Mali's president has declared a state of emergency, the crisis in the country's north having reached its boiling point after months of mounting tensions.
France has finally broken the international arena's paralysis, moving ahead with military intervention last week. Prior to Francois Hollande's decision to move in on the Islamist rebels, the international community was hesitant to intervene. The US cited their ongoing extrication from Afghanistan as reason not to involve themselves directly, though they promised resources and intelligence-gathering support to the Malian government. The UN was reluctant to approve resolutions of heavy-handed militant intervention, instead asking for a progressive, two-tiered diplomatic/military solution. The UN pushed for a slow and methodical form of Western interference, arguing that the troops the African Union wished to deploy immediately were not adequately trained for combat, nor did they have a solid strategic attack plan. The UN did not approve immediate military intervention, devising a training plan that would have troops ready to move in as late as December 2013.
Mali's government said that was too late. Foreign assistance was needed now.
For Canada's part, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on January 8th - before France moved in - that Canada is not considering a direct military mission in Mali. He said while his government is concerned about the situation in Mali ("The development of essentially an entire terrorist region in the middle of Africa is obviously of great concern to everyone in the international community") they will not be sending any boots on the ground, choosing instead to work diplomatically with African and Western allies alike.
Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has released statements urging Mali to hold free and fair elections as soon as possible, and to return to democratic and constitutional rule. While this may seem an absurdly obvious and easier-said-than-done request, a similar claim was made by the UN prior to recent developments. Given the shaky government and March 2012's military coup that forced Malian officials into exile, the UN was wary of sending money, resources, and other forms of aid to an unstable government, unsure of who the resources would actually go to. The post-coup government in Mali's southern capital, Bamako, has not yet proved itself credible.
Harper's statement followed a meeting between the Prime Minister and African Union leader Thomas Boni Yayi. Yayi urged NATO members to send forces to Mali to help its government recapture the north. Yayi said that NATO should intervene in Mali just as it had done in Afghanistan, urging the West to consider the Islamist rebels and their link to terrorist regime Al-Qaeda a grave risk to the entire international community.
France's move to protect its former colony has put pressure on its allies, who know that France cannot be left alone to fight the jihadist rebels. While Harper maintains that no Canadian troops will be sent to Mali, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said he is sending one heavy-life C-17 Globemaster transport plane to France as a contribution to the situation in Mali. The plane is to fly to France today, though its initial departure time of 8 a.m. was stalled due to mechanical problems. The Harper government has reiterated that the plane will stay for only one week and that Canada will not make any military commitment beyond it.
Is Harper's non-intervention policy a good thing? Outspoken former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler has blasted Harper and if anyone is licensed to such judgment it's him. Fowler was kidnapped by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in December 2008 while working as Special Envoy to the UN's Secretary General in Niger. Fowler was released in April 2009. Fowler says his captors told him their objective was to "spread the chaos, anarchy, and turmoil" from Somalia's coast on the Indian Ocean to Africa's Atlantic coast. This will create an international emergency, as it gives Islamic extremists an 8,000 kilometer band of territory across the fattest part of Africa.
"If it does happen, we will have a humanitarian emergency the like of which will make Darfur look like a very small thing and then we will have to intervene. It's easier to intervene sooner, rather than later and more expensively."
In an article for the Chronicle Herald, Scott Taylor condemns the Harper government's commitment to non-intervention in Mali. He argues that Canada is obligated to intervene in Mali given its involvement in Libya. The Tuareg people who initially seized control of northern Mali, demanding the creation of a separate state named Azawad, were supported by Libyan president Gadhafi and in turn fought for him during the armed uprising. Gadhafi hired scores of Tuareg rebels out of northern Mali as fighters in his army. Weapons, munitions and machinery that went to Libyan rebels have flooded through Africa since Gadhafi's fall, much of which are now being used by the Tuaregs and Islamist extremists who hold northern Mali captive. Taylor argues that Canada - a leader in supporting the anti-Gadhafi rebels - are culpable for failing to secure weapon stocks in Libya. This error has contributed to the strength of AQIM's arsenal of weapons and the failure of the Malian government to suppress them independent of foreign assistance. The Law of Unintended Consequences has dictated that Gadhafi's fall - facilitated by Western powers including Canada - is at least partly responsible for the current crisis in Mali.
Further, the ransom money paid to ensure Robert Fowler's safe return financed AQIM's activities, an amount said to have exceeded $1 million. Even worse, the Mali government admits to releasing four top-level AQIM operatives from their jail to fulfill AQIM's ransom demands in exchange for Fowler's release. Canada's actions regarding Mr. Fowler were sharply criticized and seen as violating the international policy of non-negotiation with terrorists.
The British government was particularly critical of Canada's hostage negotiation. A British diplomat, Edwin Dyer, was taken hostage at the same time as Mr. Fowler. AQIM demanded that the British government release Abu Qatada from jail in return for Mr. Dyer: the British refused to negotiate, a move they considered "betraying international convention", and Mr. Dyer was killed as a result. The British government subsequently accused Canada of having bolstered AQIM by negotiating with them: if Canada had remained firm, the British believed both hostages would have eventually been released alive.
The vocal Mr. Fowler maintains that international failure to intervene in Mali will create "an economic and humanitarian disaster of barely imaginable dimensions."
Comment-boards on The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star articles are awash with Canadian citizens claiming that "this is not our fight" and that "Malians can deal with it on their own". Simple logistics will tell you that the Malian people cannot, actually, deal with it on their own. They are ill-equipped and lack the resources to do so, economic and otherwise. This is precisely why Malian and African governments are asking for Western support. This heartbreaking article called "Save Mali Before It's Too Late" was written by the female mayor of a small town in northern Mali who was forced to flee her home earlier this year to avoid being brutalized, raped, and killed. Are we to believe that she is complicit in a US scheme for oil? Comment-board critics liken the situation to incomparable wars like Iraq and Vietnam, convinced that Western involvement in Mali is some sort of meddlesome conspiracy. While the jaded cynicism is warranted, it is important for Canadian naysayers to realize that this situation is an inverted version of oil-wars and exposes the hypocrisy of Western foreign-policy: we rush to the rescue of oil-rich nations who don't want it, yet choose to save our money and keep our hands clean when citizens and officials are calling far and wide for help in avoiding a looming humanitarian emergency.
Western governments cannot pick and choose their foreign intervention missions. Look at Syria. The sad truth is that we intervene not as humanitarian do-gooders but as Wall St. businessmen with economic investments to protect or resources to gain. Mali has evidently been combed over by high-level Canadian analysts and been deemed as having no economic or strategic benefit - it is neither oil-rich nor a tactical necessity.
What it is is a country being overrun by extremist militants who we, however indirectly, have helped gain a foothold in Africa. It is a country whose citizens - unlike the citizens of many other nations we have so kindly intervened in - would actually like us to do something.
Yet Harper has the gall to say we have not been asked.
- Genevieve Zingg, January 15 2013