CBC IN MALI

Mali 'far messier' than other peacekeeping missions, says Canada's defence chief

Canadians who remember the last substantial peacekeeping mission of a couple decades ago will have to brace themselves to accept that the upcoming mission in Mali is not that, says Gen. Jonathan Vance.

It isn't a typical mission — certainly not for Canada, and nothing about it is easy, says Gen. Jonathan Vance

Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, describes Canada's role and future in Mali 0:35

The boots of the boss aren't usually among the first to step in the soil of a peacekeeping mission. But this arguably isn't a typical mission — and it's certainly not routine for Canada.

That's why Canada's chief of defence staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, was determined not just to get to Gao, Mali, quickly, but also to be seen there.

"It is certainly important for me and my senior commanders to arrive here early on to get a sense of what they will be doing, talk to the allies, get a sense of any lessons to take away," he said moments after the first Canadian plane landed in Gao on a dirt runway still under construction in the shadow of a terminal scarred by rocket attacks.

Part of the presence, too, is about Canadians back at home, letting them know what the Canadians in Mali "will or won't be doing," he says.

CBC's Adrienne Arsenault reports from Mali, where drought and extremism threaten one of the poorest nations in the world and could worsen the migrant crisis in Europe. 2:10

Politically, Canadians who remember the last substantial peacekeeping mission of a couple decades ago will have to brace themselves to accept that this is not that.

"This is a mission sponsored by the UN, and so think of it as a UN mission, not necessarily a peacekeeping mission," he says.

But the reality has shifted. It is, as he puts it, "far messier."

Mali is besieged in parts by extremists who are not loosening their grip, and battling everything from climate change to poverty. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

The mission in Mali will not be about two once-warring states asking for UN help to maintain fragile peace. This is about a teetering country besieged in parts by extremists who are not loosening their grip and battling everything from climate change to poverty.

Nothing about this will be easy. Not even the getting here was straightforward.

Saturday, a sandstorm scuttled Gen. Vance's first attempt to fly in with about a dozen members of Canada's theatre activation unit — they are, effectively, the advance team for the advance team.

Then, Sunday morning, an almighty thunderstorm kept the loaded Hercules on the tarmac in Bamako, Mali's capital, from rising. With Gao's runway under repair and no option to move equipment into the landlocked country by sea, clearly just getting Canada's UN commitment here will be tricky.

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance arrives in Mali to set up for Canada’s mission that starts in August. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

It looks as though 250 troops will be in place by Aug. 2. Two Chinook helicopters and four armed Griffons must be ready to be in the air at all times for medical evacuations.

Will Canada contribute more?

This is a point Gen. Vance repeats, just to be clear. There is sensitivity in the Canadian ranks after the UN criticized the Canadian effort for Mali in April as too little. But the question lingers: why not contribute more?

There are other nations doing all that they can and that is being asked of them, but the matter of offering ground troops never apparently came up.

"The mission didn't have any gaps, and to this point does not have any gaps for that kind of capability. They needed helicopters."

Vance is seen with a German commander. Canada is replacing one of Germany's contingents. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Is there more to this mission than filling a need? This likely doesn't hurt Canada's efforts to try to secure a UN Security Council seat. But Gen. Vance swats away the suggestion of a link like he would the ever-present mosquitos here.

"I see no connection whatsoever between this and that," he said firmly. "Not really my part of the ship."

To stand on the tarmac is to feel the angst of the German soldiers nearby.

Canada is replacing one of their contingents; they are now veterans of the conflict. They have seen how nasty the fight can get, the rockets that target the bases, the attacks directed at the forces — blue helmets or otherwise.

On Monday, 44 more Canadian soldiers arrived in Gao, and they'll immediately get started with the handover from the German contingent, which is sending its helicopters home at the end of June.

There is pressure on the Canadians to transition quickly because the German departure will leave a gap of about a month when it will be difficult, if not impossible, to airlift injured peacekeepers out of the battlefield.

On Monday, 44 more Canadian soldiers arrived in Gao to take over from the German contingent. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

The Canadian flag, as of this particular evening, now flies over Camp Castor in Gao.

This is the beginning, but Gen. Vance is clear, there is a defined ending: one year.

"A hard out?

"What would change that?

"Nothing."

Let's see how much pressure the UN applies over the next 12 months.

Canada is already a major contributor to Mali, with tens of millions of dollars invested in development and human rights.

That's all vital. Security means more than weaponry.

But Mali is vulnerable now, and success here is by no means guaranteed. Nothing is.

About the Author

Adrienne Arsenault

Senior Correspondent

Emmy Award-winning journalist Adrienne Arsenault co-hosts The National. Her investigative work on security has seen her cross Canada and pursue stories across the globe. Since joining CBC in 1991, her postings have included Vancouver, Washington, Jerusalem and London.