Thursday, April 26, 2018

Pardy: 'Peacekeeping' in Mali is but a Mirage for Canada

By: Gar Pardy, Special to The Ottawa Citizen 

There is a sharp bit of historical cynicism that generals always prepare to fight the last war. In today’s world, it’s politicians who want to ignore the lessons of the past and fight the war again.

Case in point: the decision to deploy the Canadian military as part of the United Nations “peacekeeping” force in Mali. Mali, which, just last week, suffered another attack on peacekeepers on its soil – one Blue Helmet was killed, and 14 French troops and UN peacekeepers were injured, along with two Malian civilians. The UN said it was the third attack this month.

A Bangladeshi United Nations soldier walks by a car during the weekly cattle market in Gao, Mali, in this file shot from 2017.ALEXANDER KOERNER / GETTY IMAGES
Canada’s decision to deploy military personnel there suggests none of the lessons learned from our 13-year war in Afghanistan are remembered. Nor is there memory of Canadian military involvement in the messy, inconclusive wars in Libya and Iraq, or our involvement in the disastrous wars in Somalia, Rwanda and the Congo. Adding the “United Nations” label to a force has become a cruel deception in collective decisions to fight first and make peace later.

There are daily reminders of the lasting effects of the Afghan war on Canadians. One would hope there would be some pause before an even more dangerous military adventure was undertaken. And at first, it did look as if the Liberal government remembered. But the Liberals’ ill-defined promise before the 2015 election that, if elected, they would return Canadian soldiers to peacekeeping missions around the world, needed fulfilment. Like electoral reform, the promise should have been left on the side of the road as an indication of mature decision-making. But it wasn’t.

The result is Canada joining the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) – ­a mission named for hope, not reality. As we have seen, the less hope there is, the greater the grandiosity of the name.

Trudeau defended the mission this week in Paris, where he said Canada is taking a more modern approach, trying to deal with child soldiers and focusing on training, for instance.

Even so, the world has changed dramatically in terms of the ability of outside countries to significantly alter the dynamics of internal civil conflicts. “Peacekeeping” has become an over- and ill-used metaphor when the international community faces with tragedies that are largely the products of colonial gerrymandering, poor governance and an unwillingness to seeks policies of national reconciliation. The injection of foreign troops into the struggles of weakening states will do nothing except sharpen divides, increase deaths and prolong the tragedy.
The hope that foreign interventions can stop wars lives on, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Indeed the UN itself is now reviewing its Mali mission, to see if it is actually helping support stability or peace. This is happening even as Canada has committed to sending in military helicopters.

For hundreds of years, the policy of European and other countries called for the intervention of a few soldiers and ships to shape the international and regional futures of troubling countries. That time has passed. Unfortunately, the historical impulse to intervene has not. And so the hope that foreign interventions (irrespective of the sponsoring body) can stop wars lives on, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Mali is but the latest example. France, the colonial era intruder in this tragedy, decided it could no longer cope with the mess it had created when it sent in a few hundred French troops. It decided to spread the blame and asked for help, first from other African states, then the UN.

Even a cursory acknowledgement of the history of the country and the region, where “empires” were almost as numerous as the sands of the Sahara, suggests the injection of thousands of foreign troops will do little to settle historical geographic, ethnic and linguistic divides, which have been sharpened by the involvement, or more accurately, accentuation of extreme Islamic theology.

During the colonial period, formalized in 1892, the region was called French Sudan and, at various iterations, was inclusive of Senegal, Ivory Coast, Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali. In the north, it overlapped with the southern regions of Algeria with easy, uncontrolled connections into Morocco, Tunisia and Libya.

Some will suggest our Afghanistan experience was unique but in doing so we easily forget the beginnings of African peacekeeping in 1960 in the Congo. More are dying today than when the area was the personal fiefdom of the King of the Belgians.

Granted, today’s urge to help may be larger than lingering colonial mentality. But even the faint hopes associated with the “responsibility to protect” concept move many to promote and accept bad policies. The ubiquity of these disasters always includes adding more guns.

There is sufficient evidence to disabuse us of the hope that we are doing anything more than assuaging historical guilt and the public urge for government to do something. What is missing from these considerations is any serious effort by the international community to foster, create and maintain a non-military process in the affected countries.

The disasters associated with “peacekeeping” are now more than manifest and successes are faint memories. It is time for new thinking. If half of the cost of the UN mission to Mali were dedicated to a political solution, then there might be some hope that a more peaceful future could be achieved.

Otherwise, after a while on the “peacekeeping” road, we will soon wonder how we can get off.
Gar Pardy is retired from the Canadian foreign service and comments on issues of foreign policy from Ottawa.

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