The six military helicopters that Canada plans to send to Mali could be used to move more than peacekeepers: they could be called upon to support a multinational counterterrorism force also operating in the country.
The UN Security Council in December authorized the peacekeeping mission in Mali to provide assistance to the Group of Five (G5) Sahel, a military force comprised of troops from five African nations.
That assistance includes medical evacuations for combat and noncombat injuries as well as the provision of fuel, water and rations – exactly what the Canadian military helicopters due to arrive in Mali in August will be configured to do.
The Trudeau government made no mention of the G5 Sahel when it announced its decision last month to send helicopters to Mali, and the Defence Department declined to comment on whether Canada would support the force.
“Details remain to be determined as negotiations with the United Nations have yet to begin,” spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande said in an e-mail.
“Specifics regarding the exact CAF contribution, and how that CAF contribution will be used, are some of the many factors that will be addressed during upcoming reconnaissance and negotiations with the United Nations.”
But the revelation has sparked renewed opposition calls for the Liberal government to provide more information about what the Canadian military is walking into in Mali.
“There’s just so many holes and unanswered questions about mission that we’re still very apprehensive,” said Conservative defence critic James Bezan, whose party has demanded a debate and vote on the mission.
“The Liberals say there won’t be necessarily boots on the ground, but they’re going to be moving boots on the ground back and forth from the conflict zone.”
The G5 Sahel, whose members include Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Niger and Mali, has been tasked with fighting jihadists and transnational crime groups across a large swath of West Africa south of the Sahara desert.
The force was the brainchild of France, which has been conducting counterterror operations in Mali and the region since 2012, and enjoys financial backing from France, the U.S., the European Union and others.
But the 5,000-strong force’s first operation in November was plagued by logistical problems, and it remains very much a work in progress despite political support from a variety of powers including Russia and China.
It was in that context that the UN Security Council passed a resolution Dec. 8 emphasizing the G5 Sahel’s role in bringing security to the region and authorizing the UN mission in Mali provide support to the African force.
An agreement between the UN, EU and G5 Sahel members to provide operational and logistical support to the force through the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, or MINUSMA, was signed in February, a UN spokesperson said.
Security Council members specifically authorized the provision of medical evacuations, including those related to combat and other malicious acts, as well as fuel, water and rations and engineering services to the G5 force.
Such support is to be restricted to Mali, in accordance with the UN mission’s own boundaries, and only when it won’t negatively affect the peacekeeping mission’s own operations.
Royal Military College professor Walter Dorn, one of Canada’s pre-eminent experts on peacekeeping, found himself hard-pressed to think of another UN mission whose mandate included supporting a counterterrorism mission.
There could be a higher risk for Canadian military personnel if they are asked to evacuate injured G5 troops from a battle, Dorn acknowledged, though he said the UN is protective of its helicopters.
“While there may be circumstances where the helicopters could be flying into a conflict, in most cases the helicopters will be landing in secured landing zones,” he said.
“The procedure will be that the forces on the ground have to secure a landing zone for them for an evacuation to take place. The UN doesn’t want to lose a helicopter, particularly on a G5 or non-UN mission.”
Canada could also tell the UN that it doesn’t want its helicopters to support the G5 force.
But the UN typically pushes back against countries imposing restrictions on how their troops and equipment can be used on missions, as such caveats have been blamed for some of the peacekeeping disasters of the 1990s.
The fact Canadian troops could end up supporting counterterror operations nonetheless came as a shock to NDP defence critic Randall Garrison, who blasted the Liberals for not telling Canadians more about the Mali mission.
“It falls on the Liberals to tell us what they actually intend for this mission to do,” Garrison said. “What role will it play? What are the parameters? They haven’t given us anything.”