Canada’s training plan for UN troops will be a departure from classic peacekeeping

French soldiers patrol northern Mali in this March 2013 file photo. Mali is one of the countries where Canada may deploy its peacekeepers. (Francois Rihouay/Reuters)

Murray Brewster

A major component of the Liberal government's plan to return Canada to peacekeeping involves using Canadian soldiers to train and mentor other, less experienced United Nations forces, say defence and government sources.

The strategy, which would possibly be employed in some of the most dangerous parts of Africa, is a departure from traditional peacekeeping, which is popular in the public imagination.

And in the opinion of some defence experts, it bears some resemblance to the kind of capacity-building counter-insurgency mission the Canadian Forces carried out in Afghanistan for the better part of a decade.

"Capacity in training is a strength for Canada," said one official, who was unable to speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the file.

It is likely one of the reasons the Liberal government believes it must prepare the public for the risks of "modern peacekeeping."

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is slated to give a major foreign policy address in a few weeks' time, which will open the door to the delivery of the long-awaited defence policy review on June 7.

But it will also prepare the public for peacekeeping missions that could cost lives.

One of the scenarios envisions Canadian troops helping train African Union peacekeepers in a relatively safe place, such as the West African nation of Burkina Faso, and then transporting the combined force into the country where they would operate.

Canadian soldiers would also accompany their apprentices into field in order to support them, reinforce lessons and ensure they don't get into trouble. UN missions in that part of the world have been marred with allegations of rape and child sexual abuse.

Echoes of Afghanistan

The concept sounds similar to the operational mentoring and liaison teams that Canadian troops used to help build up the Afghan National Police in Kandahar.

The idea of being seen as a leader in training peacekeepers and the development of uniform standards is politically attractive to the Liberals, who are eager to push the "Canada is back" narrative on the world stage.

Sources say the plan has also been given "enthusiastic" buy-in among senior UN officials who are themselves eager to improve the quality of peacekeeping soldiers, many of whom are ill-equipped and from developing countries.

"The complexities of today's operations require a collective effort to enhance the training of uniformed personnel for United Nations peace operations," said a report prepared in September 2015 by former secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who also requested that contributing countries be certified in peacekeeping practices and that the UN support "the establishment of bilateral and regional training partnerships."

The decision on where to deploy roughly 600 troops and 150 police officers in support of UN operations has been in a holding pattern for months.

Originally announced last summer, it was supposed to be made by the end of 2016. But it remains in limbo, with one senior government official recently suggesting it could remain there until the fall.

Eyes on Africa

Mali is most often mentioned as a possible destination and has been the focus of repeated research trips by senior federal officials, including Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

The list has also included, at various points over the last year, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.

While justifying the absence of a decision in March, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said deploying troops is a not a move to be taken lightly, but also noted Canada has had "a difficult history in Africa as peacekeepers."

He was referring to the disastrous missions to both Somalia and Rwanda in the mid-1990s.

The Canadian who led the Rwanda mission during that country's genocide said he applauds the government's determination to "wean" the public off the notion of classic peacekeeping, which is rooted in ceasefire observation missions.

But retired lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire says Canada risks being on the wrong side of history if it hesitates or fails to make a significant contribution to peace and stability during a complex and ambiguous time in the world.

"It's not going to blow over. It's going to continue to be complex," Dallaire said. "And we have a lot of capabilities that we're simply holding back."

Canadians are among the best prepared for UN missions, he added, particularly with the introduction of new guidelines to deal with the use of child soldiers.

Regardless of the location, it is likely the troops will be deployed in mostly violent, unstable nations.

In the case of Mali, local insurgents are competing, sometimes at cross purposes, with international jihadist groups.

The U.S. Intelligence Community's "Worldwide Threat Assessment," released last week, noted that al-Qaeda is attempting "to promote unity among Mali-based jihadists" in the region, "increase military action, and speed up recruitment of fighters."

While there is a need to underline the peril, it must also be put in context, said Richard Gowan, research director for New York University's Center on International Cooperation.

"Mali is certainly is one of the most dangerous missions, and scores of peacekeepers have been killed in ambushes," Gowan told CBC News. "It should be said that the majority of those who have died were relatively poorly armed, poorly protected African troops."

Dutch and German forces have operated there under the UN flag and occasionally have been targets. But Gowan notes that "their fatality rates are much, much lower."

"So if Canadian troops do go into Mali, they will face very great risk, but we are not likely to see casualty figures on the level of Afghanistan some years ago," he said.

Meanwhile, Central African Republic was rocked by a series of attacks over the past week that have forced more than 15,000 people to flee their homes.

And in the Democratic Republic of Congo, President Joseph Kabila's resolve to stay in power beyond his constitutional time limit has led to rising tension and the threat of popular violence in that country.

This article was originally published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) on May 17, 2017

Murray Brewster  is senior defence writer for CBC News | Twitter@Murray_Brewster