2018/06/24 Selling the public on the Mali mission will get underway pretty soon. The African mission is the Liberal government’s high-profile initiative to show Canada supports the United Nations. The government is concentrating on generating as much positive publicity as it can for Canada’s contribution, which also coincides with a Liberal election promise to do with the UN.
As part of that public relations effort, Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance is said to be soon heading to Mali, according to reports. Journalists from the CBC and the Canadian Press will be coming along. No dates are being provided at this time and the Department of National Defence doesn’t want to talk about Vance’s involvement in the public relations trip at this point.
“We cannot speak to movements of CAF senior leadership, however CBC and the Canadian Press will be visiting Mali in the near future,” Department of National Defence spokesman Dan Le Bouthillier told Defence Watch Thursday.
Canada announced in March that it would send support personnel, two RCAF Chinook helicopters, as well as four armed Griffon helicopters to act as escorts for those larger aircraft, to Mali, a west African country that since 2013 has been dealing with insurgents and armed Islamic extremists. The mission is expected to start in late July/early August.
The mission, however, has been dogged by more than a few concerns.
Conservative MPs have voiced criticism about the lack of planning and what they claim is a lack of mission focus.
To be sure, there was confusion initially. In mid-March, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced that Canada would send two Chinook helicopters and four armed Griffon helicopters. A few minutes later at the same news conference Vance said the number of helicopters being assigned to the Mali mission had still not been determined. A short time after that, Sajjan’s office sent out a message to journalists, contradicting Vance by stating that ‘up to’ two Chinooks and four Griffons would be sent. Then another message went out to journalists later that there would be extra helicopters sent as backup.
The helicopter issue was eventually sorted out. But attention turned to the potential danger and whether the Mali mission could be considered as combat. MPs on the House of Commons defence committee raised those concerns and questioned generals about details of the Mali operation and whether Canadian military personnel would be safe.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan wanted information about the risks and whether troops would have enough protection from insurgent attacks. Questions were also asked about whether insurgents had surface-to-air missiles that could be of a threat to RCAF helicopters. “Our guys could potentially be going into hot conflict,” Bezan said at the committee.
Another MP asked if Mali was a war zone. Lt. Gen. Stephen Bowes, who was appearing before a Commons committee, answered that, “war zone is not a term. It’s a complex conflict zone.”
Such questions from MPs sparked Col. Jay Janzen, the Canadian Forces Director of Strategic Communications, to tweet to defence journalists that “Canada can do better than the nonsensical ‘combat/not-combat’ debate.”
That, in turn, prompted a showdown between Bezan and Conservative MPs and Janzen (who is slated to be promoted to Brig.-Gen. and put in charge of Canadian Forces public affairs).
Bezan lectured Janzen that he, as a MP, could ask whatever question he pleased and that questions about the safety of troops were certainly valid. He accused Janzen of trying to stifle debate. Bezan also noted that the head of the United Nations mission to Mali has characterized the operation as “war.”
“We have the right to know how Justin Trudeau is using our Canadian Forces to get (a) UN Security Seat,” Bezan tweeted.
Janzen said that while the military is subordinate to civilian authority, he had the right to make such comments.
Vance has done such mission public relations tours before. In 2016, he brought journalists along for his tour of the Canadian special forces mission in Iraq. The special forces were there to help the Kurds battle Islamic extremists who had seized large parts of Iraq.
The event was closely coordinated with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office, as is this Mali trip. Vance also used that trip to play down any concerns about cracks in the Iraq-Kurd alliance. He told CTV at the time he didn’t agree there was a rift in the relationship between the two groups. A year later Kurdish and Iraqi forces were fighting each other.
What comes from the Mali visit remains to be seen but the Trudeau government wants public relations emphasis on support to the United Nations and the use of women on such missions.
Here is a snippet of the messaging that is to be provided to the news media: “The Canadian Armed Forces are working as part of an integrated, whole-of-government approach to deliver on Canada’s commitment to increase its support for UN peace support operations. Canada is a strong supporter of UN peacekeeping, and the CAF is prepared to make valuable contributions to this UN stabilization mission. To be safe at home, we need to contribute to international security abroad.”
Sahel-Elite/Image: Alexander Koerner / Getty Images