Thursday, March 9, 2017

Canadian Officials Still Assessing Mali Peace-Support Missing Possibilities

German armed forces members check their vehicles at Camp Castor as part of the UN-led MINUSMA enforcement mission in Gao, Mali.
German armed forces members check their vehicles at Camp Castor as part of the UN-led MINUSMA enforcement mission in Gao, Mali. (ALEXANDER KOERNER / GETTY IMAGES)
By: Bruce Champion-Smith, Toronto Star 

OTTAWA—Canadian aid and foreign affairs officials have made repeated visits to Mali — including one visit just last week — as politicians continue to consider a long-awaited peace operation, the Star has learned.

While cabinet ministers insist that no location has been picked for the coming deployment, Mali has been the destination of choice for bureaucrats attempting to scout locations and determine how personnel, combined with millions of dollars in aid and development funding, can be best put to use.

Those “non-stop” visits to the African country over recent months have involved personnel from the Defence Department, Foreign Affairs, Aid and Development, a source told the Star.

The most recent visit came last week when officials attached to the newly formed Peace and Stabilization Operations Program in Global Affairs Canada spent several days in the Malian capital of Bamako.

Another team had travelled to the country just a few weeks before that. “There’s been so many assessment missions,” the source said.

Details of the visits were provided by an official familiar with the government’s work on the file, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

Seven months after first pledging personnel for the peace mission, the federal cabinet has yet to take a formal decision on the deployment and the ongoing visits suggest that the government is still scoping out the exact role.

But the harsh realities and potential dangers of a mission in Mali could be one reason for the protracted decision amidst fears that Canada could get stuck in a “quagmire.”

“It’s not a peacekeeping mission. It’s a counter-insurgency mission,” the source said.

Indeed, the peace mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, is the UN’s most dangerous: 114 soldiers have died, 72 the result of “malicious” acts. Their foes are Islamist radicals tied to Al Qaeda who have put UN forces in the crosshairs of direct attacks, roadside bombs and deadly ambushes.

The Liberal government came into office in November, 2015 and committed a swift return to peacekeeping, a role Trudeau has said was neglected during 10 years of Conservative rule. Last August, the Liberals announced that they would commit 600 soldiers and 150 police officers to the initiative.

At the same time, they also announced the creation of the peace and stabilization operations program, backed by the promise of $450 million over three years, to fund projects that “help to promote peace and security,” according to the government.

But launching that peace mission has taken longer than expected. The Liberals have publicized the fact-finding visits by cabinet ministers. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and then-Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion all made fact-finding trips to Africa last year.

A January cabinet shuffle that saw Chrystia Freeland take over as Foreign Affairs minister and the election of Donald Trump have also contributed to the drawn-out decision-making.

The government has not revealed the more frequent travels of bureaucrats who have been doing their own fact-finding.

While Canada’s delayed peace mission may ultimately be deployed to several spots, Mali has been a site of great interest for federal officials, the source told the Star.

The Foreign Affairs department did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday on whether these visits are tied to the peace mission or related to a different project altogether.

But the growing delay in deciding where and how the Liberals will make good on the peacekeeping pledges is causing frustration. A decision was expected before Christmas but weeks have passed since then with no word of an announcement.

Trudeau and his cabinet ministers have given no reason for the delay, saying only that the government is taking the time it needs. “We know we have to make the right decision for Canada,” Trudeau said last week.

This week, Sajjan and Freeland justified the lengthy deliberations.

“It is a very big decision for Canada and for our government, and I think all Canadians understand that it is important for us to work together, to work with all our allies to make the right decision,” Freeland told reporters.

But NDP MP Hélène Laverdière, her party’s foreign affairs critics, said it’s been months and “still nothing has come out.”

“It’s not only that it hasn’t been decided. It’s that we have no information. There’s been no debate . . . We’re completely in the dark about where the government wants to go, and sometimes it gives the impression that the government itself is in the dark,” said Laverdière, herself a former Canadian foreign service officer with postings that included Dakar and Washington.

But the delay has apparently cost Canada a chance to lead the mission. Several days ago, the United Nations announced that Maj.-Gen. Jean-Paul Deconinck of Belgium would take command of the stabilization mission, a post that was being held for a Canadian.

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