By TONDA MACCHARLES, Toronto Star
OTTAWA—Canadian troops headed to Africa will operate in dangerous territory where peacekeepers have been killed, says Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
In an exclusive interview with the Star from Vancouver Sajjan said Canada has committed to a three-year deployment that will be reassessed each year to ensure it has an “enduring” impact.
It will be spread among a number of unspecified African countries, have a major focus on training and increasing “capacity” of the host nation as well as other countries’ troops, and build on existing social, economic and deradicalization programs on the ground.
“These missions, all of them, have the level of risk where peacekeepers have been hurt, they have been killed. And we’ve been looking at the risk factor in a very serious way,” said Sajjan.
Asked about his approach to deploying Canadian forces to conduct counter-insurgency operations — something the previous Conservative government was keen to avoid in Africa when it turned down requests to deploy soldiers to Congo and Mali — Sajjan said “some of it is going to be the reduction of radicalization in certain areas, in other parts it will be developing the capacity of the host nation.”
Just back from Mali, which hosts the deadliest United Nations mission in the world right now, Sajjan says it’s clear there are risks there. He said the same risks exist in the other African missions under consideration by the Liberal government.
But, he added, there are also risks to Canada of doing nothing to counter insurgent groups that are terrorizing populations and radicalizing new recruits, and suggested he and the Liberal government have made this clear to Canadians from “day one.”
“This is not the peacekeeping of the past — we need to look at what the challenges are of today and develop the peace operations for today’s challenges.”
After having travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia in late summer, and Senegal and Mali in the past week — Sajjan said he believes the UN mandate for and rules of engagement with hostile forces are “robust” enough to address the risks, particularly in Mali. The UN mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, has seen 106 casualties since it was established in 2013, including 69 from “malicious acts.”
“One thing I did learn, the mandate for the mission is robust so there no concern that our troops would be limited in any way,” said Sajjan. “I had a very direct conversation with the political leadership of the UN and the force commander about that, and the safety of our troops is always paramount.”
The defence minister, a Canadian Armed Forces veteran of the Afghanistan combat mission, suggested the risk to soldiers’ lives, however, does not justify inaction.
“It can’t just be one factor that we look at. That’s one; that’s an important factor that needs to be addressed. We have looked at that and the question always comes: how do you mitigate some of these challenges,” he said.
“But at the end of the day just because you see a problem ahead of you, you can’t just ignore it, you have to look at, can we look at addressing it.”
He insisted Canada “can play a huge role where we can reduce conflict and get into areas where we can start preventing conflict by addressing certain root causes at an early stage.”
Sajjan said there are ways to “mitigate” risk, just as he says the Liberal government did when it overhauled Canada’s combat mission to Iraq, “and making sure that we put the right type of troops, the right equipment with the right mandate for that mission.”
The Liberals pulled out Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets and refocused Canada’s military contribution to the fight against Daesh on training Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces to fight the Islamist rebel forces.
Sajjan stressed that a big part of the federal analysis underway — as he, two other federal ministers, and military and civilian fact-finders have travelled to Africa — is examining how Canada’s contribution of some 600 soldiers and up to 150 police can have a maximum impact, whether it’s through military training, building on economic development programs and opportunities like on the “agriculture side” in Mali, or combating sexual violence, including by UN peacekeeping troops.
“What we do provide will be enduring. We committed for three years, but the thinking is to have the impact, we always need to assess,” said Sajjan.
Asked how Canada avoids sending troops to be injured or killed in a mission where there is no end in sight, Sajjan stressed Canada’s intention is to effect measurable change.
“I wouldn’t want to put troops in any place where there is no end,” he said, suggesting the plan is to provide “innovative” solutions, to help UN or African Union troops be better able to do their jobs, “so we don’t have to look at a very long, protracted deployment that will not have an impact.”
Sajjan said Canada is looking at spreading its various contributions — military, police and civilian — among a number of UN missions, not African Union-led missions, in Africa. But it will support African Union efforts at the same time.
Right now, he said, much of the public attention is on exactly where soldiers will be sent.
But he said Canadians should expect a broader mission that could see troops sent to one end of Africa while other elements of Canada’s contribution will be sent to a different part. He said there are troop and police training centres across Africa, and “a small number of troops or even RCMP can have significant impact in other areas, to make a training centre far more effective.”
“We will be assisting in capacity-building in many of the training centres and that will be . . . regardless of where we go.”
Much has been made of the fact Canada has French-speaking troops and no colonial baggage, an asset from the perspective of many francophone African nations and the UN. Sajjan said it doesn’t mean soldiers from Quebec or New Brunswick would be the only ones to deploy, rather he said that across the armed forces, the leadership in officer ranks are bilingual, as are many in the non-commissioned ranks.
Sajjan said the government has “narrowed” the ultimate destinations for its Canadian mission, but did not tip his hand on his preference.
He said there is nothing to be read into the countries he’s travelled to, nor the fact that he recently went to Mali, saying he couldn’t fit it into the earlier trip to central and East Africa. Although he has not travelled to the Central African Republic, Darfur, or South Sudan, Sajjan said he has addressed the same questions around those missions at meetings in Ethiopia late summer.
He said the decision on where to dispatch Canada’s peace support mission is expected to be finalized by the federal cabinet before end of year.
“I think when Canadians see the level of work that’s gone into this it’s not just the location that’s going to be the main news, it’s how we’re going to be deployed.”
Sajjan’s comments flesh out the “layered approach” that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadians should expect to its upcoming Africa “peace support” operation.
Several ministers and government departments are working up options to make good on the Liberal election pledge to re-engage with the United Nations.
International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau also travelled to Senegal (where many UN offices operating in West Africa are located) and Mali in August. And Global Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion travelled this week to Kenya, Nigeria and Ethiopia.
Dion, in a statement issued Thursday from Nairobi where he announced $21.5 million for development and security projects, said: “Kenya is an important partner for Canada in regional peace and security in Africa, but there is room for further growth.”
Dion said the money will “help provide youth with enhanced skills for employment and improve security and stability by countering terrorism, combating radicalization and violent extremism, and ensuring safety and security of borders within the region.”