Canada, fearful of casualties, is taking months longer than expected to decide whether to send troops to a United Nations mission in Mali, worrying allies and potentially undermining Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s commitment to peacekeeping.
Trudeau replaced a Conservative government in November 2015 with little time for the United Nations. Trudeau’s Liberals declared “Canada is back” in August 2016 and said they would commit up to 600 soldiers for possible UN deployment.
Officials said one option was Mali, where the UN has a 10,000-strong force to help deal with Islamist militants.
“This would be a combat mission. Casualties are inevitable,” said a person familiar with the issue.
Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan visited the African nation last November and diplomats said they expected a decision by the end of 2016.
“The UN needs a response, even if it’s a No, because that has an impact on the ground,” said a diplomatic source.
Sajjan said in a phone interview a decision would not be coming soon, citing the need for proper risk assessments.
“It does factor a role in terms of the risk, how do we mitigate it … but more importantly, are we going to be able to have the impact on the ground as well?” he asked.
Canadian troops would be a good fit in Mali for two reasons: the army gained plentiful counter-insurgency experience during a 10-year mission to Afghanistan and many soldiers speak French, the official language in Mali.
“Yes, there is a risk. But if you are serious about playing a major role in peacekeeping, then you have to take it,” said another diplomatic source.
Afghanistan proved painful for Canada, which lost 158 troops against the Taliban, more per capita than any other nation.
“Are Canadians really ready to see coffins coming back once again?” said a second person with knowledge of the issue.
Canadian officials initially said they were waiting for possible requests from the United States. But a person familiar with the matter indicated no such request would be made, saying Washington told Ottawa the decision on where to send troops was up to them.
Sajjan is hosting a conference on peacekeeping towards the end of the year.
“It’s going to be pretty awkward if they haven’t made an announcement by then,” another diplomatic source said.