OTTAWA – “Mali is a war zone. This is a combat mission and there is no peace to keep.”
— Conservative defence critic James Bezan, March 19
The Trudeau government announced Monday that it plans to send six Canadian Forces helicopters to help the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Mali with medical evacuations and other transportation needs.
But the decision has sparked strong words from the official Opposition.
The insinuation from the Conservatives, as highlighted in Bezan’s comment Monday, is that the Liberals are misleading Canadians about the nature of the mission — and the potential threat to Canadian troops.
So is it true that Mali is a war zone with no peace to keep and that Canadian troops will be deployed on a combat mission?
Spoiler alert: The Canadian Press Baloney Meter is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of “no baloney” to “full of baloney” (complete methodology below).
This one earns a rating of “a lot of baloney.” Here’s why.
Mali has been riven with conflict since 2012 when a combination of rebel groups and Islamic jihadists rose up in the north against the government in Bamako, which was subsequently overthrown in a coup by the Malian military.
A tenuous peace was restored the following year after France intervened, at which point the UN agreed to establish a peacekeeping mission to help ensure stability amid peace talks and efforts to reform the government.
A peace agreement was finally signed in June 2015 between the Malian government, Tuareg rebels and other rebel groups, though the jihadists, some of whom have links to al-Qaida, remain outside the peace process.
The UN mission is now responsible for protecting civilians, rebuilding Mali’s security forces and protecting human rights across the country; a separate French-led military mission is responsible for hunting down the jihadists.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s most recent report on Mali, published at the end of December, was a mixed bag when it came to implementation of the peace agreement and efforts to establish security.
“Social unrest, protests against the constitutional reform and clashes between the signatory armed groups that dominated the previous reporting period have come to an end,” Guterres wrote.
Progress had also been made in terms of political, security, judicial and economic development, he said, as well as the provision of government services to the Malian population.
“On the other hand,” Guterres added, “the deteriorating security situation is exacerbating an already tense political environment and continues to claim the lives of civilians, Malian uniformed personnel and (UN) peacekeepers.”
Mali has the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous peacekeeping mission in the world; 162 blue helmets have been killed in the country since 2013, 99 of them through what the UN calls “malicious acts.”
The most recent incident saw four peacekeepers from Bangladesh killed last month when their vehicle hit a mine in an area of the country where Islamist militants have been particularly active in recent months.
There have also been several clashes between various groups since Guterres’s report, including an attack on a village this week that killed at least eight civilians.
Yet the UN mission has been comparatively safe for countries operating helicopters in Mali; two have crashed since 2013, one Dutch and the other German, but both were due to mechanical problems rather than enemy fire.
Canada will be sending two Chinook transport helicopters and four smaller Griffons to act as armed escorts for the larger aircraft, which will be based at the UN’s base in Gao where Germany and the Dutch have previously operated.
Asked about the threats, chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance told The Canadian Press on Monday that “we mitigate all of that with superb aircraft and crews … and we’ll be operating from a base that is well-protected.”
What the Experts Say
While the experts were united in their assessment that Mali is dangerous thanks to fighting between different groups and the threat posed by Islamic militants, there was some division over whether the country constitutes a war zone.
Simon Palamar, research fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., said such a description is not unreasonable given the counter-insurgency mission France is leading in Mali and the surrounding area.
“They’re running essentially a combat mission alongside this peacekeeping mission,” he said. “And it’s not a modest operation either with 4,000 or 5,000 French personnel and they are searching, tracking, destroying insurgent groups.”
Yet many others, including Jocelyn Coulon, an expert on peacekeeping at the University of Montreal who previously advised then-foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion, dismissed such a description.
“Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen are war zones. In Mali, there is no bombing and killing every day. Perhaps, two attacks in Bamako in the past few years,” Coulon said in an email.
“Yes, terrorists and insurgents are there in the north, sometimes attacking. But you cannot compare the situation there to the four other real wars.”
Where there was more agreement was that the nature of peacekeeping has changed over the past couple of decades, to the point where the term is rarely used and has been replaced with the more accurate “peace support operations.”
In that context, the Canadian mission was seen as being particularly important in helping the UN and the Malian government set — and support — the conditions for bringing peace and stability to the West African nation.
“There is a peace agreement, and several parties are abiding by that agreement to large measure,” said Royal Military College professor Walter Dorn.
“If there was a perfect peace we wouldn’t need to send a peace mission.”
Meanwhile, the question of what constitutes a combat mission has been sharply debated in Ottawa — without any clear answer — for the past several years thanks to Canada’s mission in Iraq.
But the experts were largely unanimous in their belief that, at least according to what the government has said to date, the Canadian mission in Mali doesn’t fall into that category.
“For Canadians, if they see the helicopters flying and they’re returning fire or they’re suppressing a landing zone … so the Chinooks can get in, deliver their stuff and get out, they’re going to say that’s combat,” said retired brigadier-general Matthew Overton, executive director of the Canadian Defence Associations Institute.
“But as a military person, I say: That is not engaging in combat, in that your primary purpose is to go out and actually deliver the violence to people. You are in support.”
While there are questions about what constitutes a war zone and a combat mission, most experts felt that Bezan’s statement was overblown hyperbole designed to score political points and overlooked key details.
For that reason, the statement rates “a lot of baloney.”
The Baloney Meter is a project of The Canadian Press that examines the level of accuracy in statements made by politicians. Each claim is researched and assigned a rating based on the following scale:
No baloney — the statement is completely accurate.
A little baloney — the statement is mostly accurate but more information is required.
Some baloney — the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing.
A lot of baloney — the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth.
Full of baloney — the statement is completely inaccurate.