Monday, April 30, 2018

Is sending helicopters to Mali good enough?

By Chris Kilford

Given the recent concern over Canada’s upcoming contribution to the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), one might easily assume that up until now few Canadians had ever set foot in Mali. However, this is far from the case – Canada is Mali’s second-most important bilateral development partner, after France.

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Sgt Chad Zopf, a door gunner, onboard a Griffon helicopter while on exercise in Afghanistan.

At the Embassy of Canada in Mali, which opened in the city of Bamako in 1970, the Université Laval and various Canadian non-governmental organizations have been working for years to improve the daily lives of Malians.

In the past 12 months alone, and with the support of the Canadian government, efforts were underway to: improve agricultural output and food security; to assist community health physicians graduate from the University of Bamako; and to provide new software to Mali’s government for improving domestic revenue collection.

Meanwhile, several Canadian mining companies have significant investments in Mali. B2Gold Corporation, for example, operates the Fekola Mine with a 950-strong, mostly Malian workforce. According to Canada’s Ambassador, Louis Verret, the gold sector “accounts for about 66% of Mali's exports and is therefore critical for government revenue.”

However, since 2012, Mali has been gripped by civil war in part fuelled by the Canadian-backed ouster of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Following his death, many Malian Tuareg fighters who had fought for his regime, returned home to fight for their own space in northern Mali. And, while a peace agreement between the government and its main opponents (including the Tuareg) was signed in 2015, little has changed on the security front. Instead, the French, the G5 Sahel regional force, and MINUSMA are doing what they can to contain various rebel factions.

As for MINUSMA, it is only as good as the troops it gets from contributing countries – and many western armies, which could make a big difference – are noticeably absent from the front lines. For a mission deployed in an asymmetrical conflict environment, this is a big problem, and has resulted in significant casualties for UN troops that have largely been drawn from developing countries.

Still, not all is lost. In June 2017, the UN instructed MINUSMA to fully concentrate its efforts on supporting the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation and step-up efforts to redeploy Malian security forces to the centre and north of the country. To help, an EU Training Mission with 580 personnel is re-building the military, while 128 personnel with the EU Capacity Building Mission are focused on training the police, gendarmerie and national guard.

As for Canada, it will soon send six helicopters and approximately 250 personnel for 12 months in support of MINUSMA. For those wanting Canada to take on a more active international role, it’s good news. But when it comes to truly helping the UN, apparently our deeds are falling short of our words. Sending helicopters is important, but it’s not quite what many had expected from a government that has been consistently eager to portray itself internationally as a serious player on the world stage.

Chris Kilford is a former Army Officer and defence attaché who served in Afghanistan and Turkey. Currently he is a fellow with the Queen's Centre for International and Defence Policy.

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