Should Canada send anti-terrorist forces to Mali?

There are few places on Earth more pitiable than Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa that is about the size of South Africa.  It ranks in the bottom ten with respect to poverty, has one of the world’s largest birth rates (6 children per mother), and has a serious terrorist problem to boot. It is this last characteristic that has led to talk about Canada sending armed forces members to help in what is already an international counter terrorism effort.

I spent a few days in Bamako recently and while such a short stay does not make me an expert, I did glean some insight into the challenges facing Mali and came away with the belief that terrorism may not be the greatest scourge.

The lack of everyday infrastructure (paved roads are but one example) and public health demands – Mali ranks 171st in the world in terms of life expectancy – make it clear that dealing with basic economic and social needs must be that country’s priority for the foreseeable future.  It is hard to imagine how the government could dedicate sufficient resources to counter terrorism when there are so many much more fundamental problems demanding attention.  My experience was limited to the capital and I can only imagine how much worse conditions are outside Bamako.

In that light, I suppose, Mali’s  international partners should step into the breach and carry out counter terrorism operations on its behalf.  That is exactly what France has been  doing under its Operation Barkhane since 2014.  The Germans, Swedes, Belgians and Dutch are contributing as well: in fact I did see a Netherlands military aircraft on the tarmac at Bamako’s airport.  Canada did promise 600 peacekeepers back in August of last year and our country’s hesitation is allegedly making some our allies wonder about our commitment.

One of the main problems with this situation is that it has little to nothing to do with peacekeeping as there is no peace to keep.  Make no mistake, this is a war with some fairly nasty players.  Al Qaeda has a presence as do other jihadi groups, and there are also Tuareg militants with historic bones to pick with the Malian government.  There have been several terrorist attacks over the past few years, including one in the centre of Bamako at the Radisson Blu Hotel in November 2015.  Should Canada agree to this mission it will be a dangerous one.

Even if the Malian government contributes significantly to counter terrorism, there were some indications that it suffers from an inaccurate view of what the threat is.  Officials seem to think that the problem is a foreign one, i.e. one that involves non-Malian actors engaged in violent extremism.  Yes, Mali does have porous borders and does live in a sketchy neighbourhood where terrorists from abroad undoubtedly have set up shop in the hinterland, but it defies belief that there is no indigenous radicalisation.  In other words it is likely that there are Malians embracing terrorism out of any number of grievances, real or perceived, and the government has to acknowledge this reality.

Prime Minister Trudeau was recently quoted as saying that his government is taking the ‘appropriate amount of time’ to make a decision on deployment, adding “we have to make sure that it’s the right approach, that it’s the right mission, that they have the right training and equipment.”  Our allies’ frustration notwithstanding, caution is the right course of action here.  If we send men and women to Mali, some will die: France has lost at least 18 soldiers in its operations.

We do have a duty to help Mali and the Canadian Embassy in Bamako is already involved in a large number of development projects.  Some would add that we have mining and other economic interests in the region that are threatened by terrorist violence and no one wants to repeat the Fowler-Guay kidnapping ordeal in neighbouring Niger.  But sending the armed forces has to weighed carefully.  As professional and qualified as our troops are (and having French is an advantage) there is so much to do in Mali that the success of the mission is most likely to be limited in nature.  We need to make sure that this issue is in Canada’s interest, however that is to be defined, before we ask our men and women in uniform to travel to a land which some will not leave alive.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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