OTTAWA – Canada may have missed a chance to provide the commanding officer for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali because it wanted to talk first to the Trump administration, the Canadian Press has learned.
The UN put out requests to a handful of top-tier countries in mid-December as the term of the mission’s previous commander, Danish Maj.-Gen. Michael Lollesgaard, was coming to an end.
Sources say the Liberal government asked the UN to hold off on a decision until after the government had a chance to consult the new American administration on Canada’s future peacekeeping plans.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said last month he wanted to talk to his American counterpart, Defence Secretary James Mattis, before Canada sent peacekeepers to Africa because co-ordination with the U.S. is essential.
The minister is to fly to Washington on Monday for his first face-to-face meeting with Mattis.
But even though peacekeeping is on the agenda for that meeting, along with the government’s new defence policy, North American defence, NATO and the mission in Iraq, it remains unclear how soon afterward a decision could come.
Sajjan’s office said Friday that Canada is still considering its options on the peacekeeping front so it can make the best contribution possible to peace and security.
“We are going into this with our eyes open,” said spokeswoman Jordan Owens.
“We will ensure that our troops have the right mission, mandate, training and equipment in order to mitigate risk and maximize our impact.”
The UN force in Mali is still looking for a commander for its perilous mission holding the line in the fight against Islamic extremists in North Africa. The mission’s deputy commander, a general from Senegal, is currently the highest-ranking officer.
Though the UN has made no formal announcement, it appears the Mali job has been filled and it won’t be with a Canadian, said a western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“They had to get going,” the diplomat said. “They haven’t had a force commander there for over a month.”
The UN and some of Canada’s closest allies have expressed growing frustration, and even disappointment, at how long the Liberal government is taking to make a decision on where to send peacekeepers.
Canadian military officials have also expressed frustration in private as the Liberal government drags its feet on a decision.
Mali is considered the most dangerous UN peace support operation, a mission that defies the traditional label of peacekeeping.
More than 100 peacekeepers have been killed over the last four years — the majority by what the UN terms “malicious acts” — in a fight that began in April 2013, when France and African Union forces pushed back Islamist rebels that had taken control of the country’s north.
With Denmark withdrawing its troops and commander at the end of December, there has been speculation that Canada would step in with some or all of the 600 troops the government committed last summer to UN operations.
Canada, considered a high-level NATO member, was one country that was approached to supply the mission’s commander, sources say.
Sources say the new commander needed a particular expertise in intelligence, as well as a being French speaker.
“They really wanted a western country — a NATO member — who understands how you use intelligence in such a mission,” the source said.
“They were going after a pretty short list of countries.”
It wouldn’t have been the first time a Canadian led a multi-national mission in Africa.
In 2011, now-retired general Charles Bouchard commanded the NATO air mission enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya to protect rebels fighting then-president Moammar Gadhafi.
In 1994, then-general Romeo Dallaire commanded the ill-fated and out-gunned UN peacekeeping mission that failed to prevent the Rwanda genocide.
The current UN mission to Mali includes about 13,000 troops and 2,000 police from Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and countries from Africa and South Asia.
Owens reiterated Friday that no decisions about deployments to other countries have been made.
Ukraine’s envoy told The Canadian Press last month that his country is starting to question whether Canada will continue its future military support to his country to help it deter Russian aggression.
Canada’s deployment to Ukraine of 200 troops in a non-combat mission is set to expire at the end of March. The government has yet to say whether Canada’s contribution to that multi-national, non-UN mission will continue.