By Phil Gurski
(Volume 25 issue 4)
Canada was long known as a nation of peacekeepers, of the multinational kind. We used to send lots of our men and women to conflict zones around the world to do our part in keeping warring parties from slaughtering each other in the hopes that the UN, under which we served, could cobble together some kind of arrangement that would lead to national or regional stability. Heck, we even erected a monument to peacekeeping right across from that hideous spider outside the National Art Gallery in Ottawa.
Our nation as a peacekeeping stalwart has long been in abeyance. As of February 2018 Canada, had a grand total of 41 soldiers on various missions, compared with over 7,000 from Bangladesh and almost 5,500 from Nepal. A country at the coalface of peacekeeping we clearly are not. Nonetheless, the Trudeau government just announced that we will send an unspecified number of helicopters and support troops to Mali, part of the PM’s promise last fall to commit up to 600 Canadian soldiers to UN missions. Woo-hoo! The world needs more Canada and we are delivering!
Our return to the world of peacekeeping may indeed be a good sign, but it is not clear that going to Mali is a good idea or has anything really to do with peacekeeping since it is not clear that there is a peace to keep. Mali is beset with a serious, almost existential, threat from jihadist violence, as is much of the Sahel (that area of North Africa just south of the Sahara) and parts of West Africa (i.e. Nigeria). A number of nasty Islamist extremist groups are very active in the region and some of Canada’s allies that have already sent troops to Mali and Niger have suffered casualties. In October 2017 four US Special Forces were killed in an ambush in Niger and two weeks ago two French soldiers were killed when their vehicle hit an IED in Mali. Canadians should prepare for the possibility of death: in August 2017 two Canadians were killed in a terrorist attack on a restaurant in neighbouring Burkina Faso, and that was on the heels of a similar attack on a hotel in Ougadougou that killed six members of a Quebec humanitarian group in January 2016.
Peacekeeping implies that there are parties that are open to the idea of peace and negotiations. Terrorist groups seldom hew to this notion: in fact, the ideologist behind Al Qaeda, Abdallah Azzam, once famously said “Jihad and the rifle alone; no negotiations, no conferences, and no dialogues.” Al Qaeda-linked terrorist organisations are active in the Sahel and there are other entities tied to Islamic State. This does not bode well.
The danger to our troops is real and I am sure that the Canadian Forces are all too aware of the peril. At the same time, we have to consider whether the presence of our military also raises the general threat level to Canada. Jihadi groups make a lot over the deployment of foreign forces in Muslim-dominant lands as it fits their narrative that the West (a broad term) is at war with the Islamic world. Regardless of their intent or their mandate, our men and women will be targets for terrorist violence and I would be very surprised if jihadi social media posts do not start listing Canada as a legitimate aim for attacks. Having your country and people named as the object of terrorism is seldom a good thing. We have seen plots and successful attacks on our soil by those inspired by jihadi groups abroad. It is not beyond belief that we will see more, perhaps tied to our Mali mission.
We are thus damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Mali and its neighbours need our help and we should do something. By doing something, however, we paint a bulls-eye on our torsos. Which is worse: stay out and let the region continue to suffer and perhaps descend into more jihadi hell on earth or send troops which may be killed and which at the end of their mission may not be able to point to real progress on the ground (just look at Afghanistan 16 years later)? I do not envy the Trudeau government for having to make this decision. I just hope that our men and women in uniform can help the locals and come back safely to their homes and families.