Is Canada really making a difference in Mali?

Photo ops by leaders of states with the military are no-brainers I suppose. The president/prime minister/king/grand poobah gets on plane, flies to Lower Slobovia to meet his/her country’s soldiers serving to maintain a war/keep the peace in a faraway land, thanks them for their service, assures them that what they are doing is right, acknowledges the sacrifices they are making, and flies home in time for dinner. Lots of selfies are taken and everyone gets to forget the dangers/horrors they have to deal with on a daily basis. Mission accomplished!

This is exactly what our Prime Minister seems to have just done in Mali, where approximately 250 of our finest men and women are part of Operation Presence, Canada’s contribution to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Mali has been struggling to implement a 2015 peace agreement against a rising tide of tribal and Islamist extremist violence in that country. Justin Trudeau told the troops that “the peace process is unfolding in Mali and certainly our presence here is allowing it to unfold more quickly than it otherwise would… Nevertheless it is a difficult situation … and it’s going to be a significant amount of effort by the UN to stabilize this area.” These remarks were made amidst criticism that Canada’s deployment is of limited duration.

So hip, hip, hooray for those in uniform in Mali! Yes, indeed, we should recognise the difficult job they have and the fact that they risk death or injury every day in what is in effect a war zone. But is the mission doing what the PM says it is? Is it really making a difference?

That is hard to say. As a Canadian military official noted before the mission started “the country has experienced record levels of violence this year and rather than being confined to the north attacks have spread to the south and central portions of the country. ” The current spate of unrest in this desperately poor West African nation began in 2012 when ethnic Tuareg rebels and other groups took advantage of a power vacuum following a military coup in the capital, Bamako. A Tuareg effort to carve out an independent homeland in the north was thwarted when Al Qaeda-linked Islamist terrorists moved in, later followed by the French in 2013 (France has historical ties to much of the region). A simmering terrorist-counter insurgency battle has been ongoing ever since. This is what Canada is trying to assuage.

Except that Mali is also a desperately poor country, ranking fifth last in the world in terms of human economic development. There are so many problems – governance, decrepit infrastructure, environmental degradation, the advance of the Sahara desert, ethnic strife, jihadist terrorism – that it is difficult to know where to begin. I paid a very brief visit to Bamako in 2016 (slightly longer than JT did) and caught a glimpse of the enormity of the challenges that nation faces. There is a lot to do in Mali to make lives better for the population: while the country only has 20 million inhabitants the median age is 16, suggesting that it will get a lot bigger very soon, putting even more strains on the economy and infrastructure.

The larger issue is whether our military presence, or that of France or the other UN member states, is making any difference. This too is not easy to determine. The Malian armed forces and security apparatus, described by Human Rights Watch as having engaged in “counterterrorism operations that resulted in arbitrary arrests, summary executions, torture, and ill-treatment”, are not up to the job and do need outside assistance. But as I have written ad nauseum, there is no military solution to terrorism. Airstrikes and ground operations may achieve some success in beating back the jihadis, but the overarching conditions that feed terrorism in Mali – historical grievances, poor governance, poverty, etc. – cannot be defeated by guns and aircraft.

So we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. The world cannot sit back and watch Mali implode since, as we have seen elsewhere, terrorists can spread to neighbouring countries, leading to further regional instability and misery. In the end, however, we need to come up with more creative ways of dealing with this menace. And I do not have any genius ideas on that front I am afraid.

I wish our men and women in the Canadian Armed Forces a Merry Christmas and hope they all come back to their families safely.

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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