Liberals eye revamped West Africa special forces mission

Regular Canadian troops are expected to take over a West Africa training mission as part of the Trudeau government's revamped international engagement. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who is scouting locations for a future peacekeeping deployment, tells CBC News the idea is under consideration.

Ottawa considers replacing special forces trainers in West Africa with regular troops

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is slated to arrive in Africa today on a fact-finding mission for future peacekeeping operations. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

One of the Trudeau government's contributions to peace and stability in Africa is expected to include a revamped training mission in Niger that has been — until now — the purview of Canada's highly secretive special forces, CBC News has learned.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was slated to arrive in Africa on Tuesday on a fact-finding mission for future peacekeeping operations.

But his assessment comes as the Liberal government is also considering a separate request to turn a special forces capacity-building mission, known as Operation Naberius, into a regular army training mission for troops in the war-torn country, multiple sources tell CBC News.

The switch could happen as early as September, not long after Sajjan attends a major international UN peacekeeping conference in London.

In an interview, Sajjan confirmed the proposal is being being debated.

"We are looking at that mission," Sajjan told the CBC. "There has been a really great impact made. And before we make a decision on that mission and what needs to be done, if there are other resources we need to bring to the table; we need to do the full analysis."

The operation has flown almost entirely under the radar since it was instituted over three years ago by the former Conservative government, which at the time faced repeated calls from the international community to help beat back Islamic militants, who have taken over a large swath of territory in neighbouring Mali.

Travellers driving from Niamey, Niger, line up to be searched at the entrance of Gao, northern Mali, in February 2013. Soldiers from Niger and Mali patrolled downtown Gao on foot, combing the sand footpaths through empty market stalls to prevent radical Islamic fighters from returning to this embattled city in northern Mali. (Jerome Delay/Associated Press)

A handful of elite troops have over the years helped train the Niger Armed Forces in marksmanship, reconnaissance and other basic military skills, something officials now believe might be better suited to regular army soldiers.

It has also, at times, been precarious.

Last year, Canadian trainers were pulled out of a town in Niger that had been the scene of heavy fighting between government troops and Boko Haram militants. No Canadians were involved in combat at Diffa, which sits on the border with Nigeria, but the incident served to underscore the instability in the country.

Much of the Canadian operation has dovetailed with an annual, U.S.-led multinational training plan known as Exercise Flintlock, in which forces from a number of West African nations are schooled in anti-terrorism operations.

The country's top military commander, Gen. Jonathan Vance, last month told dignitaries at an army change of command ceremony on Parliament Hill that coming "very soon" there will be a capacity-building mission in Africa.

But Sajjan said Vance was speaking more broadly than just the training in Niger.

"We've been thinking in a much wider perspective from the get-go," he said. "Once it's known how much we're willing to resource it; how much we're willing to put in and then [we'll] eventually decide on the location — or locations."

Fact-finding on peacekeeping

Operation Naberius fits within the Trudeau government's stated desire of not committing forces to combat, but it also falls outside the framework of United Nations peacekeeping.

That is what Sajjan is in Africa to investigate.

He said he's determined to do the fact-finding in order to give cabinet the best advice on current peacekeeping missions.

The trip, which includes former peacekeeping general Roméo Dallaire and Louise Arbour, who is part of the defence review panel, will make stops in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There's been speculation that Canadian troops could deploy in support of existing operations in Mali and even the Central African Republic.

Sajjan's officials say the government has not made a decision about the location for a possible future UN mission and no link should be made between the itinerary and any possible future missions.