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Senators issue warning over potential Mali peacekeeping mission

A Senate committee has tossed political hurdles in front of the Trudeau government’s plan to rejoin the ranks of peacekeeping nations, demanding more funding for the military and a clear end-date to whatever United Nations mission is undertaken.

Senators are also demanding the Liberal government seek the approval of Parliament before a deployment takes place.

The report, with eight recommendations, by the committee on national security and defence comes as the federal cabinet is set to debate, next month, where in Africa to contribute peacekeepers.

The Liberals made peacekeeping a cornerstone of their defence plan in the last election campaign and last summer committed up to 600 soldiers, 150 police officers and $450 million over three years towards a yet-to-be-defined series of missions.

A lot of detailed planning, including two trips to Africa by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, have gone into the pending cabinet decision.

Meeting current needs

But the Senate, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has encouraged to be independent, is laying down its own political markers, which could give opponents of the mission something to rally around.

“The military has needs of its own that are not being fully met,” said Conservative Senator Dan Lang, the head of the committee.

He noted there are recruitment, training and equipment needs that are pressing and those should be dealt with before the army is committed to another overseas deployment.

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Malian and MINUSMA soldiers carry the flag-draped coffins of two UN soldiers killed in a 2013 bomb attack in Kidal, during their funeral in Bamako, the capital of Mali. (Reuters)

“These are essential requirements that must be met,” he said following the release of 55-page report.

“The committee believes (that) before the government increases our commitments to UN peace support operations, they must ensure adequate funding is available to meet the current needs of our Armed Forces.”

Lang also questioned whether a deployment to Africa would be in Canada’s national interest and said the most often discussed destination — Mali — has been described by international officials as a quagmire.

Avoid another Afghanistan

If Mali is the government’s choice, he said the committee is worried the mission may slide into a counter-terrorism operation given the presence of jihadist elements, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

We don’t want to get involved “in a situation somewhat similar to Afghanistan,” said Lang.

“If we’re getting involved in a commitment, and say it’s Mali, I don’t think we want to to led into a situation where all of a sudden we have a 10-year commitment.”

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Canadian soldiers patrol southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2010. (Anja Niedringhaus/Canadian Press)

Consideration of a peacekeeping mission should take a back seat given that the country’s commitments to NATO and North American defence — through Norad — are not being met, said Lang.

As an example, he pointed to the fact Canada does not meet NATO’s benchmark spending requirement of two per cent of the country’s gross domestic product — something no Canadian government has done in decades.

“The government must fulfil our current national obligations before committing new resources — military or otherwise — to a dangerous and costly UN mission in Africa,” Lang said.

Justify mission

Recognizing the government is plowing ahead regardless, the Senate committee attempted to set limits by demanding the Liberals table a “statement of justification” for the mission in both the House of Commons and the Senate.

It would include the size, scope, risks and objectives of the mission to ensure “bipartisan support” for troops going out the door.

Also, the committee says the public deserves to know the rules of engagement under which the troops will be operating, specifically what action they’ll take to protect themselves and civilians.

Establishing a clear end-date is something the Netherlands did with its UN involvement, and the lesson should not be lost on Canada, said deputy committee chair Mobina Jaffer.

“They had a very, very clear exit strategy,” said Jaffer. “We as a committee believe that is very important.”

She also encouraged Canada to be more like the Dutch in setting out its strategy objectives for missions.