Was Canada's Mali mission worth it? Absolutely
The work in Mali is hardly finished, but Canada made a valuable contribution to peacekeeping efforts
Operation Presence-Mali, Canada's peacekeeping mission in Mali, has come to an end. The operation took just over a year and involved the deployment of over 1,250 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members. The task force performed 11 medical evacuations and conducted more than 100 transport missions.
So, was the mission — the time, expense, and risk — worth it? Absolutely.
While I have never served in the CAF, I am nonetheless able to share somewhat of an insider's perspective. I retired from the U.S. Army last year and immigrated to Canada shortly thereafter to live with my spouse, who is an officer in the CAF, and our family. Soon after I immigrated, my spouse deployed to Mali for seven months as part of the initial rotation.
Regardless of opinions about whether the operation was prudent, the hard work and sacrifice of the military members that made the operation possible should be acknowledged. Military members don't participate in the political debate that comes with committing to an operation, but it is their effort that makes a successful operation possible. That hard work and sacrifice shouldn't get lost in the political debate.
Preparing for the mission
The team for the initial rotation, or "Roto 0" in military speak, was cobbled together from across the CAF and started training together a few short months before deploying. Soon after arriving in Mali, the commander for Roto 0, Colonel Chris McKenna, coordinated with United Nations (UN) mission command to determine what the Canadian air task force could do to contribute to Canada's fellow UN peacekeeper elements, in addition to medical evacuation, or MEDEVAC, missions. Roto 0 leaned forward to assist accordingly, and Roto 1 followed through with that commitment.
The operation was facilitated with the support of the forward-deployed logistics hubs outside of Mali, and home station "reach back" support from units across Canada. Units back home had to make do without the personnel and equipment sent overseas to support this and other operations. In short, a deployed operation like the one in Mali requires a truly unified effort from across the military.
Now, was the mission worth the time, expense, and risk? Well, the UN determined, correctly, that the situation in Mali represents a threat to international peace and security. Rebel armed groups continue to threaten the central government, resulting in conflict and instability in large swathes of the country. This makes it difficult for the government to address inter-communal clashes, and global terrorist networks operate in areas of the country.
People often suggest it is fear mongering to talk about the increased threat of global terrorism posed by unstable regions around the world. I have another name for it: reality. The UN relies on member states to contribute troops to peacekeeping missions, and deploying a small but capable air task force for just over a year is a price worth paying to support the UN's effort to promote peace and stability in Mali.
One common perspective touted by critics is that the CAF simply didn't make much of a difference in Mali – after all, they only conducted a handful of helicopter medical evacuations, or MEDEVAC, missions. But this point ignores just how important those missions were to those who were rescued, as well as how Canada's air task force provided vital non-MEDEVAC logistical support through the air.
Some critics question whether UN peacekeepers can even make a difference at all in such a complex and contested space as Mali. After all, decolonization set the conditions for the ethnic tensions that drive the current armed conflict, while factors such as climate change and poor governance fan the flames of conflict. The situation in Mali is complex and dangerous, and the conflict rages even with UN intervention. Why would Canada commit peacekeepers under such circumstances?
It's true that in this case, as in so many peacekeeping missions, "success" is hard to measure. But that doesn't mean Canada should just sit on the sidelines and let someone else take on the risk. The peacekeeping mission is just one aspect of a Canadian whole-of-government approach, which includes efforts such as development and humanitarian assistance and trade and investment agreements. This combined effort aims to contribute to the stabilization of Mali, and Canada's efforts complement wider efforts by the UN.
There's also the question of why Canada did not agree to the UN's request to extend our operation until Romania could full replace our air task force in Mali. After all, if this operation is such a priority, why wouldn't the government agree to stay in Mali until Romania is ready to take over?
While Canada has now has said it will send troops back to Mali to ease in the transition, senior military leadership and the government are in the best position to assess the operational and strategic impact of agreeing to the full extension. Perhaps a more fulsome explanation for the decision to agree to only a limited extension will come.
Lobbying for a UN Security seat?
Finally, another common criticism – probably my personal favourite – is that the mission was just an attempt by the current government to "curry favour" with the UN to secure a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. There should be no doubt that our involvement in Mali will strengthen Canada's case, but suggesting that this could be the reason to commit to a peacekeeping operation is nothing short of comical. Besides, even if that campaign succeeds, a seat on the Security Council is not an end in itself. A seat provides an international platform from which Canada can advocate for our values and interests and remain globally engaged.
Whether Canada commits to future operations in support of UN priorities will depend largely on what the UN requests and what we, the Canadian public, will accept. One idea that could permit a considerable impact with a manageable commitment is to deploy small groups of experts to regions of instability to help train and build the capacity of local military forces.
As we debate whether the operation in Mali was worth the effort, cost, and risk, we should not lose sight of the hard work and sacrifice of the women and men that made that operation possible. The work in Mali is hardly finished, but Canada made a valuable contribution to the peacekeeping effort there. It was risky and dangerous work, but it was absolutely worth it.
This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.