John Baird looks at Mali and sees Afghanistan

If the Foreign Minister doesn’t want to get involved in another Afghanistan, what are we still doing in the original one?


The House of Commons foreign affairs committee met today to discuss Mali, where France is currently engaged in war against al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups who had taken control of the northern half of the country. Canada has loaned France the use of a transport plane.

Robert Fowler, the former Canadian and UN diplomat who spent 130 days as a hostage of these same Islamists in northern Mali in 2008 and 2009, testified to the committee.

Fowler argued that Canada should contribute more to the French-led mission, including military assets such as intelligence officers, air power and special forces. He said millions of people in northern Africa are in “significant peril” from the Islamist threat and that no Canadians — indeed no Westerners at all — are safe in large swaths of the Sahel where these Islamists hold sway.

There can be no negotiations with them, he said, because there is no middle ground between what they want and what we might be prepared to give. He recalled his captors bragging about the millions of dollars they had obtained through kidnapping and smuggling, and yet they dressed in rags. They didn’t care about material possessions, only jihad and entering paradise as a martyr in God’s war against the infidels. Economic development, in other words, isn’t going to convince them to put down their weapons. They don’t want jobs; they want to die. And they must be killed — “diminished” is how Fowler put it.

He didn’t propose a forever mission, but nor did Fowler shy away from the reality that however badly we might want efforts against al-Qaeda and like-minded groups in the Sahel to be “African-led,” African forces in the region can’t handle this threat on their own. If the Islamists can be significantly “diminished,” Malian and other African forces might be able to hold the line, but getting to that point requires outside help.

As with previous debates on Mali, too much of this one concerned bickering over issues that are important but nonetheless peripheral to the ongoing war: the amount of aid money promised and delivered; the wisdom of shutting down Rights and Democracy; the status of the Office of Religious Freedom, and Canada’s overall diplomatic presence in Africa.

However Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who testified and took questions after Fowler left, did tackle the war directly.

“I am very cautious about sending in potentially thousands of Canadian troops to Malian soil, as has been called for by others, to what is already amounting to a counterinsurgency,” Baird said. “We’re not at the drop of a hat going to get involved in another Afghanistan.”

Baird’s reasoning strikes me as honest but nonetheless problematic. I suspect Canada’s long engagement in Afghanistan has soured this government, and the Canadian public, on other military deployments. America is similarly reluctant to intervene anywhere after its costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the side effects of this isolationism can be seen in the unabated slaughter in Syria, which no one in the West much feels like stopping.

But by framing Afghanistan, or something like Afghanistan, as a situation to avoid, Baird is also implicitly portraying Canada’s mission there as a mistake. If Baird doesn’t want Canada to get involved in another Afghanistan, what are we still doing in the original one? (Canada has 950 troops deployed in Afghanistan  — not that anyone pays attention anymore.)

I personally believe Canada and our allies should be in Afghanistan, and should remain there after 2014, when we’re all going to leave and pretend Afghans will be able to secure their country on their own. (They won’t. But don’t worry: we’ll blame them so we don’t have to feel guilty about it.)

There was a time when this government also stood behind its commitment to Afghanistan. Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper described the oppression Afghans suffered under the Taliban. “Some might say that’s not Canada’s problem,” he said. “Well, it is.”

Now, though, one gets the impression that members of this government wish it wasn’t. In only a few years, Afghanistan has gone from a symbol of Canada’s solidarity with those who are oppressed by Islamist terror to a warning why we shouldn’t be too hasty to fight for what we ostensibly believe in. It makes us a smaller country.


John Baird looks at Mali and sees Afghanistan

  1. We should have left Fowler in captivity.

    • That’s harsh dude.

      • I don’t like chicken hawks.

    • Why on earth should we have done that? You may think him a war monger, others will see his first hand experience as being of value. In any case his life is as precious as yours or mine.

      • Old men make wars and young men fight them.

  2. “If Baird doesn’t want Canada to get involved in another Afghanistan, what are we still doing in the original one?”

    We get a seat at the “Afghan” table. This makes ministers, diplomats and generals happy.

    The current Afghan mission is good for the CF: The generals and senior officers get to punch their tickets in NATO jobs. The army gets to justify spending for the mission and the facility in Kuwait. The troops get a gong, six-seven months of about double take home pay, a holiday mid-tour and some war stories. It’s also useful in hiding the fact that Canada cut & ran from Kandahar.

    When trying to decipher why a government does something always look to the personnel and institutional interests of the government employees. After that you can consider “security”, “strategy” and the like for motives. The latter are far less important.

    • At almost a billion dollars for the base (seems getting rid of anti-western belligerents isn’t that important when you actually live in the middle east, or at least not enough to stop you from making the Canadian taxpayer pay through the nose for it) we’d have to spend another fruitless decade of occupation to make that particular project worthwhile.

  3. So what’s the “Islamists” long term plan here? Cause it sure seems like they’ve been playing the west like a fiddle since the day those planes crashed into the towers. A decade of quagmire with little results – and that’s just the country that had something to do with the attack – and then they just waltz over to another country. Maybe they’ve just got every angle covered and we lose no matter what we do.

  4. I was against Canadian military participation in Afghanistan from the beginning because regardless of how much we care or believe it is our responsibility, the conditions were never there to achieve what we were sold as the mission.

    I’m afraid that our objective in Mali would once again be to have influence in international relations and I just don’t think that’s a good enough reason to ask someone to kill. If we are really committed to freedom and improving the lives of the people in another country, and they want us to help with that, then sure let’s look at all the things we can do to help, but I have to say this looks like another hobby horse for the generals and diplomats and more about our status than the status of the people of Mali.

    • I feel foolish because I WASN’T against participation in Afghanistan at the time and disregarded the ideas of those of ideas much like yours, only to proven wrong later. Much like Harper, I guess I’m just not the guy you want to make the decision at the time.

      • Harper is no idiot but he came into office with little knowledge or experience in foreign or defence matters (amazingly he hadn’t left the continent until he became PM). My guess is he “knew” that defence was good, under funded and assumed the generals were selfless and competent. Six years later he’s learned that DND is a nest of self interest and incompetence and that the military can’t be counted on for very much considering the cost. Hence the defence cuts.

        A good question is why is the army being allowed to buy armoured vehicles for Afghanistan II? If we’ve decided to stay out of ground combat why waste cash on equipment and troops we don’t need?

    • The Government’s mission was to get a seat at the table, leverage on soft wood lumber, beef exports and passports at the border. The Conservative Parties goal was to use the war to gain political advantage over the opposition and to associate themselves with “the brave men and women…”. The militaries mission was to get glory, extra cash and gear & improve the image of the CF via a small war. The individual soldiers goals varied from getting money for a new truck to ensuring they weren’t left out of the “Kandahar Old Comrades Association”.

      Afghanistan just happened to be available. Any third world dump would have done. The government is gun shy on Mali because of the cost of Afghanistan and the realization that the CF may not be up to it.

  5. “…the wisdom of shutting down Rights and Democracy…”

    Yeah. Those guys were savages. They made the Einsatzgruppen look like ponces. Get them out of their meetings and you’re looking at some of the meanest, coldest battlefield butchers in history. Those silly Islamists wouldn’t know what hit them if our R&D activists fell on them, teeth bared, screaming for slaughter. (We all remember Tangiers. How the gutters ran with blood.) Curse you, peacenik Harper!