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A Canadian peacekeeping mission in Mali could be most dangerous choice

Justin Trudeau is thinking of taking Canada's military where Stephen Harper wouldn't: to a mission in Mali.

Mr. Trudeau's Liberal government plans to send a sizable peacekeeping mission to Africa, though the Prime Minister hasn't said where. But a lot of work is being done on a potential mission in Mali.

Canadian officials are in Paris to discuss a potential Mali mission with their French counterparts. That's because France, the former colonial power in Mali, has its own troops in the country on a separate counterterrorism mission and the most extensive intelligence network in the region.

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At the same time, a Canadian Forces reconnaissance mission is in Mali. And back in Ottawa, the Canadian military is doing the planning for a large peacekeeping mission in Mali.

It isn't set. Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet have not signed off on any specific mission. The government announced it's willing to send up to 600 troops and 150 police officers to a UN peace operation, and that they're looking at several possibilities in Africa. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan insists the fact that the Forces are on a reconnaissance mission in Mali doesn't mean they won't look elsewhere.

But the fact that the Liberal government is seriously considering sending a sizable mission to Mali is remarkable for two things. It may be the most dangerous peacekeeping mission they could choose. And it's a place where Mr. Trudeau's predecessor, Mr. Harper, didn't want to go.

The reasons for that reluctance are worth remembering. Mr. Harper, after years of a combat mission in Afghanistan, judged that war-weary Canadians were not eager to send ground troops into dangerous conflicts, and that Mali was not important to Canada's interests. In short, he believed that most Canadians would not want to put boots on the ground in a place they couldn't find on a map.

That might still be a Conservative criticism now, or at least an undertone: Why commit troops on the ground in Mali when the government pulled jets from bombing the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq?

Mr. Harper rebuffed approaches, notably from France, about participating in a potential stabilization force in 2012. When French troops were dispatched in January, 2013, to stop Islamist fighters from heading south to the capital, Bamako, Mr. Harper sent transport aircraft, but steered clear of the heavier involvement France really wanted, such as intelligence, special forces or ground troops.

Now, Mr. Trudeau's Liberals are considering sending a Mali mission. There are 11,000 peacekeepers there, but 400 Dutch troops handle key jobs – they do intelligence gathering, have deployed 100 special forces troops and operate attack and transport helicopters. The Dutch plan to leave, so the Canadian Forces are in demand to do some of those tasks.

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The UN peacekeeping mission is separate from France's counterterrorism operation, but it's still dangerous. In all, 106 peacekeepers have been killed, including 32 this year, more than any other UN mission. The Dutch have lost five.

Of all the missions Canada is considering, the highest risk is probably in Mali, said Walter Dorn, a peacekeeping expert at the Royal Military College in Kingston. But he now believes that's where Canadian troops will go. Ottawa was also considering missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, and Mr. Dorn thinks it's possible that Canada will send dozens more peacekeepers there, but he thinks the big mission will be in Mali.

Mali does have two things Congo doesn't. There's a major NATO ally with heavy interests there, France. And the mission has a relatively straightforward narrative. The 16-year-old Congo mission is a mess of dozens of warring factions and a corrupt host government that periodically calls for the UN to send thousands home.

In Mali, the mission is holding off Islamist militants. It is part of a fragile Sahel region that some western countries see as vulnerable to a threat from Islamist extremists, including affiliates of the Islamic State, spreading from Syria and Libya to threaten Niger, Chad and Mali.

That's not a new narrative in Mali. It's one Mr. Harper didn't find compelling enough to risk putting Canadian boots on the ground. Mr. Trudeau's government is considering doing just that.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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