Wednesday, August 31, 2016

All signs point to UN mission in Africa

By: Matthew Fisher, The Ottawa Citizen 

Getting logistics right will be priority No. 1

CHAD HIPOLITO / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILESThe Quebec-based Royal 22nd Regiment, the Vandoos, some of whom returned weeks ago from Europe, may be the first force to be deployed to Africa, writes Matthew Fisher.
Colombia and South Sudan are the longshot options for Canada’s first major UN military operation since Jean Chr├ętien sent troops to East Timor 16 years ago.

A reasonable case can be made for Colombia, where the government and rebels have just signed a peace accord that may end a war that has gone on for years. But Foreign Affairs Minister St├ęphane Dion and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan have made it clear the government has its heart set on a mission in French West Africa to further Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ambition to gain a seat on the UN Security Council.

Only time will tell whether it was worthwhile in Canadian blood and treasure to deploy on an open-ended mission to Mali, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo or other options equally fraught with danger, such as Niger or Burundi. Factored into the equation when that reckoning comes will be the true value to Canada of the UN appointment when, like the other 10 non-permanent members, it would only be admitted to the inner sanctum for two years and would be powerless to do anything there in the face of the veto powers of the five permanent members.

As it is almost certain Canada will become involved in French West Africa, Ottawa has been keen to begin that mission with French-speaking troops. This makes sense, but could seriously complicate the training and readiness regimes of the country’s three combat brigades.

Since early August, the Canadian Army’s high-readiness brigade has been built around the Edmonton-based Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. But the first force to be deployed to Africa may have to be drawn from the Quebec-based Royal 22nd Regiment, the Vandoos, some of whom returned only weeks ago from a deployment to eastern Europe.

Not much has been heard from Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff of the Canadian Armed Forces, about the potential perils of a mission in a region where Canadian deployments to Rwanda and Somalia have had difficulties and where the UN’s current peacemaking operations have been so rife with allegations of grave sexual misconduct, incompetence and cowardice, they can only be described as a total disaster.

Once the Canadians’ destination is revealed in September, Vance, who is a famously straight shooter, is likely to begin making it clear to the troops and the public what lies ahead.

Among the unspoken military concerns is that this is an open-ended mission and little or no help can be expected from the Americans. That may sound great to some Canadians. But if things go south, as they might, nobody except perhaps the French, who are already badly stretched by combat operations in Africa and the Middle East and in dealing with the terrorist threat at home, may have our backs.

One of the reasons Canadian forces would prefer to go to Mali may be because that is where the French have the most troops and the most robust military capability. It is also where Germany and the Netherlands have quietly sent about 1,000 troops over the past year, although those countries do not see their contributions as part of a bid for a Security Council seat.

Like the French, the Canadian military needs to be careful about becoming overstretched. As African operations involving about 600 ramp up, it must also sustain about 800 troops in Kuwait and the Kurdish part of Iraq. It will soon send about 450 combat troops on a new NATO mission to Latvia to to try to contain Russia’s irredentist impulses on its western borders.

With only five C-17 heavylift aircraft and oceans between these disparate missions and Canada, getting the logistics right will be job No. 1. Much of the planning will fall to Maj.-Gen. Chuck Lamarre.

The logistician responsible for the massive undertaking of bringing all Canada’s equipment back from Kandahar, he is now Vance’s director of staff and his right arm on operations.

Given that the Trudeau government intends to keep Canadian Forces in Africa for many years and that those troops will require scores of heavy armoured personnel carriers, weapons, a field hospital and helicopters, something to look for soon may be an announcement Canada intends to establish a regional logistics hub, most likely in the Senegalese port of Dakar. It would be something akin to the ones that already exist in Kuwait and Cologne.

Identifying personnel and assembling the tens of thousands of nuts and bolts required to deploy to a part of the world where infrastructure is almost totally lacking will take time and patience. That will give Canadians the opportunity to ponder whether the African mission is an altruistic endeavour to do good in a deeply troubled part of the world or a grand bid to enhance Canada’s chances of winning the Security Council seat.