept that, in some part, we bear responsibility for Mali's plight and for the enhanced Islamist threat to the entire sub-Saharan region. However inadvertently, by making possible the wholesale looting of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's arsenals, we have caused havoc to spread across what is arguably the most unstable region of the world.
As a captive of AQIM, I learned of its implacable hatred of all things Western, of the extent to which it despised the ideals we hold most dear: freedom, liberty, democracy, equality, human rights – all things it fervently believed were the exclusive province of God, not of men. It's essential we be clear about the fact that there's absolutely nothing to negotiate with these guys. There's nothing we have to offer that would cause them to veer from their path – beyond, of course, our total submission to their extreme seventh-century Islamic perspective.
Thus, I despair when I hear United Nations bureaucrats, diplomats and politicians proposing that we delay military operations while we open some sort of negotiation with "the rebels in the north." Al-Qaeda will use such naive efforts as a way to buy time to improve its defensive positions, increase its strength through recruitment and importing additional fighters, and further terrorize the hapless Malians.
Finally, as AQIM spokesmen make clear, we, too, are squarely within their jihadi sights. They won't be talked out of their jihad. They won't compromise. They can only be defeated now, or later at a much greater cost in blood and treasure.
What could Canada do?
Most immediately, we could acknowledge the plight of our African friends and let them know we're committed to helping them find a solution to the Islamist menace.
Politicians of late have been running for cover, claiming that "nobody has asked us for anything." What, I wonder, do they think operative paragraph 14 of Security Council Resolution 2085, of Dec. 20, means when it calls on UN member states and international organizations to provide "equipment, intelligence, logistical support and any necessary assistance in efforts to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organizations"?
More substantively, we could immediately join the Europeans and Americans in offering to resume our military training programs. Sure, we have to pay politically correct obeisance to the "African-led" bit, but everyone knows the Africans can't do what needs to be done on their own. Canada, in company with like-minded friends, clearly has military skills that would be of significant use to get this job done, and done right.
But then, some ask, wouldn't the invasion of yet another "Muslim land" meet the same ignominious fate as the other forays?
Perhaps the most important military adage I learned as deputy defence minister is "maintain the aim." But we didn't in Afghanistan. If the international attempt to free Mali and the wider Sahel region from the jihadist scourge is to be successful, we will have to remember this hard-learned lesson.
This must be about damaging and degrading the capabilities and numbers of al-Qaeda in northern Mali that it won't soon threaten the peace and stability of our friends across this vulnerable region. And it must also be about helping Mali's armed forces to reoccupy and then defend their country once the jihadis have been diminished.
It won't be about turning Mali into Saskatchewan or Nebraska. And it won't be about exporting our social safety net or funding a government or anything else that isn't directly related to damaging al-Qaeda.
This crisis isn't about development. People don't join al-Qaeda because they can't find good jobs, or because their families are starving. I fervently hope that Canada, along with other donors, would resume our generous development programs once the al-Qaeda menace has been reduced to locally manageable proportions, but these two objectives must be kept carefully separated lest we recreate the Afghan quagmire.
Robert Fowler, a former ambassador to the United Nations and a personal representative for Africa for prime ministers Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper, was seized in December of 2008 by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb while serving as the UN Secretary-General's special envoy to Niger and held captive in the Sahara until his release in April of 2009.