Canada's soldiers and diplomats began paving the way for possible military involvement in Mali last spring, shortly after al-Qaeda-backed rebels seized control of the country's north, newly released documents show.
The documents indicate Canada began laying down lines of communication with the French and Americans over the crisis in the African country as early as March of last year.
But the spade work has not yet amounted to much with the Conservative government, which only a few years ago had been eager to strut its military stuff on the world stage.
A one-week commitment of a single C-17 heavy-lift transport — intended to assist in relocating French military equipment — will likely be extended later this week. But as fighting escalates in remote desert Malian communities, the Harper government's aversion to getting more deeply involved is almost palpable.
It is a curious turn of events for a government well known for wanting to be seen as leading from the front — throughout the war in Afghanistan, during the Libya bombing campaign, and even in counter-piracy operations off Somalia.
Officers requested for 'liaison'
Last spring, Mali's ambassador in Bamako requested additional military officers be dispatched to the capital "in order to increase the level of liaison with U.S. and French military forces in Mali," said an April 5, 2012 briefing for Defence Minister Peter MacKay.
The additional help "was considered necessary in order to conduct additional liaison" as well as to provide advice on potential evacuation plans for Canadian citizens, said the note, obtained by The Canadian Press, and separately by a Queens University researcher, under access to information laws.
The documents show the Harper government set up an inter-departmental task force to monitor the crisis in the aftermath of last year's March coup, which toppled Mali's democratically elected government.
The group was also charged with giving advice on the concurrent advance of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an offshoot of Osama bin Laden's terrorist behemoth.
While the military had done no specific planning last spring, the documents say off-the-shelf contingencies existed if the Harper government opted for military involvement.
Email traffic and directives labelled "secret," obtained by Queen's University researcher Jeffrey Monaghan, show that the country's special forces were particularly keen to open up an ongoing dialogue with allies.
"From a (Canadian Special Operations Force) perspective, it would be beneficial to be tied into ongoing planning efforts, which would enable us to integrate more easily into any international effort," wrote Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson in a March 28, 2012 email.
Yet, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has since ruled out any "direct" Canadian military involvement, something defence observers say is clearly the product of political fatigue with Afghanistan.
"I think that's definitely a factor," said retired major general Lewis MacKenzie. "Sure, the troops were popular, but the mission was never popular with the way NATO botched it."
The war often intruded on the domestic political agenda in Ottawa, serving as a distraction when the Conservatives were eager to reshape government in the way they have been doing since combat operations in Kandahar drew to a close.
MacKenzie said a conflict in French-speaking Mali has the potential to create domestic political headaches — particularly if it were to result in the dispatch of members of the Royal 22e Regiment from Quebec, where military interventions are rarely popular.
And yet the potential of a terrorist training base in North Africa is a more clear and present danger to Canada and Canadian interests than the decade-long conflict in Afghanistan ever was, he added.
Robert Fowler, the former Canadian diplomat who was held hostage by al-Qaeda in the region in 2009, has said French forces — which recently opened up an offensive to dislodge Islamic rebels — will need more help.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he's wiling to talk about sending intelligence and counter-terrorism assets to assist the French, and even opened the door to reconsidering planned, deep defence cuts.
Nations going into Mali need to learn the lessons of Afghanistan and limit their involvement to simply "whacking al-Qaeda" and should not embark on an nation-building exercise, Fowler said.