Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Will a Sizeable Canadian military deployment to Mali make matters worse?

By: David Pugliese, Defence Watch

Defence Watch received some views about the potential upcoming Canadian Forces mission to Mali from of an individual involved in the NGO community who has recently returned from that country. They have asked that their name not be published. Here is what that person has written to Defence Watch:

The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is clearly seen as a party to the conflict by the many islamist groups, and by local powerholders profiting from the black market routes running through Northern Mali, but also increasingly to the north and south borders from Bamako.

MINUSMA was the expected passive UN force locked in by the financial and political interests of participating African contingents.

MINUSMA in Northern Mali has weak counter-IED capability, weak medical, weak engineering assets, and weak tactical ISR. They have had a weaker track record of protecting civilians who displaced themselves near UN bases. Canadians in MINUSMA would likely take casualties from IEDs or ambushes from local forces, so no happy story about blue helmets helping a transition to a peace that no local powerholder really supports. There’s no economy in Mali except the international assistance money they are getting to support this fight, and black market routes connecting Libya to Senegal to Ivory Coast for guns and drugs.

Given the context in Mali it is difficult to guess why the government can win a media victory with the Canadian public over sending more than a few advisers to MINUSMA, or a support company or two such as a role 3 hospital or engineers.

With MINUSMA’s track record something will happen soon that will cast a bad light on the mission (such as the performance of African contingents in making security worse for IDPs in South Sudan), which will expose the folly of placing CF combat assets under UN command run by African interests with little to no interest in tactical security of civilians.

International NGOs in Mali barely operate in the North, and the few that do, like the ICRC, distance themselves sternly from MINUSMA. So no easy media victory for the government in claiming that the Canadian mission will enable the delivery of aid. Whatever Canadians decide to do, it will always be overshadowed by the backroom efforts that the French are throwing around in aid, governance and foreign military support to the government.

The French seem to have an attitude to contain MINUSMA so as not to interfere with their strategic objectives and the influence networks in their former colony. The authorities in Bamako and the different clan-based politics are caught in a political struggle over the change of president sometime next year. So no happy story about governance and democracy promotion for Canadian aid either.

That struggle alone may generate more violence than the jihadist threat, leaving the CF with a weak operational situation as the UN mission gets evacuated and the narrative of the mission slips away from a story of a mission focused on north-south reconciliation and protecting governance from an islamist threat.

Where it would make some strategic sense for the CF to commit to Mali is if the mission is really in support of the US-French/Eurocorps (there are German and Belgian military deployed with the French not under UN command) counter-terrorism mission for West Africa.

AFRICOM may be asking Canada to shore up MINUSMA for better alignment to anti-extremists intelligence and influence activities. Working in continuation of US counter-terrorism objectives would make the most sense for the CF in Mali and with other Canadian commitments in Western Africa, but it would make a deployment under MINUSMA a travesty of the official aims of the UN mission and what will likely be couched in terms of absolute virtues by the government to sell the deployment to Canadians. Frankly the context in Mali is awful if the government hopes to score an easy PR win with the peacekeeping romantics in Canada. That security council seat may be a more substantial justification, but may come at a heavy price when something goes south in Mali to make the Canadian mission look bad.

Opportunities for a CF contingent to enable the delivery of humanitarian assistance may be limited. There are few international aid agencies active in Northern Mali where Minusma is deployed, and NGOs and agencies such the International Committee of the Red Cross who are very active through the Mali Red Cross rely on their own contacts with local communities and all armed groups.

MINUSMA is a party to the conflict in Mali, and aid agencies hoping to maintain their neutrality to access beneficiaries and ensure the safety of their staff often stay away from Minusma and UN coordination mechanisms in their field operations.

My personal comment is that a sizeable CF deployment outside of few staff officers or a field hospital may very well decrease the security and access to beneficiaries for Canadian-funded aid activities in the South of Mali. The statement by Minister Bibeau in support of the mission makes it a bit odd, since there will be no direct contribution at best to Canadian aid project outcomes by deploying the CF in Mali, and at worst Canadian funded aid projects can become the soft targets of the increased Canadian security involvement in country.

The good news is that a CF deployment would likely come with additional money for Canadian agencies present in Mali, notably the Canadian Red Cross who have started a sizeable maternal and child health program in support of the Mali Red Cross and ministry of health North and South of Bamako.