Choosing our role

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It is the way many military campaigns begin, with a claim that all we plan to offer is the basics of “logistical support.”

The problem is that it’s often followed by an ever-growing commitment, despite everyone’s first and best intentions.

On Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had this to say about military operations in Mali: “Last week I pledged that Canada would work diplomatically with our allies on how best to address the situation in Mali. While the government of Canada is not, and will not be, considering a direct Canadian military mission in Mali, Canada is prepared, consistent with the UN Security Council resolution, to provide limited and clearly defined logistical support to assist the forces that are intervening in Mali.

“Today our government received a specific request from the French government for heavy-lift aircraft to assist in the transport of equipment into the Malian capital of Bamako, a location that is not part of any active combat zone. The government of Canada will support our allies in this request and will be providing one RCAF C-17 transport aircraft in a non-combat role to support operations for a period of one week. The RCAF aircraft will not operate in any combat zone. At no time will Canadian Armed Forces members be participating in direct action against insurgent forces in Mali.”

It seems like a pretty clear statement: one airplane for one week in a support role, and that’s it. That’s all. The end.

But time will tell.

This is not to suggest that the French government doesn’t need assistance or that the government of Mali is not in desperate need of support. It’s not to suggest that we shouldn’t be involved in Mali — except for the fact that our small but politically significant involvement is being decided upon by the small circle of the federal cabinet.

No, it’s more about the fact that starting any sort of military operation is sort of like starting to unravel a sweater: you may only intend to cut off one short loose piece of wool, but making that first cut often has far greater results than you intended.

The Canadian military has had recent campaigns in Libya — an aerial campaign that has led to limited success — and a bruising, long-term commitment in Afghanistan that stretched Canadian Forces nearly to their limit and left many military families either grieving or dealing with significant and long-term injuries. There are still a fair number of Canadian trainers and others in Afghanistan, another illustration of how hard it is to disengage from a campaign.

We’ve become a significant “me too” partner in Western military campaigns, while at the same time letting our role as peacekeepers shrink drastically.

Every commitment of Canadian military support should be carefully weighed through Parliament — even when the starting point is “one plane, one week.”

Organizations: Canadian Armed Forces, UN Security Council

Geographic location: Mali, Canada, Bamako Afghanistan Libya Western

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