Senegal billed as key location to support for Mali operationDefence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s trip to Mali and Senegal next week could be a sign the government is trying to nail down logistics for a possible peacekeeping mission in Mali, two peace operation experts suggest.
“I think there’s two important components. One is that Senegal is a major contributor to the UN mission in Mali,” said Walter Dorn, a professor at the Royal Military College who focuses on peace operations and who has worked worked as an advisor with the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
“Secondly, Senegal is a major route for supply, it’s a major logistics component for support of a mission in Mali.”
Sajjan has said Canadian troops will take part in a UN peace support mission in Africa. He’s said he is making 600 troops and 150 military police available to the UN, but has yet to announce where Canadian troops will go.
The speculation in defence and foreign policy circles has focused largely on three locations: Mali, where a UN mission works in conjunction with a broader French counterterrorism operation to support a peace process; and the Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of Congo — both engaged in bloody and long-standing civil wars.
iPolitics has confirmed the government is not looking at a mission in South Sudan, which is sometimes mentioned in speculation.
The Mali mission offers what some experts have described as a potential for both risk and reward. The mission there is currently the UN’s most deadly, having claimed the lives of 69 peacekeepers since it began in 2013.
However, it also faces specific gaps that match Canadian capabilities and the skill set the Canadian Forces developed during their nine-year deployment to Afghanistan: a shortage of expertise in dealing with improvised explosive devices and insurgent populations, and a looming, critical shortage of Chinook transport and Apache — or possibly Griffon — troop support helicopters.
The Dutch, citing operational strain, are pulling out their three helicopter units, leaving the mission with only two, which UN officials say is not nearly enough.
If the government is eyeing a possible mission to Mali, ensuring it has a reliable stream of supplies and a way of getting its gear into the country will be critical.
“If you wanted to have a relatively secure location to support a Canadian operation in Mali, Senegal fits the bill,” said Lewis MacKenzie, a retired major general with the Canadian Forces who has served on nine UN peace operations and led the mission in the Balkans in 1992.
Dorn and Mackenzie both cite the importance to any Mali mission of Senegal’s port on the Atlantic, its airfield and its history of playing a significant role as a contributor of troops to UN peace operations.
“It’s got a port and through Senegal you can get to Bamako … so you can see that would be a way to bring larger items by ship,” said Dorn. “That would make a lot of sense.”
Announced Tuesday evening, Sajjan’s office said his trip next week to Mali and Senegal will be aimed at gathering facts on the ground and isn’t necessarily an indication of a decision to deploy troops to either country.
It also comes on the heels of a “fact-finding” trip this summer to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda that saw Sajjan meet with NGOs, defence counterparts and other organizations involved in peace support operations.
“As with the last trip, I wouldn’t look too much into the countries he is visiting an an indication of a potential deployment,” said Jordan Owens, the minister’s press secretary. “This trip to West Africa will build upon his understanding of the ‘ground truth’ as Canada continues to investigate how we can contribute to international peace and security with a whole-of-government approach.”
When asked specifically whether the minister would be looking at possible logistical support for any future mission, Owens said that is something that the military — not the minister — would take care of and that this trip is more similar to the five-country trip he took this summer.
“That is more of a military planning issue, which [Sajjan] would leave up to the pros in the [Canadian Armed Forces], she said.
“The purpose of the minister’s trip is to get a better understanding of the political situation on the ground and see first-hand how Canada could contribute to peace support efforts on the continent. The East Africa trip was helpful in that way, and he would like to get a similar understanding of the situation in West Africa.”