Canada will send helicopters and troops to Mali to take part in one of the most dangerous United Nations peacekeeping missions in the world, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the troops will receive the training and equipment needed to keep them as safe as possible.
General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff, has been asked to determine what the UN force in Mali will require of the aviation task force that was announced by the federal government on Monday.
The planned deployment ends years of speculation that Canada would send troops to join the mission in the west African country. But it also raises concerns about troop safety for Canadians who are still feeling the loss of 158 soldiers and four civilians in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2014.
“We always act to mitigate as best as possible the level of risk that Canadian Armed Forces personnel face while on operations,” Mr. Trudeau told Parliament on Monday. “The personnel we deploy on peace operations will be equipped with the appropriate equipment and will receive the necessary training for their assigned missions although, of course, we cannot altogether eliminate the risks.”
Canada has spent more than $1-billion in foreign aid and military support in Mali over the past decade but it remains a dysfunctional state that is battling both northern separatists and Islamist militias. By some estimates, two-thirds of Mali’s territory is under constant threat from armed groups. One hundred and sixty-two peacekeepers have been killed there since 2013.
The Conservatives were quick to condemn the deployment, saying it is nothing more than an attempt by Mr. Trudeau to obtain a seat for Canada on the UN Security Council. They have called for a special debate and vote in the House of Commons on whether the mission should go ahead.
The Liberals “have failed to clearly articulate how the deployment of Canadian peacekeepers to a west African nation marred by violent insurgents and numerous competing Islamic terrorist organizations is actually in Canada’s national interest,” said James Bezan, the Conservative defence critic. “Let’s be clear: Mali is a war zone. This is a combat mission.”
Mr. Trudeau made no commitment to holding a vote about the Mali deployment but said he would work with the opposition to discuss the best ways to debate the issue.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the military is already doing the necessary reconnaissance for the 12-month mission. It is preparing the aircraft and conducting training specific for the conditions in Mali.
Talks have begun with the United Nations to determine an appropriate deployment date, he said. “Right now, we’re looking at the summer,” Mr. Sajjan said.
Mr. Sajjan said he could not say how many members of the Armed Forces would take part. “Gen. Vance and his leadership will do the analysis of what is actually needed on the ground and, once that is complete, we will have a much more thorough answer for you,” he said.
Previous reports suggested the government expected the mission would include about 250 soldiers, sailors and aviators.
The Aviation Task Force, the minister said, will include two Chinook helicopters to help with the logistical needs of the UN forces and the medical evacuation of dead and wounded troops, as well as four Griffon helicopters that would provide armed escort and protection.
But Gen. Vance was less clear on those numbers. He told reporters that the number of helicopters would be determined after the reconnaissance has been completed. Sources have told The Globe and Mail that as many as six Chinooks could be sent to Mali.
Christopher Roberts, a professor at the University of Calgary who is an expert in strategic studies in Africa and is president of a company called Access Africa Consulting, said the number of helicopters is important.
Two Chinooks and four Griffons would be mere “tokenism” and would not replace helicopters from European allies that have been deployed and then withdrawn or are slated for withdrawal, Prof. Roberts said. But, if four Chinooks and four Griffons were deployed, he said, they would augment the UN mission’s capabilities.
As for the dangers, Prof. Roberts said, almost every UN peacekeeping mission is both complex and dangerous and entails confrontations with belligerents who are unwilling to lay down their weapons. But neither the Dutch nor the Germans, who have sent air components to Mali, have had members of their forces killed or injured by enemy action.
“It’s not that there’s no risk,” Prof. Roberts said, “but Canada has specifically chosen the lowest-risk components of the entire mission, which is flying the helicopters above the enemy.”
Canada has committed to increase the number of female police and military deployed on UN peace operations and it seems likely that the Canadian contingent in Mali will include a higher percentage of women than previous missions.
But, Mr. Sajjan said, the number of women deployed will depend to some extent on the number of women in the Armed Forces. Women currently represent 15 per cent of Canada’s military personnel.
“When it comes to the personnel that are going,” he said, “I can assure you that our Chief of Defence Staff looks at it in terms of what are the actual needs.”