Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird warned against getting involved in "another Afghanistan," expressing deep skepticism about a military intervention in Mali and about the West African nation's army and government.
Although he didn't rule out sending Canadian military trainers or funding West African forces, Mr. Baird on Tuesday offered the Harper government's first blunt, public caution that Mali could become a quagmire. He said intervention there will not turn into peacekeeping, but ground insurgency "like we've seen in Iraq, and like we've seen in Afghanistan."
"I am very cautious about sending in potentially thousands of Canadian troops to Malian soil, as has been called by others, to what will – is already amounting to a counter-insurgency," Mr. Baird told the Commons foreign affairs committee during a hearing on Mali. "We're not at the drop of a hat going to get into another Afghanistan in this region."
Mr. Baird did not make clear exactly what Canada will do, however. The Conservatives' political opponents have not directly called for Canadian ground troops to be sent to Mali, and Mr. Baird said the Harper government is still considering whether to fund or provide trainers for a West African force now being deployed, and doesn't know if it will extend the mission of a C-17 cargo plane past Friday.
He said that while the Harper government has not yet decided whether to send trainers, he has doubts about training Mali's army after its officers led a coup last March, which displaced elected president Amadou Touré.
"I would have some concerns to provide training to a military that undertook a military coup and overthrew a democratically elected government weeks before an election," Mr. Baird said. He also indicated he doesn't trust Mali's interim government, or its road map to restore democracy with July elections: "I don't take everything at face value in terms of what comes out of Bamako," he said.
While Canada has yet to tell the European Union whether it will provide trainers for a mission now being planned for early April, a Western diplomat said European nations still believe Canada will eventually contribute some trainers, but probably for training Mali-bound troops in a neighbouring country.
The dynamic at the hearings on Mali was a turnabout from the debates over Afghanistan only a few years ago. This time the NDP and the Liberals pushed for Canada to do more, and the governing Conservatives raised concerns that Mali is a potential morass, with untrustworthy local government – and cited polls showing Canadians at large don't support sending troops.
But one witness, former Canadian and UN diplomat Robert Fowler – who was kidnapped in Niger in 2008 by Islamists from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and held in northern Mali for four months – argued the choices are not between sending thousands of combat troops or nothing.
"Do I think Canadian infantry battalions ought to be drawing a line north of Kidal in the desert? No, absolutely not," he said. "Do I think Canadian special forces could be helping French special forces deal with these guys? Do I think Canadian intelligence officers and logisticians, that helicopters and trucks could be helping … the Africans, and … the French? I certainly do."
Mr. Fowler argued that Canada and the West have a vital interest in diminishing the jihadists' strength to the point where African nations can deal with the remainder. While a West African force is now arriving in Mali, it won't be able to do the job of cutting Islamists down to size – and France and its "militarily capable" allies must do that, he argued.
Both the NDP and the Liberals agreed with Mr. Fowler that Canada should provide some funding for African forces in Mali, as well as training and more logistical support, such as transport and equipment. NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar dodged the question of whether he supports sending special forces. Liberal defence critic John McKay said it should be considered – but added that the Conservatives should be able to tell other countries whether they will provide more military support, trainers and funding.
"I wouldn't want to get into a foxhole with these guys," he said. "For goodness sakes, be clear on what you're going to commit to, and what you're not going to commit to, tell your allies early, and tell them often."