Blue Berets in Mali
If all goes according to plan, two Boeing CH-147F Chinook transport helicopters and four Bell CH-146 Griffon utility tactical helicopters, supported by 200-250 personnel, will be deployed to Mali in August to augment what is arguably the most challenging mission for United Nations’ “blue berets” in recent years.
Our first major involvement in Africa since the troubled missions in Somalia and Rwanda in the early 1990s, it was described by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a re-engagement in the UN after a decade of withdrawal by the former administration. “That’s what Canadians expect,” he told the House of Commons when the plan was unveiled in mid-March after months of speculation.
Toronto Conservative MP Lisa Raitt, calling the decision “absolutely deplorable,” noted that Jean-Pierre Lacroix, a career French diplomat, had questioned the objectives in a country where 162 foreign troops have been killed since 2013. A review kick-started by Lacroix last January was, he said, “a race against time” to keep the situation in Mali from deteriorating even further.
Trudeau, reading from notes, told Raitt that Canada would be contributing “in ways that bring the most value” to the mission – mainly by transporting other countries’ personnel under the protection of Griffon crews. Having reiterated that “the safety of our men and women in uniform is paramount”, Trudeau noted that while troops have the appropriate training and equipment, “of course we cannot altogether eliminate the risk.”
It will be the most dangerous mission on the UN’s recent agenda, and there are fundamental questions about the organization’s ability to rebuild what is clearly a broken country with a government that has little effective control.
Considered a model of democracy and African stability only a decade ago, Mali was one of Canada’s “countries of focus” for development aid. Averaging more than $100 million annually and topping out at $125 million in 2016 alone, Canada ranked third on Mali’s international donor list behind France and the United States.
Canada has also sent instructor troops to Mali since 2010 as part of a US-led effort to help train the land-locked country’s army in counter-terrorism, border security and other priorities. One of the program’s graduates, Captain Amadou Sanogo, spearheaded a military coup which prompted Canada to suspend aid for nearly two years.
Sundry so-called rebel forces have since struggled for dominance, mainly in the northern Gao region, part of a sprawling desert zone declared “independent” in 2012 by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. The NMLA subsequently lost control to Islamist militias.
The “rebels” are a loose and shifting coalition of groups with different aims and motivations. This fractured and fractious environment has been a major stumbling block for the UN and its partners.
Marie-Joëlle Zahar, research director at the University of Montreal’s peace operations network and a UN-sanctioned mediation expert, highlighted the problem during an appearance in late April before the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence.
“Deployment environments […] have changed since Canada was last part of a UN mission,” Zahar noted, speaking as an individual witness rather than for the university network. “Violent conflict is on the rise, and there are at least four characteristics of violent conflicts. […] The first is that they're much more regionalized than internationalized, as they used to be.” Most current wars were not civil wars per se, but “internationalized civil wars” in which foreign states and non-state actors instigate and prolong conflict for their own interests.
“In Mali, the fragmentation of northern anti-government forces and their composition and re-composition into ever-shifting alliances and counter-alliances remains one of the main obstacles to achieving sustainable peace,” Zahar said.
On the specific issue of Canada’s upcoming Mali deployment, she said it would fill “the most serious gaps” in the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. “MINUSMA has repeatedly highlighted that this is what it needs and what it cannot get from a majority of troop-contributing countries. […] The high number of fatalities is partly due to logistical difficulties of attending to injuries in situ and providing reliable evacuation of the wounded.” The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations confirms that at least 143 of the MINUSMA fatalities came from troop-contributing countries whose militaries are deployed as part of the ground forces.
Inadvertently linking to Lisa Raitt’s impossible-to-answer question about risk, Zahar said that “not only would the Canadian Forces be helping reduce the number of casualties, but based on current trends of who is most in danger, they would not be a primary target.”
That, obviously, remains to be seen because there is a key capability gap, demonstrated graphically during Op Athena in Afghanistan. Canada’s Chinooks, considered the most advanced model of the twin-rotor platform, have a maximum speed of 170 knots (315 kilometres per hour). The single-rotor Griffons, meanwhile, max out at 140 knots (160kph). Faster just isn’t aerodynamically possible and the significant differential means that Chinooks have to be throttled back to let their Griffon escorts keep up, presenting an easier target for opponents on the ground. The geography of the most likely theatre of operations features plateaus up to 500 metres above sea level and, in the northeast, hills up to 1,000 m.
Sources with the Royal Canadian Air Force have acknowledged the challenge but, without going into detail, say they have refined tactics to take that into consideration. They also privately echo Zahar’s warning that re-engaging in peacekeeping, while not free of danger, is “a necessity to prevent trouble spots […] from becoming open sores and the source of regional and international instability.”
As one veteran Chinook pilot pointed out, “it’s what we train for, what we do, and we have the best aircraft of its kind for the job.” It helps that the Chinooks have been fitted out with the latest countermeasures.
Dutch and German forces (Canada will be replacing the latter but there will be a gap of about a month) have used their armed helicopters to support UN ground troops against ambushes, but General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff, demurred when the prospect of using Griffons in that role was broached during a televised interview. “At this juncture, the planning we’re doing is armed escort,” he said, adding that his planners would be talking with their German counterparts. “It is possible […] they could be used for support to ground forces. It is possible. We’ve got to look at it. We need to get a lot more detail.”
Carolyn McAskie, who oversaw the 2004-2006 UN peacekeeping mission in Burundi, which involved some 5,600 troops, 120 police and 1,000 civilians, stressed the need not to “get hung up on traditional peacekeeping” because “there has been no such thing since the Cold War.”
Testifying as an individual as well, McAskie advised those on the Committee to “ignore the nervous Nellies” who fret about risk. “Of course it's dangerous; why else would we be going? It’s a war zone; of course armies have to take precautions. Of course I’m sensitive to the political and human side of casualties, absolutely, but if we want a casualty-free war, why do we have 68,000 really good, well-trained, experienced troops? Why bother? Are we then to leave the heavy lifting to others?”
She also pointed out that Canadian civilians had been in the forefront all along – with no government support. “When I joined the UN in 1999 as humanitarian relief coordinator, it was at a time when there was a pullback internationally from peacekeeping. More humanitarians died on the front lines in 1998 than peacekeepers.”
On Mali specifically, Canada’s involvement would be in our national interest. “We’ve had a development program for years of […] up to $100 million a year,” McAskie explained. “There are a dozen Canadian mining companies in Mali with an investment of $1.5 billion. In the 1990s, if you were a Canadian and walked into Bamako, you were welcomed with open arms.” She says the signs of trouble have been brewing, but ignored, in recent years.
Military involvement, however, must be matched with development investment to foster economic stability and undercut criminal and terrorist elements. “If we want to contribute to the success of the mission, we need a place at the political table. We don’t have that now. Our contribution, military or financial, has to be enough to give us a voice. Otherwise, we’re just playing around the edges.”
McAskie challenged those who don’t seem to understand that Canada has a responsibility, working with the international rules-based system that Canada helped to build over the last 70 years. Otherwise, she cautioned, “we cannot blame others it if fails.”
Walter Dorn, a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada, told the committee that missions in Somalia, Bosnia, Cambodia and then Rwanda saw Canada’s military and police deployments peak at 3,300 in mid-1993. A UN hiatus for the rest of that decade saw Canada drop its numbers to the 300-500 range before a general cutback which meant that Canada currently provides no units and only 47 personnel as individuals, 23 police in Haiti, and 24 military personnel in Haiti, the Congo, Cyprus, South Sudan, and the Middle East.
“Unlike the UN’s, Canada’s capacity for peace operations has declined,” said Dorn. “With few personnel deployed over the past two decades, the Canadian Armed Forces have less experience than in previous generations and do much less training.”
Closure of the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre in 2013 meant there was no place where military, police and civilian personnel could be trained together and, although the new Peace Support Training Centre in Kingston does “excellent work”, it is strictly for the military and aimed mainly at tactical training with “only a small fraction” focused on the UN.
“As the only person who teaches a course on peace operations at the command and staff level, I can tell you that the number of activities in the Canadian Armed Forces has dropped to less than a quarter of what it was in 2005, with fewer exercises and almost no role-playing as UN peacekeepers, though some efforts are now being made to reinvigorate the peace operations curriculum.”
Dorn closed his testimony by pointing out that while Canada presses for more women to be involved in UN peace operations, it is failing to lead by example with only three women currently deployed. “I’ve had women in my office saying that they’ve been trying for years to get on UN operations but that the opportunities just haven’t been there.”
Sources have told FrontLine that one of the reasons for the more than four-month delay between mission announcement and deployment, other than the need to have the aircraft ready to move out of CAF Base Petawawa for transport overseas, is that there is a renewed effort within the military to significantly increase the number of women who will be eligible to wear the UN blue beret.
Hudson on the Hill
The role of Hudson is being filled by contributing editor Ken Pole.