Roughly 250 Canadian troops will head to Mali by the end of this summer to take part in a newly-announced helicopter task force.
But how dangerous will their mission be?
On Monday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan unveiled their plan to have Canadian soldiers deploy as part of an aviation task force to join the nearly five-year-old United Nations mission in the West African country, nearly three years after pledging during the 2015 election campaign that Canada would join on to a peacekeeping mission through the international body.
Mali had long been touted among military sources as a preferred mission, given the counterinsurgency experience the Canadian Forces built up during the Afghan War and the gap in helicopter capabilities on the mission after the Netherlands announced in 2016 that it was pulling out its deployment.
Despite the potential technical fit of the Canadian military for a mission in Mali, questions abounded about the risk troops could face there.
The mission is the deadliest of any United Nations peace operation, with 162 fatalities since it began in 2014.
While the numbers are staggering, they do not necessarily tell the whole story.
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“In general, there is an environmental risk of just being there for sure. We mitigate that with strong force protection, strong skills,” said Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance in an interview with Global News.
“Think of that in the context of the casualties taken thus far on the mission. A little over 160 casualties — there’s been nine Western fatalities and only four fatalities associated with helicopter incidents. All of those had to do with mechanical failure of the aircraft and not with enemy or belligerent fire.”
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The task force will deploy roughly two Chinook transport helicopters and four armed Griffon helicopters to protect peacekeepers but Vance cautioned Monday that those numbers, like the number of troops, are not set in stone and could still change as the military conducts a thorough assessment of the situation on the ground.
What do the numbers suggest?
Because the mission is relatively new, it is difficult to look at long-term trends to track clearly whether the risks of the mission have increased or decreased over the last six years.
Of the 162 total peacekeeper deaths in Mali, 99 of those have been from what the United Nations defines as “malicious acts.”
Thirty-four have been from illness and 23 have been from accidents.
So far in 2018, four peacekeepers in Mali have died from malicious acts, two from accidents and one from illness.
In 2017, 24 died from malicious acts, 12 from illness and five from accidents.
Twenty-seven died from malicious acts in 2016, compared to four from illness and seven from accidents.
In 2015, the mission saw 12 peacekeepers killed in malicious acts, 10 from illness and five from accidents.
The highest number of malicious acts in one year came in 2014 with 28 killed, plus another six killed by illness and four by accident.
Four died from malicious acts in 2013.
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Of those, countries that experts say are comparatively less trained than Western nations have born the brunt of the casualties.
Chad has lost 47 of its peacekeepers, Guinea has lost 18, Burkina Faso has lost 17, and Togo and Niger have both lost 16.
Bangladesh has lost 13 and the other 13 countries that have lost peacekeepers on the mission are in the single digits.
Of those, the Netherlands has suffered the largest loss of peacekeepers at five. Germany and France have both lost two.
Vance says the dry, dusty conditions of the terrain in Mali are similar to what the military has faced elsewhere and that while troops will not be on the ground engaging in combat, they will be authorized to use force to protect themselves.
“We will be prepared to use armed force to protect our helicopters and protect our people,” he said.
He also noted that deploying as an aviation task force also reduces the risk that the troops could find themselves face-to-face with child soldiers.
There and back again
Dave Perry, vice president and senior analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, also noted the direct threat to task forces such as the one Canada will be deploying appears to be lower than the threat facing troops on the ground.
He said while there are variables to any risk assessment, the general threat to helicopters has so far been relatively low.
“There doesn’t seem like there’s that significant a threat to aviation,” he said. “The more interesting thing to me is more along the lines of, why are we doing this?”
Perry said while he thinks there are good reasons to go to Mali — including that several close allies are there — the government has yet to explain exactly why it wants to join this mission specifically, apart from the fact that it is one under the umbrella of the United Nations.
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Both Freeland and Sajjan stressed the need to work collaboratively with allies to strengthen and support the United Nations and noted the deployment would be held with “continued efforts to bring sustainable peace and stability to Mali and the Sahel.”
But the deployment will see Canadian troops there and back again before the next election, sandwiched between an exiting German contingent and a yet-to-be-determined nation that the government is trying to lock in to take over after the one-year Canadian deployment before troops depart.
Perry said he thinks the government needs to lay out a clearer goal for the mission rather to avoid it appearing like officials have “gone through the United Nations Match.com equivalent for making troop deployments.”
The real question they need to answer, he said, is simple.
“What will Canada try to achieve by doing this?”