The Liberal government has been silent about where in Africa Canada’s soldiers and a cadre of diplomats, aid workers and police officers will be deployed. None of the potential United Nations missions are safe. All are complex. None come with an exit strategy.
The strongly preferred choice of the Canadian Forces is Mali, which is about the same size as Manitoba and Saskatchewan together and has about seven times as many people. South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which have also been mooted, are believed by Canadian Joint Operations Command to present even greater perils and offer less chance of a positive outcome.
Having been with Canadian peacekeepers in Somalia, Eritrea and Rwanda, I can categorically state that African missions are in a league of their own for complexity and danger. Much has been made recently about the risks that will soon face Canadian troops in Africa, and whether they have enough training in the subtleties of peacekeeping and peacemaking.
This is all to the good, but equal attention should be paid to the civilians who will be deployed as part of the whole-of-government approach developed by the Harper government in Afghanistan and which will be repeated, perhaps on a larger scale, in Africa.
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Like soldiering, combat diplomacy requires people who are brave and highly adaptive. Our diplomats and aid specialists in Afghanistan quickly discovered that not only were they totally reliant on the troops for their safety, but the soldiers often had more useful skills — military engineers, military civil affairs specialists and military doctors, nurses and medics were better equipped to oversee the building of schools and deliver medical outreach projects in hostile territory than were civilians.
This made for a complicated relationship at times, not helped by the fact that what is now called Global Affairs tended to send Brahmins with Ivy League educations off to war. Still, there is a small corps of diplomats still in harness such as Ben Rowswell, Canada’s ambassador to Venezuela, and James Christoff, who was until very recently our number two in Kenya, who excelled in Kandahar and whose experience working cooperatively with the army would benefit Canada greatly in Africa.
The most informed guesses provided to me by the military suggest that it will take until at least next March or April to get Canadian troops and gear into the field. If the mission is to Mali, one place the Canadians could be based at or near is Timbuktu, where French troops clashed with fighters from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in the spring of 2013. The average daytime temperature in April and May at the fabled crossroads for Saharan camel caravans will be above 40 C, and never drops below 30 C the rest of the year. It is only slightly cooler elsewhere in the country.
Mali is ranked 179th in the UN Human Development Index. That is eight places behind Afghanistan. The average lifespan in Mali is nearly 30 years less than it is in Canada. Half the population gets by on less than one dollar a day.
Meningitis is the biggest killer, followed by its frequent partner, malaria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Cholera, hepatitis, rabies, tuberculosis, typhoid, yellow fever and the Zika virus are all present. Polio has again become a serious concern.
So even before the fluid security situation is considered, pestilence and hot weather may make Africa more of a challenge for the Canadians than Afghanistan, with its fairly predictable summer fighting seasons.
Before Canada’s mission to Kandahar in 2006, then-defence minister Bill Graham and Gen. Rick Hillier embarked on a cross-country tour to inform Canadians about how dangerous it would be. That process is underway again, with initial warnings from defence minister Harjit Sajjan and Canada’s new ambassador to the UN, Marc-André Blanchard, that what Canada is about to undertake in Africa will be peacemaking, not Pearson-style peacekeeping, and that the prospect of combat and casualties is very real.
If the mission is to Mali, the 600 Canadians would join 15,000 other peacekeepers in a country where there has been little peace to keep. More than 100 blue helmets have died in terrorist attacks there during the past 40 months.
Among the insurgents in Mali is a relatively new group, the Macina Liberation Front, which specifically targets UN and French troops. The MLF claims loyalty to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb but resembles Boko Haram, which is affiliated with ISIL and has carried out terrorist attacks and hundreds of kidnappings in an arc that cuts across northern Nigeria into Chad and Niger.
Whether it is Mali or somewhere nearby, Canada’s soldiers and civilians must pull together in an environment that will be more unpleasant and potentially far more forbidding than Afghanistan.