Steven Staples responds to Jack Granatstein, arguing that Canadians are right to worry about being drawn into the war in Mali:
Op-Ed: Canadians are right to worry about getting involved in Mali
By Steven Staples, Ottawa Citizen February 15, 2013
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird stunned parliamentarians studying the situation in Mali this week when he told them, “We’re not at the drop of a hat going to get into another Afghanistan.” Many Canadians would agree.
In connecting Afghanistan and Mali, Minister Baird was tapping into the mood of a public that is leery of the role being played by our military in the troubled West African country of Mali, and rightly so. Having emerged from the sacrifices made in Afghanistan with seemingly little to show for them, Canadians cannot be faulted for fearing “mission creep” and involvement in another unwinnable conflict.
Some have found this reluctance to embrace the war frustrating. War historian Jack Granatstein, a well-known supporter of a strong Canadian military and critic of UN peacekeeping, used these pages last week to berate what he described as “the pacifist left,” and my organization in particular, the Rideau Institute, for not supporting the Harper government’s military contribution to the conflict.
Granatstein argued that “the Canadian Forces’ role has been a minor one,” (“Why the pacifist left is marginalized on Mali,” Feb. 6). The Harper government deployed one of our newest and largest transport planes to aid the French military in fighting rebels and al-Qaida-affiliated fighters who had taken control of several cities in Mali. “Prime Minister Stephen Harper made clear that there will be no members of the CF in combat in Mali,” he added, and “Islamist terrorism is a threat to democracies everywhere.”
But as a historian, can Granatstein overlook our past mistakes in Afghanistan, only to repeat them in Mali?
Even Time Magazine described Mali as “Africanistan.”
Like Afghanistan, Mali’s problems weren’t solved with the end of the Cold War. Regional and ethnic grievances and inequality persisted, and this led to rebellions by the Arabic north against the black African south. Canadian troops, if sent to back the southern-based government, would find themselves taking sides in a simmering civil war, infused by Islamic extremism.
The fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan was similarly tangled up in a complex civil war. At least three different jihadist groups have been fighting in Mali, sometimes allied with rebels from the northern Tuareg minority who are seeking a separate homeland. All of these groups have been armed by weapons seized in the chaos of the Libyan war.
And just whose side would Canada be on? Ottawa protested and cut off aid last year when elements of the Malian military staged a successful coup and installed a puppet administration. In fact, as the Ottawa Citizen reported, the Malian troops formerly trained by Canadian Forces took actions to oppose the coup leaders, but are now in hiding or were killed by the military leaders we are now supporting by aiding France.
Canada’s experience dealing with the untrustworthy and election-rigging President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan proved that winning the hearts and minds of the people is impossible when you’re seen to be backing a corrupt government.
Of course there are many differences between Mali and Afghanistan, but clearly the Harper government knows that Canadians are tired of soldiers being killed in fighting. Hence the Prime Minister’s repeated assurances that Canada’s military involvement is limited and will not involve combat.
But it comes down to this: who can the public trust?
As one of our supporters wrote to me, “Unfortunately I do not know enough about Mali; however, I doubt if (Canada’s involvement) has too much to do with Islamic terrorists.”
Some Canadians worry that a new military mission in Mali could be used to advance other interests and investments, just as the Libya conflict was used to promote plans for F-35 stealth fighters and new attack drones.
Granatstein and his cohorts defended the war in Afghanistan, even when it was obviously failing. Their views rarely, if ever, diverge from interests of the military brass and associations supported by the Department of National Defence. Should his advice be taken now?
Notwithstanding their resistance to a military role, Canadians are generous and support UN peacekeeping. An informal poll found that a majority of our own organization’s supporters through Ceasefire.ca strongly supported humanitarian aid to Mali, while firmly opposing military intervention.
As international NGOs are pointing out, the recent fighting between rebels and French troops have created a food crisis in the country. Here Canada could play an important role.
As well, a new UN-led peacekeeping mission, recently proposed by France, would be a “game changer.” While Canadian military spending is at the highest level since the Second World War, our contribution of UN peacekeeping troops is at a historic low, numbering in the dozens.
A majority of Canadians support increased Canadian involvement in UN-led peacekeeping missions, likely to the chagrin of Granatstein. But should Canada and the international community learn from past mistakes, there may be help yet for the people of Mali.
Steven Staples is president of the Rideau Institute, an independent research, advocacy and consulting group based in Ottawa.
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Thank you to the many Ceasefire.ca readers who provided their input to Steve as he was writing this response!
Photo credit: DND