By John Ivison | National Post
The government’s decision on where in Africa to send Canadian peacekeepers will rank as one of its most portentous — if the Liberals get it wrong it could prove fatal to their prospects at the next election.
This helps explain why, a year after Justin Trudeau proclaimed that Canada is back on the world stage, Canada is not yet back.
The plans appear to have been drawn, scrapped and redrawn in recent months. But sources suggest that if a decision on deployment is not imminent, it will at least come down before the end of the year.
The most likely outcome is that the bulk of Canada’s resources will be sent to Central African Republic, the landlocked country of 5 million that ranks 187th out of 188 nations on the human development index.
It sounds increasingly as if some military resources will also be deployed in neighbouring Mali, where the United Nations mission covets Canada’s Chinook helicopters.
But while the Trudeau government is conscious of the need to confront Muslim extremism in Mali, it is keen to resist calls to commit hundreds of combat troops in a country where 32 UN peacekeepers have already died this year.
CAR is considered a much less risky bet for Canadian personnel — according to Walter Dorn, professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada, that country is 15 times safer than was Afghanistan in 2006 (the fatality rate in CAR last year was 0.13 per 1000 peacekeepers, compared to 1.8 per 1000 in Afghanistan at the height of the fighting).
The thinking at Global Affairs Canada (admittedly, often not the same as the thinking inside the Department of National Defence), is that the conflict in the CAR is relatively self-contained — a quasi-peace where some armed groups have already signed up to a disarmament agreement introduced by the newly-elected government.
I would argue Central African Republic has so much potential because of the state of play
Lt. General Roméo Dallaire, who travelled to the region with defence minister Harjit Sajjan in the spring, is optimistic that Canada can make a meaningful contribution in CAR.
“I would argue Central African Republic has so much potential because of the state of play and also the type of capabilities they would be requiring of us in building capacity in that country,” he told CTV’s Question Period.
I was on the show with him and he made it clear he wouldn’t touch Mali with a 10-foot pole. UN officials say that 80 per cent of the force’s resources in that country are spent on self-protection.
On the other hand, a UN special report last spring said CAR has made “considerable progress” since early 2013, when Muslim Séléka rebels forced the government to flee, amidst fighting with mainly Christian anti-balaka militias.
There are currently 10,000 UN troops and 1700 police in the country keeping a kind of peace, despite outbreaks of violence between armed groups, and incidents like the murder this week of a senior army officer in the capital Bangui, which set off clashes that left 11 dead.
Humanitarian assistance is the lifeline for half the population, 20 per cent have been displaced and the state’s capacity to govern is, in the words of the UN, “almost non-existent”.
But as Dallaire pointed out, there are some foundations to build upon. New president Faustus Archange Touadera has put together a cabinet with representation from each of the country’s prefectures and has reached out to the warring groups to engage in national disarmament and demobilization.
The goal for the UN mission is to set the conditions to avoid a relapse into violence once it comes to an end in November 2017.
The UN is attempting to legitimize the government by broadening its political space — promoting transparent and accountable government, holding local elections and reforming a judicial system that has ceased to function.
In all of these areas, Canada has resources and expertise that could help.
The UN report concluded that the peaceful transfer of power just two years after thousands died and hundreds of thousands were displaced is a “significant milestone.” It said that gains are fragile, and could yet be reversed, but that a window of opportunity is open to consolidate the progress.’
There is an opportunity cost to sending 600 troops and 200 police officers to Africa — we could, alternatively, use those resources to get closer to fulfilling our commitments to our NATO allies.
Memories of UN ineptitude in Rwanda and Bosnia are reason for caution in embracing any mission.
But it is a price the Trudeau government has already decided it is willing to pay.
That being the case, it appears the government has identified CAR as the place where it can make the greatest impact with the lowest level of risk.
From a menu of unappetizing choices, it certainly looks the least likely to cause political indigestion after the fact.
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