Credits: REUTERS/Adama Diarra/Files
Timbuktu is a mess these days. But it's far from obvious that Canada can or should fix it up.
The name may invoke exotic unreality. But it's a real place, currently held by Islamist rebels in Mali — an enormous, landlocked stretch of African desert divided between jihadis and an unstable incompetent undemocratic regime. And while it's wretched that Islamist fanatics are killing people and trashing world heritage sites you never heard of there, let's do a little reconnaissance before shouldering our packs and trudging past Fort Zinderneuf (supposedly in Niger) to Bamako and beyond.
To begin with, Mali is the bit of West Africa looking vaguely like a raptor's open mouth west of Niger, east of Mauritania and northwest of Burkina Faso. So yes, it's a bit hard to get there.
It's even harder to get around once you arrive. On a standard Mercator flat map of Earth, which shrinks things near the equator, Mali looks roughly the size of Germany. It's actually bigger than Germany, France and Italy combined.
At 1.24 million square kilometres it's the 24th biggest country on Earth, almost three times Iraq's size and larger than Ontario. It's mostly inhospitable desert sand and broken mountains, with one railway less than 750 km long, and fewer than 5,000 km of paved roads. Just 1.6% of its surface is water yet the tropical south including part of the Niger river floods in the rainy season. It has 15 million people and no GDP. (OK, guesses range from $10 to $18 billion, about 1/100th of our own).
Shall we send a few hundred Canadian troops to patrol it?
Ah, but that's not the point. The latest UN/EU plan has Western nations simply training the locals to be like us. Trouble is, they may not want that.
Mali is one of the last places on Earth with large-scale slavery, apparently with considerable popular support. As many as 200,000 people are still slaves, ex-slaves suffer terrible discrimination and, as in the 2012 Tuareg Rebellion, their former owners may grab them back given half a chance.
This truth is only whispered with respect to Afghanistan because conservatives don't want to tarnish our troops' performance and progressives don't want to admit culture matters. But "training" Afghan security forces, as though their main problems were technical ones like literacy or radio repair, has not worked because too many Afghans are Islamists.
Go ahead. Say it out loud. Too many Afghans are Islamists.
So are too many people in Mali. And too many others hold scarcely less appalling beliefs and habits incompatible with prosperity and human dignity.
If that's too harsh a truth, at least beware the logistics. Mali is half the size of Western Europe, landlocked, arid and impassible. What exactly is it we hope to do there besides feel good ... briefly?
Don't ask the Stephen Harper administration, characteristically firm but flexible on the subject.
Spokesmen for foreign Minister John Baird and the PMO insist: "Canada is not contemplating a military mission in Mali." But the PMO spokesman says Canada "stands ready" to assist and is "looking at ways to implement" the UN Security Council resolution seeking "support to regional and international efforts" including 3,300 African troops seizing back 600,000 square kilometres of Saharan wasteland from the Islamists.
Baird, too, told QMI Agency: "Canada will be reflecting on what role we can play," which could mean anything, nothing or both. But if you commit to helping fix such a mess, even in small ways, it's hard to back out as things deteriorate. And on Dec. 30, Defence Minister Peter MacKay speculated that helping train Mali's army officers was something Canadian Forces are "particularly adept at doing."
Bosh. Nobody is particularly adept at training Mali's squalid army with, the Globe and Mail delicately notes, its "history of political aggressiveness, human-rights abuses, chaotic command structures and resistance to Western training ... compounded by its uneasy alliance with revenge-minded militia groups." Awkwardly, a graduate of America's military training program in Mali staged a coup last March and remains powerful.
The EU intends to send 250 military trainers to seek similar triumphs. Before we join them on this sandy slope, let's take a hard look at the bottom.