By Scott Taylor
Last Monday the Liberal government announced that Canadian peacekeepers will be deployed to the West African nation of Mali. No exact deployment date was given but it is not expected that we will have actual boots on the ground until August.
The nature of Canada’s military commitment to this UN mission will be helicopter support.
While it was announced by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan that this will consist of two Chinook heavy lift transport helicopters and four Griffon utility helicopters, Chief of Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance later said the exact fleet mix has not yet been finalized.
What we do know is that there will be approximately 250 Canadian Armed Forces personnel deployed, and by golly they will be wearing the UN’s trademark blue helmets. We also know that they will be deployed initially for at least 12 months.
During the 2015 election campaign, the Trudeau Liberals pledged that if elected, they would return Canada to its former glory as a respected peacekeeping nation. In August 2016, both General Vance and MND Sajjan teased Canadians with the prospect of Canada embarking on a major peacekeeping adventure on the African continent.
We were told that this would involve 600 troops at a cost of $400 million per year, but we were not told exactly where they would be sent.
Mali was at the top of a short list of UN missions that included South Sudan, Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.
At that time pundits argued that because Mali is considered to be the most dangerous UN operation with 162 peacekeepers killed since the mission began in 2013 – that the risk averse Liberals would opt out.
However, at the end of February 2018, it was reported that Canada’s military contribution to UN Peacekeeping missions worldwide had dropped to just 22 personnel – the lowest number since Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson invented the concept in 1956.
This complete digression from Trudeau’s promise to give the world more Canadian peacekeepers undoubtedly contributed to this recent commitment of helicopters to Mali.
It wont be 600 boots on the ground, it will be 250 boots in the air, which due to the nature of the Mali conflict, and the absence to date of anti-aircraft weapons in the arsenals of the various combatants, will greatly reduce the risk to our personnel.
The over eagerness of the usual cheerleaders to support a military mission – any mission – has led to yet another bizarre redefining of the word combat. Fearing that the Canadian public, still reeling from our 12 year, failed combat mission in Afghanistan would be reluctant to support another potential bloody failure in Mali, the pro war hawks are bending over backwards to downplay the potential risks.
To wit, my old friend Brigadier-General (retired) Matt Overton gave this quote to the Canadian Press: “For Canadians, if they see the helicopters flying and they’re returning fire or they’re suppressing a landing zone … so the Chinooks can get in, deliver their stuff and get out, they’re going to say that’s combat. But as a military person, I say: That is not engaging in combat, in that your primary purpose is to go out and actually deliver the violence to people. You are in support.”
That’s right folks, that famous battle scene of a helicopter assault in the Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now was actually just a routine support delivery. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Not that I expect this deployment to Mali to be anywhere near as dangerous as our failed mission to Afghanistan, or America’s defeat in Vietnam. The question still begs what does Canada and ultimately the UN hope to achieve with this mission?
The Dutch and the Germans who previously provided helicopter support for the UN troops in Mali were both keen to get Canada to take over that responsibility. Five years into this mission, obviously the Dutch and Germans don’t think they’ll be missing out on a victory parade anytime soon.
The semi-nomadic Tuareg separatists in Mali’s northern Sahara region have never accepted the authority of who attempted to rule them from the capital, Bamako, dating back to when France forcibly colonized the region at the turn of the 20th century.
France continues to deploy a large combat force to battle both Tuareg separatists and Islamic Jihadists, while the completely separate UN force attempts to keep a peace that doesn’t exist.
But hey, at least our soldiers will be wearing blue helmets again, just like Trudeau promised.