LEWIS MACKENZIE

We can help in Mali without putting ‘boots on the ground’

Special to The Globe and Mail

A French military vehicle drives off a Canadian Air Force C-17 transport plane in Bamako, Mali, on Jan. 22, 2013. (ERIC GAILLARD/REUTERS)

I guess you could say, “Well done the French” for actually doing something about the expanding influence of the al-Qaeda franchises in North Africa, particularly in the law and order black hole in northern Mali and surrounding areas. It was true to form for a country that bombed then-Libyan president Moammar Gadhafi’s tanks outside Benghazi in March, 2011, before the ink was dry on the UN resolution authorizing such international intervention.

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Mr. Gadhafi was the longstanding bulwark against the al-Qaeda forces in North Africa. The majority of his well equipped mercenaries were recruited from the Tuareg peoples of Northern Mali and across unrecognized borders in Niger and Mauritania. The Tuaregs had been fighting on and off for their own independence since Mali was granted independence from France in 1959.

During those 53 years, the modest Malian army was able to contain the Tuareg threat; however, when the Tuareg mercenaries returned home from their mercenary contracts in Libya - well armed and battle trained - the Malian army was no match.

Last March, the frustrated army carried out a coup in Mali’s capital, Bamako, citing inadequate support from the Malian democratic leadership for their army as justification. Mali fell into crisis, and during this period of chaos Islamist fundamentalists, primarily the al-Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb (AQIM), seized the opportunity to take control of a large part of Mali’s vast north, fighting with - then ultimately defeating - the Tuaregs. Al-Qaeda and its protegés now had a much expanded “homeland” the size of France, making their original digs in Afghanistan and Pakistan seem tiny in comparison.

In the ten months since the coup, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States ( ECOWAS) have satisfied themselves with the usual plethora of meetings and promises of military assistance to help Mali liberate the majority of its territory. About 3,000 African soldiers were reportedly sitting on their hands waiting for the order to move into Mali’s north. With the encouragement and authorization of the United Nations, an African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) was created with troops from Nigeria, Niger, Togo, Senegal, Benin, Guinea and Ghana. Is it even necessary to point out how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to command a small military force made up soldiers from seven countries? Chad, which is not a member of ECOWAS, has indicated it might deploy 2,000 soldiers itself.

Beyond the fact that this total force was too small to confront the Islamists, none of the soldiers were ready to deploy to Mali until the French took the initiative and bombed some worthwhile al-Qaeda targets. Embarrassed, the mini-units promised by ECOWAS at least moved a little closer to the crisis. At present, only 400 soldiers have actually arrived in Mali.

The UN has called for member nations to contribute forces to assist with the re-establishment of Malian sovereignty (a euphemism for killing as many Islamists as possible and ripping up their roots in the region), but so far contributions from the West have been limited to a few trainers for the African force and some modest logistical support, primarily airlift. Canada’s contribution of strategic lift with one C-17 at the request of the French was the cause of some embarrassment, as it was only “for a week”. Hopefully, getting there and back won’t count against the seven days and presumably we will extend its commitment.

In Canada, officials up to and including the Prime Minister are using words and terms rarely heard during discussions surrounding military escalations. No “direct” military involvement, whatever “direct” really means. Others have suggested no “lethal” involvement. Is that lethal for the good guys or the enemy – or both? No one wants to utter the term “combat” deferring to the somewhat misleading, “no boots on the ground” which presumably would permit expanding the air component?

Some have voiced an opinion that Canada should have no involvement unless there are clear goals, sufficient resources and an exit strategy. Lets remember that the time spent developing such criteria is always time wasted as the criteria are always ignored, in whole or in part.

Historically, we, the UN, NATO, etc., never had clear goals when intervening (the ones in Afghanistan were advertised after we entered the country), sufficient resources were never assigned and an exit strategy was finalized as we were leaving. In Canada’s case, we usually became involved when the pressure from our allies or the alliances to which we belong became both public and politically persuasive.

This development, combined with increased media coverage, creates an obligation to contribute. Ironically, the threat of al-Queda in northern Mali and its neighbouring countries presents a clear threat to the West unlike the exaggerated threats to us over the past ten years from Afghanistan and Libya - yet our response has been much more hesitant.

So far it’s France and the UN doing the requesting, and as long as that is the sum total of requests we should avoid any suggestion of putting boots on the ground in Mali. If NATO - always needing a reason for its existence, particularly after its abysmal performance in Afghanistan - should enter the fray, the equation will change and we might find ourselves drawn towards the sand storm.

In the meantime, what the French need more than anything is additional attack helicopters (we have none) to tip the balance in what is akin to naval warfare in a desert rather than at sea and additional troop-carrying helicopters (we have some but other countries with them are a lot closer) to deliver African troops to and within the battle zones.

That leaves significant additional logistic support to the African-led forces as our best and most valuable potential contribution.

Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie was the first commander of United Nations peacekeeping forces in Sarajevo

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