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Canadian peacekeepers head to Mali, a country broken by civil war

For a decade, Canada has pumped more than $1-billion in foreign aid and military support into the West African nation of Mali, trying to rebuild a fragile and dysfunctional state.

It has largely been a failed effort. Despite massive international support, Mali has fallen into turmoil, suffering first a military coup and then widening violence as its government steadily lost territory to northern separatists and Islamist militias.

Now Canada will try again. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced on Monday that Canada will send military helicopters to Mali to support the United Nations peacekeeping mission there. The one-year deployment is expected to include two Chinook helicopters for medical evacuations and logistical support, along with four smaller Griffons to serve as armed escorts.

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It will be one of Canada’s first major peacekeeping efforts in Africa since the troubled missions in Somalia and Rwanda in the early 1990s. The deployment will also include Canadian troops, although Mr. Sajjan said the number is not yet decided. Sources earlier told The Globe and Mail that 200 to 250 Canadian soldiers could be deployed to Mali as air crews, medical crews, support staff and special forces.

A French soldier of the operation Barkhane, an anti-terrorist mission in Sahel, patrols during a tactical flight on March 12, 2016 over Mali.

PASCAL GUYOT/The Globe and Mail

Mali is considered the most dangerous UN mission in the world, with 162 peacekeepers killed since 2013. Canada hopes to avoid casualties by deploying helicopters, which are much less vulnerable to attack.

But physical danger is only one of the challenges. The bigger question is whether a military effort can reconstruct a broken state, one of the most aid-dependent in the world, where the government has little effective control of the country.

By some estimates, two-thirds of Mali’s territory is under constant threat from armed groups, including Islamist extremists.

Scholars have described Mali’s government as a Potemkin façade, more fictional than real. “Donors have little to show for their efforts,” said a recent analysis by Catriona Craven-Matthews and Pierre Englebert, scholars at Pomona College in California who have studied Mali for years.

They estimate that international donors have spent an average of US$3-billion annually since 2013 to support Mali’s security and development – nearly a quarter of the country’s GDP. Yet the state remains weak. “Violence is on the rise, institutions remain dysfunctional, the military is inefficient, investments have been few, and corruption is rampant,” the two scholars wrote.

Despite this, foreign support continues to pour into the country, largely because many countries have keen strategic interests in Mali.

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For the United States, northern Mali is a dangerous source of Islamist fighters, including those who crossed the border into Niger and killed four U.S. soldiers last October.

For European countries, Mali is one of the main routes for the traffickers who bring migrants and drugs onto the continent.

For Canada, there are economic and humanitarian interests. Canadian mining companies have invested more than $1-billion in Mali’s mining industry. And both the Liberal and Conservative governments in Ottawa since 2006 have made Mali one of their favourite recipients of aid.

A decade ago, Ottawa saw Mali as a model of democracy and stability for Africa – an assumption that was later undermined by a coup, civil war and terrorism.

After choosing Mali as one of its “countries of focus” for development aid, Ottawa spent huge sums of money to prop it up. Mali has become one of Canada’s top five recipients of foreign aid, getting more than $100-million annually, including $125-million in 2016. This has made Canada the third-biggest bilateral donor of development aid to Mali, behind only France and the United States.

Canada forged an even stronger connection to Mali after the kidnapping of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, who were held hostage by an Islamist radical militia in the deserts of northern Mali for several months in early 2009. Canada put heavy pressure on the Malian government to help negotiate their release.

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Canada has also sent hundreds of soldiers to Mali since 2010 in a multimillion-dollar effort to help train the Malian army in counterterrorism, border security and other priorities.

Much of this training was led by the U.S. military under a US$500-million counterterrorism program. But one of the graduates of the U.S. training program, Captain Amadou Sanogo, shocked the Pentagon in 2012 by leading a military coup in Mali.

The coup forced Canada to suspend its aid to Mali for nearly two years.

Military solutions have failed to build a self-sustaining democracy in Mali. The country remains heavily dependent on troops from France, West Africa and the United Nations. It remains to be seen whether Canada’s helicopters can make any real difference in a dismal situation.

- With a report from Robert Fife in Ottawa

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