French soldiers leave a hangar at the Malian army air base in Bamako January 14, 2013.
Credits: REUTERS/JOE PENNEY
While sympathetic, and concerned about Mali becoming an African hotbed of al-Qaida militants, Prime Minster Stephen Harper has told African Union President Thomas Boni Yaya not to expect Canadian fighting soldiers to save that country from Islamists.
Mali is the country where Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler was held when he was kidnapped in Niger and held incommunicado for three months.
A country of some 15 million, a decade ago Mali was regarded as one of the stable countries of West Africa, where human rights were regarded as important. It is also one of the poorest countries in Africa - 50% of the population live on $1.25 per day.
Mali is bordered by countries that are not the essence of stability and responsible government: Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast - most of them once part of France's African holdings.
A military coup last January led to various outbreaks.
Taureg people seized the north and were thwarted by something called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which wanted an independent state of Azawad in the north.
Other insurgents, linked to Africa's growing al-Qaida movement - Islamists, were not content with a fraction of the country and wanted control of all of Mali, and to impose Shariah law on the region.
That's what the fight in Mali is about today - and why the African Union is anxious for Canadian and NATO involvement.
While even MacKay's musings about Mali relate to our troops training Malian troops, and not engaging in an Afghanistan-type war, reality is that if our troops are sent to Mali in any capacity, it'll be like entering quicksand and there'll soon be requests (demands?) that they fight.
Not that our troops would be averse to serving in Mali - another experience soldiers, as individuals, might relish as an exotic adventure.
Certainly Mali needs help. It has a lousy army, neither well-trained nor well-armed. It's not a real match for rebel forces aligned to al-Qaida.
Mali (where Timbuktu is located), is a former French colony. And French troops are already scattered in that area. France, through its Foreign Legion, has a century of experience of dealing with North and Central Africa.
Sure, those who run Mali, such as it is, would appreciate Canadian involvement, but with our military now enduring budget concerns and cutbacks in personnel and equipment, we are hardly ready for another overseas mission - even though Mali would start out more as peacekeeping than peacemaking.
So Harper is right to be wary of Mali - for the moment.
It's in our interests that al-Qaida and Islamist militancy be curtailed. At some point Canadian soldiers will again be wanted by the UN to undertake a mission that the UN can't handle without military involvement.
We are out of Afghanistan, but Afghanistan was invaluable in making our soldiers into a competent and versatile fighting force again - something that was largely dormant during the peacekeeping decades.
Canada's soldiers have given Canada renewed prestige, and that means more influence in the halls of international political power.
With it comes greater responsibility - and opportunity.