Thursday, March 22, 2018

Levine: More than Helicopters Needed to Help Mali

By: Corey Levine,  The Ottawa Citizen 

The Canadian government has now set the stage to claim a Schwarzenegger-style “We’re back!” after finally confirming our long-delayed contribution to United Nations peacekeeping in Mali. But after spending a year in the West African nation, I’m doubtful about what 200 soldiers and a few helicopters will achieve. 

Canada's contribution to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali is expected to include up to six helicopters and a sizeable female presence, operating in an area rife with violence. CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS
Canada’s long association with peacekeeping and reputation as a calm presence in the world’s hot zones has taken a serious hit in recent years. Our contribution to UN missions is at its lowest ebb since the 1990s and we are no longer seen as a relevant actor in today’s multilateral military interventions.

As someone who has worked in conflict zones for the last 20 years, I believe in Canada’s peacekeeping legacy. Like many other Canadians, I was disappointed when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not live up to his promises to polish this legacy back to its former lustre.

When I first arrived in Mali in November 2016 to provide training to Malian soldiers on humanitarian law, human rights and gender issues as part of the European Union Training Mission, (EUTM), I was surprised at the warm reception I received as a Canadian. Although the Liberal government had publicly mused about the possibility of Canada supporting the UN peacekeeping mission there, by then Mali appeared to have dropped off our foreign policy radar.

Still, diplomats, donors, peacekeepers and even Malians themselves expected that Canada would soon help rescue MINUSMA (the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali), the UN’s deadliest peacekeeping mission, and the country itself, from the quagmire it had become. And it was hoped that a battalion of Canada’s finest military men and women, tough and experienced from tours in Haiti and Afghanistan, would bring the Pearson back to peacekeeping.

Mali observers continued to remain hopeful, even after it was announced that a Belgian general, with no peacekeeping background, rather than a Canadian experienced in the international arena, had been named to head up the MINUSMA military forces. Had we lost our chance because we had dithered to long about our commitment?

By the time I moved from a Malian military base to the capital, Bamako, in February 2017, responses to my nationality were more quizzical about a civilian Canadian working for a European military mission than hopeful, despite the aid dollars flowing into the country as part of Canada’s 3D approach (diplomacy, defence, development). People stopped asking me to set up meetings with “the Canadians,” and I stopped harassing my friends at the embassy to see if they had any news from their bosses back home about our presumed military contribution to Mali.

Not that there isn’t already a significant international military presence in the country. MINUSMA is the largest, with its approximately 11,000 forces drawn mostly from African nations, but also a few European and Asian countries. It is followed by Barkhane, a French active combat force, whose numbers range from 3,000 to 6,000, depending on whom you talk to. Barkhane, as the “French pillar of counter-terrorism,” differs from MINUSMA, which is a more traditional peacekeeping mission, carrying out “security-related tasks” in support of the peace process. The fact that there is no peace to keep in Mali seems to make no difference at all. (Although EUTM is solely a training and capacity-building mission, I lost a colleague in a terrorist attack in which 11 other colleagues survived).

Then there is the newly minted Force Conjointe G5 Sahel, consisting of troops from Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger. Supported by various UN Security Council Resolutions and headquartered in Sevare, it is still trying to figure out its role in a region already crowded with competing military and diplomatic initiatives. There are many unanswered questions as to its operational capabilities and political co-operation.

Mali is at the same time: a civil war with the Arab tribes of the desert north seeking independence from African ethnic groups in the tropical south, its roots in Africa’s colonial past; a dwindling democratic state after a 2012 coup; a threat to Europe as both a source and transit route for migration, and illicit drugs and arms; and the latest front line in the global war on terrorism. Both ISIL and al-Qaida have local organizations in the region.

International soldiers in Mali speak in terms of “terrorist armed groups,” known as TAGs, and “criminal armed groups” (CAGs). Then there are those agitating for an independent homeland. Sometimes the various TAGs, CAGs, and “freedom-fighters” are separate groups; sometimes they are combined. They occasionally splinter off and form new groups with different alliances but with the same leaders. Allegiances switch more often than most people change their bedsheets. Frankly, it’s an alphabet soup of confusion where the enemy is concerned.

There is officially a peace process known as the Algiers Agreement. But the signatories, including the Malian government, have only a tenuous commitment to peace. Then there is the growing insurgency among those fed up with an international presence that has brought little development, despite the aid dollars, and even less respite from the violence (shades of Afghanistan).

It will take much more than a few Chinook helicopters to turn Mali around. But this beginning could be the thin edge of the wedge that leads to more muscular involvement on our part further down the line. Still, like Afghanistan, it’s an unwinnable war.

The real solution to the problems of Mali doesn’t lie in helicopters and troops, but in a sustainable and sustained commitment to economic, political, social and multi-ethnic development of the region.

Corey Levine is a human rights and peacebuilding consultant. She returned to Canada last fall after a year in Mali. It was her 14th mission and 10th conflict country.


As of the end of 2017:

43: Number of Canadian peacekeepers deployed worldwide (down from 62 in November);

20: Number (from that total) of peacekeepers who were police officers. Fourteen others were military officers and nine were “experts on mission” (which can include police officers, military personnel and civilians);

6: Number of those peacekeepers who were women (five police officers and one military officer.)

600: The number of troops the federal government promised, in 2016, to make available for UN peacekeeping missions;

150: The number of police officers the government promised to make available.

(Source: The Canadian Press)

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