Mali: It’s hard to convince people to put blood and treasure on the line

Even as Canada extends its commitment of a C-17 transport plane to war-torn Mali in mid-March, a former Canadian diplomat warns our nation is repeating the same mistake it made during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Robert Fowler, who was held hostage in Mali for four months in 2008 by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), believes Canada’s failure to intervene in the West African conflict could be as catastrophic as its failure to intervene in Rwanda.

“I went out to Rwanda during the genocide as the Deputy Minister of Defence,” said Fowler. “I still remember being able to hear the screams and great howling of dogs from my hotel balcony.”

But the Canadian government refused to intervene despite Fowler’s recommendations, largely due to debate over whether the violence overwhelming Rwanda was genocide or merely a modern incarnation of an ancient tribal feud.

“Likewise I’ve heard people say that Mali isn’t our war,” said Fowler. “Africans are just like that – they’re always rioting.”

Photo by Jerome Delay, AP

The former diplomat lambasted the Canadian government’s lack of involvement in Mali in a Jan. 8 op-ed in The Globe and Mail.

The Malian conflict began following a military coup in March 2012 creating a power vacuum that allowed Tuareg fighters and AQIM affiliated groups to take over the country’s north – a region slightly larger than France. The Tuareg militants previously comprised a large percentage of Gadhafi’s army in Libya, until his regime toppled in 2011. They returned to northern Mali to revive their longstanding separatist movement before AQIM quickly sidelined the separatists.

In mid-January France, with support from the U.N.’s Security Council, mounted a military campaign to prevent the rebels from reaching Bamako, Mali’s capital. Since then, French soldiers have ousted rebel troops from major towns, including Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.

An estimated 377,000 Malians have been displaced by the conflict.

But despite calls for assistance from French President Francois Hollande, Canada has only provided one C-17 transport plane to shuttle French troops and supplies, as well as $13 million in humanitarian aid.

John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs, reiterated Canada’s non-interventionist stance at a parliamentary committee on Feb. 12.

“I am very cautious about sending in potentially thousands of Canadian troops to Malian soil to what is already is amounting to a counter-insurgency,” said Baird. “We’re not at the drop of a hat going to get into another Afghanistan.”

Canada’s appetite for military intervention is low following 10 years of military involvement in Afghanistan, during which 158 Canadian soldiers were killed. And with the rebels having recently retreated to Mali’s deserts and mountains, the conflict seems destined to become another long-term, guerilla insurgency.

A war-weary Canadian might question why their government should fight for a country with which Canada has no cultural or historical attachment, particularly given the intervention would divert precious funds from domestic programs. The C-17 transport plane in Mali is currently costing $18.6-million a month to run.

A February Canadian Press poll suggests Canadians don’t want to get any more involved in the conflict. Fewer than one in five respondents favoured sending troops to Mali. Eleven per cent of respondents said Canada should not get involved at all.

Simon Palamar, a researcher at the Centre for International Governance Intervention, said the Department of National Defence believes the Canadian Forces need to recoup after Afghanistan.

“The government is now aggressively pursuing a fiscal reduction, hoping to accrue savings after Afghanistan,” he said. “And unless France’s military intervention fails, Canada has no need to put our troops in harm’s way – freeload when you can.”

“It’s hard to convince people to put blood and treasure on the line, and to spend millions and billions of taxpayers’ dollars on another foreign conflict.”

But Fowler says intervention doesn’t have to mean putting boots on the ground.

“We pounded ground effectively in Libya, so why can’t we do the same in Mali?” he said.

The war in Libya – where Canadian Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard commanded the NATO air campaign – was arguably Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s finest military hour, accruing no Canadian casualties.

Fowler argues a similar strategy could be applied in Mali, adding that Canada is obligated to respond because it is indirectly responsible for the conflict in Mali.

“By making possible the wholesale looting of Libyan dictator Gadhafi’s weapons, we have caused havoc in one of the most fragile areas in the world,” said Fowler. “So we helped break it, so we should help fix it.”

Palamar disagreed with this interpretation.

“Libya also broke it,” he said. “The government there didn’t do a good job of mopping up excess arms and dealing with the armed groups.”

But Fowler’s also concerned that Mali could become another base for Islamic extremists.

“They are preparing to turn an 8,000-kilometre strip stretching across the widest part of Africa into a chaotic and ungovernable zone in which their jihad would flourish,” said Fowler.

“We can intervene now or with much greater cost and difficulty later,” said Fowler. “It’s a choice between a bad option and a worse option, and I think we should take the bad one – and that’s fighting them.”

However this view is seen by some as alarmist .

Rita Abrahamsen, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Public and International Affairs, warned many militant Islamic groups form in opposition to specific domestic issues, and aren’t as outwardly hostile as corporate al-Qaeda.

“The opponent is often more likely to be local rather than global, and for many groups in Mali the main target is the state, like with Boko Haram in Nigeria,” said Abrahamsen.

She added the so-called “war on terror” is a valuable resource for transitional governments.

“Faced with an enemy who has been labeled ‘terrorist’, governments can receive almost blanket approval and considerable external support for violent oppression.”

But Fowler argues that it also makes economic sense to intervene in Mali.

“Over the past half-century, Canada and other developed countries have invested more than $60 billion in assistance to the countries of the Sahel,” said Fowler. “Doesn’t it make sense to protect such a huge investment?”

Canada has spent more than $1 billion on various Malian infrastructure projects in the past 25 years. In addition Canadian mining corporations have a significant presence in the country.

But with the Feb. 15 announcement that Mali will be holding presidential elections on July 7 – a key step in stabilizing the country – there’s optimism the conflict will end soon without further Canadian military assistance.

Then, on Feb. 20, the French government announced its intention to pull out of Mali. It’s requesting U.N. peacekeepers to replace the French troops, to eradicate the remaining rebels, but it’s still unclear what role Canada would play in that mission.

Palamar said France has had the easier role to play – that the larger challenge will be stabilizing the region over the next decade.

“This is essentially an African problem which should be dealt with by Mali and its neighbours,” said Palamar. “But Canada can still help with intelligence and logistical support.”

But Fowler maintains we haven’t learned from the mistake we made in Rwanda.

“I came back from there and said we had to engage,” said Fowler. “We didn’t, and I still regret that enormously.”