There is a very useful policy paper on the Canadian Global Affairs Institute website titled: “Op PRESENCE – Mali: Continuity Over Change in Canada’s “Return to Peacekeeping” in Africa.”
The Executive Summary says that: “Nearly 20 years since its last significant contribution to United Nations (UN) peacekeeping in Africa, Canada deployed an aviation task force to Mali in July 2018 to support MINUSMA for one year. This carefully selected tasking represents continuity in the types of capabilities Canada deploys to UN operations in Africa, stretching back to Suez and the Congo (i.e., mostly enablers, not combat arms). Concurrent debates about whether MINUSMA represents peacekeeping or war-fighting are unhelpful: peacekeeping has not been wholly synonymous with Suez and Cyprus-type missions since Congo in 1960-1964, and particularly not since the end of the Cold War. Many Canadians (politicians and public alike) are distracted by a number of myths around peacekeeping and Africa’s supposed marginality to Canadian security and prosperity. These myths draw attention away from important debates which still need to be held about Canada’s role in multilateral peace support operations and how best to ameliorate African regional security challenges that have direct and indirect consequences for Canada and world order.“
The report say that there are three myths:
- Mali isn’t a peacekeeping mission;
- Mali or Africa is not important to Canadian interests; and
- The entire mission is driven by the Liberal government’s political considerations (both domestic and international).
“Each category and related subsidiary questions,” the report says “require unpacking and analysis.“
The CGAI report provides lots of detail and analysis and I agree, broadly with most of it.
The “Mali is not peacekeeping” myth is the easiest with which to deal: the converse is that neither UNTSO, in Palestine nor UNMOGIP, in Jammu and Kashmir, the United Nations’ two oldest (since 1948) and, arguably most successful peacekeeping missions are not “real” peacekeeping either ~ while there is a “peace to be kept” in each case the real “peacekeeper” is the threat of devastating conflict, not the UN, and the UN provides a “cover” beneath which the sides may try to each some sort of peaceful settlement of intractable problems. Peacekeeping has evolved since 1948 and 1956 (Lester Pearson and all that sort of thing) and the missions in Africa are the “new normal.’
The “Canada has no interests in Africa” myth is equally easy to disprove. Africa maters to Canada and the world. It is a resource treasure house which is, currently, being too much ignored by most countries except China and France, and each of those has interests that are likely to be inimical to Canada’s. In the mid to long term Canada needs a peaceful, prosperous Africa that produces things we want to buy, not a hundred million illegal migrants.
The third “myth” is not really a myth at all. That “Canada is pursuing partisan political interests” in Mali is, beyond doubt, true. And it has almost always been thus … the ways we entered and fought World Wars I and II were both fraught with domestic, partisan political concerns, largely over casualties and conscription and Québec. Why should peacekeeping be any different?
One of the questions the paper addresses is: Why helicopters? It says, as mentioned above, in the Executive Summary, that despite the success which Canadian Army combat units have had in UN missions, most notably, the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2000-2001 and, of course, in Afghanistan, “Canada has traditionally sent enablers and support services to those more complex UN PSOs in Africa, not combat arms. A helicopter task force and medical specialists are thus in line with that tradition.” Tradition or not, the more compelling reason to send helicopters is that the Canadian Army, having already sent a few hundred soldiers to Latvia on a NATO mission which is, also, very arguably aimed at keeping the peace, is tapped out. There is a rough rule of thumb that sustained deployments, which is what the UN wants, requires four units is Canada for every one deployed ~ it’s actually four point something, but five is a good, rough number. Canada has nine battalions of infantry in the regular force right now but not one of them is at anything like full strength, most are at something near half strength ~ the Army can, reasonably comfortably, maintain the NATO commitment but it could not sustain two small commitments on different continents, much less one large on in real combat. As I have said before, Canada’s military capabilities are more notional than real: we have many commands and divisions and hundreds of admirals and generals but we have far, far too few ships and tanks and infantry companies and aircraft of all types.