Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The New Canadian Mission to Mali: More than Meh?

Yesterday, the government of Canada announced a new peacekeeping effort: sending an Aviation Task Force to Mali.  Ta da!  There has been much impatience in Canada and probably at the UN as Justin Trudeau promised that Canada would return to peacekeeping and, until yesterday, has not.  Indeed, one stat floated around recently--that Canada had the fewest number of peacekeepers in UN operations since the 1950s.  So, does this new mission satisfy?

Well, that depends on what one considers to be "back" or enough or whatever.  The Canadians will be sending six helicopters (2 chinooks and 4 griffons) to do medevac and transport and the personnel needed to maintain them. That's it.  Something around 200-250 CAF members, staying largely on base except for those staffing the helos.  So, it is more than the 40-odd currently deployed but is far under what were the average deployments of yore.

Is the UN satisfied?  Maybe.  They needed someone to replace the Belgians who have replaced the Germans.  Having a helicopter task force is important especially given how "kinetic" things are--160 UN peacekeepers have been killed in Mali, so having helos that can get people to a hospital quickly is quite important.  But it is only 200 troops in a 13k person mission.  So, it fills a need, one that few countries can provide, but it is a small part of the mission. 

Does it satisfy Canadian voters who so heavily identify Canada as a peacekeeping country?  Maybe. Surveys will have to tell us that. 

Does it satisfy the government wanting to do peacekeeping but not risk many lives?  Apparently.  Given that most personnel will likely be confined to a secure base and given that the various violent actors have not been shooting down helicopters before now (as far as I know), the biggest risk is that Canada loses a helo due to accident (which happens fairly often) in some place where there are no friendlies on the ground.  That would be very bad.  So, there is risk, but it is not as risky as sending in a battalion or two to patrol.

Does it satisfy the opposition? Of course not.  They would never be satisfied even though the Conservatives put Canada on the glidepath to 40 or so peacekeepers.  Westminster politics means short memories and opposing things that one supported when one was on the other side. 

Does it satisfy the aspiration to have more women do peacekeeping (the Elsie Initiative)?  Maybe a smidge?  As far as I know, there are women flying Canadian helos, and women involved in the maintenance of helos.  Are women more represented in these military trades than infantry?  Maybe?  My hunch is that is the case, but so far I have received no answers via twitter or from the government.  Even if there are a higher percentage of women in this unit, say 20%, that won't move the needle much since the Canadian task force again is 200 out of 13,000. 

By having such a finite, contained, constrained contribution, Canada makes a "smart plege" by filling a niche capability at relatively low cost and risk.  But if it is obvious to me, it is also obvious to informed observes so does it help Canada in the competition for a Security Council seat?   No.  I haven't heard from insiders, but I have to guess that the Trudea folks have given up on that dream.  If they were as consumed it as I previously thought, the latest budget would have had far more money in the development envelope. 

While I always thought the UN Security Council seat was a pipe dream (beating Norway or Ireland was always going to be very hard, especially entering the game so late), the events of the past six months or so should have snuffed out the dream.  The failure to sign the TPP in Danang not only alienated Abe of Japan but most of ASEAN plus the Aussies were mighty miffed.  Getting the deal eventually done might have soothed things a bit, but the whole thing was not a voting winning venture.  The India trip?  Well, Canada might have picked up Pakistan's vote...  Oy. 

Anyhow, this whole thing fits into the usual category of "the least Canada could do, the most Canada could do."  It has some risk, it is a valued contribution, but it does not move any needles very much.

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