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Monday, July 18, 2016

Truck attack in France ups the ante for Canada’s peacekeeping mission in Mali

By: Matthew Fisher, National Post 

Canada’s impending peacemaking mission to Africa took on a more urgent tone Thursday night when a Tunisian man drove a truck through crowds enjoying Bastille Day fireworks on Nice’s palm-lined waterfront.

French President Francois Hollande immediately announced that France’s already overstretched armed forces would mobilize 10,000 troops and every member of the army reserves to guard French streets, border crossings and airports.

France needs Canada’s help — and Canada will answer the call. The army and air force will be heavily involved in Africa and no unit more so than the French-speaking brigade built around the Royal 22nd Regiment, known as the Van Doos.

As Postmedia first reported on July 6, the Trudeau government intends to send troops to French West Africa. Mali is their most likely destination, but the Central African Republic and a couple of other nearby countries are in the mix, too.

Ottawa and Paris have been talking for some time about where Canadian soldiers would fit into one of France’s multiple troop deployments there. No date has been set for the mission. The Dutch and the Germans have already been helping France with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). That is because even before the murderous attack in Nice, the Hollande government was having difficulty sustaining the tempo of its African missions as well as operations against the Islamic State in the Middle East and against terrorists on French soil. It is why the RCAF has already spent a lot of time in Africa, using its C-17 Globemasters to provide essential logistical support for French forces.

Canada’s Defence Minister, Harjit Sajjan, had intended to travel to French West Africa next month to help hammer out the details of Canada’s mission there. After France’s latest terror attack, and the call-up of forces to defend France, that trip may have to be moved up.

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This will not be a benign peacekeeping mission with cold beer on beaches in Cyprus crowded with European tourists. French West Africa has become a terrifying place, with Islamic terrorists flooding south across the Sahara from the chaos of Libya to cause mayhem, anarchy and despair in half a dozen impoverished countries.

Then Defence minister Bill Graham and Gen. Rick Hillier, who was then Canada’s top soldier, went across the country during 2005 and early 2006 to prepare Canadians for the likelihood of casualties in an impending combat mission in southern Afghanistan. That mission resulted in the deaths of 158 soldiers and a large number of victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sajjan and Gen. John Vance must in the same way now prepare Canadians for the dangerous slog ahead in Africa. The two men were just together in eastern Europe working out how and when Canadian combat troops would take command of a NATO battalion that will deploy to Latvia.

These warriors know each other well and are well suited to the task. Sajjan served three tours in Afghanistan where he was an army intelligence operative working deep in Taliban heartland. Vance twice commanded Task Force Kandahar, developing an effective anti-insurgency strategy that was much admired by Canada’s allies.

The African mission that is shaping up is not at all the one that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau envisaged when he pledged during last fall’s federal campaign to return the country to traditional peacekeeping. There will be nothing traditional about Canada’s deployment of up to 1,000 troops to the Bulge of Africa.

Canada’s blue berets will not stand there between opposing forces who seek peace. Jihadists control much of the north of the country where, as in Afghanistan, tours will be made worse by hellish temperatures in the high forties and even the fifties.

Only a few weeks ago China gave a hero’s funeral to one of its dead from Mali. In all, 21 blue berets have died there recently.

There will be a jumble of unfamiliar terrorist groups to reckon with, too. Groups in and near Mali that may be added to the Canadian lexicon include the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, which has been at war with fellow Tauregs from Ansar Dine, which imposes strict Sharia law, and Ansar Dine’s offshoot, the Islamic Movement of Azawad. Another part of this sinister tableau is a branch of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which styles itself the Movement of Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.

Casting a pall over everything is the Islamic State. It has established a strong presence just to the north of Mali and is directly connected to or the inspiration for so many of the recent attacks in France, Belgium, Turkey and Lebanon. A further complication is that the UN estimates there are 475,000 internally displaced people.

And that is the good news. The Central African Republic, which lies further inland, and where Muslims are at war with Christians, has it own list of terrorist groups and is generally regarded as even more hazardous for peacekeepers than Mali.

Sending troops in harm’s way will not be the only reckoning for the Trudeau government. Everything that Canada is doing or will be doing militarily in the Middle East, eastern Europe and to help the French in Africa will cost big money.

Whether the prime minister likes it or not, the terrorist attacks in Nice and so many horrors elsewhere are going to demand an increase in defence spending.