Source: Agence France Presse/The Ottawa Citizen
Photo courtesy the Department of National Defence Canada
A Canadian special forces training mission set for Mali has been scuttled as that country finds itself now at war with rebels who are pushing for an autonomous state.
A small team of soldiers from Canadian Forces Base Petawawa was to be in Mali in late February and throughout March as part of a U.S.-organized counter-terrorism training exercise called Flintlock.
But the U.S. has postponed that exercise because Mali is in the midst of an uprising by Tuaregs who are fighting for a separate homeland in the north. The United Nations says more than 126,000 people have fled the fighting, which has killed at least 80.
“As Exercise Flintlock 12 has been postponed, CANSOFCOM will not be sending a contingent to help provide training in reconnaissance, land navigation, marksmanship, and other basic counter-terrorism skills,” the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command or CANSOFCOM, confirmed in an email.
Dutch marines, already in Africa for Flintlock, have also returned home.
The Canadian Special Operations Regiment from Petawawa has sent several small groups of instructors to Mali since last summer to train that country’s counter-terrorism troops. A group of soldiers from the regiment just recently returned.
The special forces trainers do not accompany Malian troops to the front-lines as the instruction is done on bases.
There was a debate in U.S. military circles on whether to proceed with the Flintlock exercise, as a show of force that western nations are committed to supporting governments in the region. But it was decided that since Malian troops were so heavily involved in combat, its military couldn’t spare the soldiers to be trained by Canadian and other special forces.
The Flintlock exercise was also to have trained other military units from African nations who were to come to Mali.
The fighting follows the overthrow of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi last year by opposition forces, which credit NATO and Canada’s involvement for their victory.
Many of the Tuaregs now fighting Malian troops had been employed in Gadhafi’s military or were working in the country. With the demise of their benefactor they returned to their homes in Mali, armed with military equipment stolen from Libyan stockpiles.
Last month they launched a series of attacks on several northern towns in Mali as part of their campaign for autonomy.
Tuareg are a nomadic community of about 1.5 million people, with various groups scattered between Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Niger and Mali.
Mali and Niger have faced a number of Tuareg uprisings over the decades as the group has fought for recognition of their identity and an independent state. The latest offensive is their most significant effort in years.
Mali is also dealing with the threat from al-Qaeda in the region.
“This is exactly the place we should be in terms of trying to develop a counter-terrorism capacity in the Sahel and in North Africa,” Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson, head of the Ottawa-based CANSOFCOM told the Citizen in December. “This is a natural fit for us.”
In addition, the Canadian Special Operations Regiment trained Malian special forces last year at the Flintlock exercise, which was held at the time in Senegal.
But it is unclear when the next Canadian training mission to Mali will occur since there is no end in sight to the ongoing fighting. Such training occurs in response to requests from the Malian government, and is approved by the Canadian government, noted the email from CANSOFCOM.
“Each request is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Once approved, training visits are scheduled at a time that is convenient for both Canada and Mali,” the email added.
On Tuesday the Red Cross issued an appeal for emergency funds to “help forestall a major humanitarian crisis” in the west African nations of Niger and Mali.
The appeal for $13.7 million is aimed at helping about 700,000 people threatened by drought as well as fighting in northern Mali, the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement.
“The fighting has resulted in casualties. In addition, people have been taken captive and families have been dispersed,” said Boris Michel, the ICRC’s North and West Africa head of operations.
Gadhafi’s removal from power has thrown the region into turmoil, according to a January report done for the United Nations Security Council.
Gadhafi had offered employment for large numbers of Africans and those people are now returning home. As a result, lawlessness and clashes between various groups have surged and the home nations have been unable to feed many of the returnees.
“As a result of the crisis, millions of economic migrants, especially from Chad, Mali, Mauritania and the Niger and other African countries, were forced to flee Libya and return to the communities they had left in search of better living conditions,” the UN report noted. “Over night, the governments of the region had to contend with the impact of the crisis on an already challenging, humanitarian, development and security situation.”
In addition, large quantities of arms and ammunition stolen from Libyan stockpiles have found their way into the hands of various rebel and criminal groups, including al-Qaeda.
The Canadian government and military have portrayed the campaign to overthrow Gadhafi as a major victory, not only for the Libyan people but also for the Canadian Forces.
By David Pugliese