Canadian special forces to Mali?

Will Canadian special forces soldiers be sent to Mali?

Prime Minister Harper has clearly stated that his government is “not considering” a “direct” military role in the conflict in Mali. But can his words be trusted? has seen no evidence that the Harper government is planning to send Canadian special forces to Mali, and we are not accusing the government of currently harbouring such a plan.

But the possibility has almost certainly been raised by France and other allies, and the prospect of winning allied gratitude by contributing a small special forces unit to the fight in Mali could prove irresistible to the same Prime Minister who once assured Canadians that Canada would have no military presence in Afghanistan after 2011.

Consider the following facts:

  • Approximately two dozen members of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment are already operating in Niger, which borders Mali (see map), training Nigerien troops who are themselves likely to be operating in Mali in the near future (Steven Chase, Geoffrey York & Colin Freeze, “Ottawa contributing to fight in Mali by training Niger forces,” Globe and Mail, 12 January 2013).
  • In February, the Canadian special forces soldiers in Niger are scheduled to move to Mauritania, on the western border of Mali, where they will be joined by another two dozen or so soldiers and members of 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron, the helicopter unit that transports Canadian special forces members into battle. They will be in Mauritania to participate in Exercise Flintlock XIII, an annual month-long U.S.-sponsored exercise designed to train West African special forces to fight the kind of war currently going on in Mali (David Pugliese, “Troops from Petawawa bound soon for Mauritania,” Ottawa Citizen, 16 January 2013). Many of the participating countries are planning to contribute forces to the operation in Mali.
  • The Canadian government likes to send its special forces to operate with those of its allies. French special forces are already operating in Mali, U.S. special forces have had a long-standing presence in the country and are probably still there, and British special forces are also reported to be operating in Mali, although in a non-combat role (Nick Hopkins, “UK special forces active in Mali,” Guardian, 22 January 2013). (Does that mean the British troops are not participating in what our government would call a “direct” military mission?)
  • Canadians would not necessarily even be told about such a commitment. The government may believe that a special forces contribution could be made on the sly. Parliament and the Canadian public have frequently been left in the dark about the nature, extent, and even existence of past Canadian special forces operations (see, for example, Bruce Garvey, “JTF-2’s secret missions revealed: Book details a dozen front-line forays – and one that almost happened in Canada,” Ottawa Citizen, 8 February 2002). Canadian governments seem to believe that their obligation to consult parliament and inform the Canadian public about Canadian military operations does not extend to special forces operations.

None of this proves that Canada’s special forces will soon be sent to Mali, and there is no direct evidence that the Canadian government is currently planning or even contemplating such a deployment.

But if Canadian special forces do not end up in Mali, they will likely be the only such unit currently operating in the region that does stay out of the action.

Speaking in Cambridge earlier this week, Prime Minister Harper pledged to pay attention to the views of Canadians on any future role in Mali (“Canada considering 2nd plan to support mission in Mali,” CBC News, 24 January 2013):

Anything we do, I’d like to see a broad Canadian consensus behind that. I do think it is important to help this mission. At the same time, I think we’ve been very clear, and I think this reflects Canadian opinion that, while we’re prepared to help, we don’t want to see a direct Canadian military mission to Mali.

So we will continue to look at ways we can be helpful with a broad consensus in Parliament.

The Prime Minister may even mean what he says.

But as he contemplates further ways to be “helpful” in Mali, will he really be able to resist the siren call to tag along with the special forces big boys?

[Update 28 January 2013: Government sources have confirmed that Canadian special forces members are already deployed in Mali. The government continues to insist, however, that Canadian forces will not undertake a “combat” mission in Mali.]

Photo credit: DND

Tags: 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron, Canada and military intervention, Canadian Special Operations Regiment, Flintlock XIII, France, JTF-2, Mali, Mauritania, Miltary intervention in Mali, Niger, Special forces