Canadian Mission in Mali
Oct 11, 2018

Weather in the West African nation of Mali at this time of year is an apt metaphor for the operational environment for Canadian Armed Forces personnel supporting the United Nations peacekeeping mission: generally hot and often unpredictable.

In late June, an advance party of about a dozen members of the Canadian Armed Forces, including General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff, arrived in Gao, an eastern regional capital on the Niger River. Their Lockheed Martin CC-130J Hercules was greeted by a convoy from the German contingent in the UN Multi-dimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

Vance and his team had been expected the previous day, but a massive dust storm trapped them in the capital, Bamako, nearly 1,000 kilometres away. It was graphic testament to the weather patterns in the mostly arid Sahel region, a sub-Saharan belt stretching across the continent. Ground transport in the strife-torn region wasn’t a realistic option.

They were in Gao to lay the groundwork for the arrival in August of three Boeing CH-147F Chinook transports and five Bell CH-146 Griffon armed escorts (by Boeing CC-177 Globemasters), plus 250 Canadian Air Force and Army personnel.

July 2018 – Members of Op Presence – Mali mark the achievement of reaching Initial Operational Capability at Camp Castor in Gao, Mali.

At only 17 degrees north of the equator, daytime temperatures in Gao seldom go below 30°C in the shade at any time. Generally speaking, temperatures hover in the low 40s in May-June before the rainy season begins and daytime averages “drop” the high 30s through to at least November.

“We’ve had very, very hot days here, with humidexes over 50° consistently and we’ve had a lot of sand and very quickly-moving sandstorms and dust-storms,” said Colonel Chris McKenna, the task force commander. “So we have to take great care of the equipment.” Sudden intense rains turns the red dust to mud and at least one Chinook required intensive maintenance but, as with everything else the Canadian task force Operation Reassurance has been confronted with, the setback was taken in stride in its 12-month mission scheduled to end next July. The task force declared initial operating capability Aug. 1st – shortly after all personnel (headquarters staff; an aviation detachment; maintenance, logistics and support personnel) had arrived.

Fully operational two weeks later, the task force completed another key element of its mission, logistical support, by ferrying Dutch soldiers about 100km northeast of Gao. Three days later, a second “presence projection” mission, a Chinook and two Griffons, moved a platoon of soldiers and some all-terrain vehicles.

However, as the mission matured, severe thunderstorms and more heavy rain – as much as 40-50 millimetres in a short time – washed out some roads and made driving conditions dangerous. Air transport became inherently a safer option.

Then, on Sept. 11, the crew of a Griffon-escorted Chinook retrieved a UN soldier who required medical aid. When the early-morning call for help was received, Gao was experiencing persistent heavy rain, but visibility improved enough within 20 minutes for a successful launch and recovery.

Medevac is at the core of the CAF effort, and this first successful mission illustrated Canada’s commitment to peace and stability in the Sahel region.

Members of the CH-147 Chinook medical team exit the helicopter under the watchful eye of the force protection team in support of Operation Presence – Mali.

The 13-member medevac crews are comprised of the five Chinook crewmembers, a trauma surgeon, a critical care nurse and two aeromedical technicians as well as four Royal 22nd Regiment troopers for protection on the ground. “All of those infantry folks are very well armed, but they are also well trained in the medical side of things, McKenna said. “They do a three-week tactical combat casualty care course […] to work under the supervision of a clinician in the back of the Chinook.”

The crews had honed their skills late last winter in Eastern Ontario and McKenna had this to say: “We validated it here. Those folks are on 24/7 standby and we rotate crews through – a day on standby, a day planning, and then a day flying the utility missions.”

Operation Reassurance is the first manifestation of a 2015 federal election campaign promise that a Liberal government would put Canada back into the peacekeeping game in a significant way. Nearly two months after the decision to send 200-250 to Mali was confirmed in March, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said there was “flexibility” to deploy more. “We can go up to 600 and we will make adjustments.”

Sept 2018 – Canadian Chinook and Griffon crews unload cargo in Kidal, Mali during Operation Presence-Mali.

Complex & Dangerous Zone
Canada confirmed its MINUSMA plan last March. The fact that 169 UN soldiers have died since the intervention began in April 2013 made it politically contentious, especially after UN Secretary Antonio Guterres acknowledged Mali as a war zone with “possible” casualties.
That has been seized upon by critics to suggest that the peacekeeping effort could easily become a combat mission.

The reality is, this is not a peacekeeping mission as there is no peace to keep. As the UN peacekeeping web site on MINUSMA states, "the Mission should focus on duties, such as ensuring security, stabilization and protection of civilians; supporting national political dialogue and reconciliation; and assisting the reestablishment of State authority, the rebuilding of the security sector, and the promotion and protection of human rights in that country."

In the runup to the initial CAF deployment to Mali, LGen Stephen Bowes, then-commander of the Canadian Joint Operations Command (he has since moved to Veterans Affairs Canada), told the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence in June that Mali was a “complex conflict zone.” Defence Minister Sajjan, a veteran of three Afghanistan missions and an earlier one to Bosnia where he was wounded, called Mali “complex and dangerous.”

More recently, in a report dated 25 Sept and released 2 Oct, Guterres signalled that the security situation is deteriorating. Various ethnic and extremist groups have stepped up campaigns against each other as well as against domestic and foreign military personnel, particularly in central and northern Mali, including the Gao region and Mopti to the southwest. This summer, 287 civilians were killed in one three-month period, thousands more fled the violence, and there have been widespread human rights abuses, including by the Malian military.

“Continuing security incidents […] underline the depth of the crisis in the region,” Guterres said in the report. “Intercommunal conflict, exacerbated by violent extremist groups, is fraying an already fragile social fabric and is deeply concerning. Too high a human toll has accrued as a result of the ongoing spiral of violence. […] The government’s efforts on the integrated security plan for the central regions […] must be intensified and ensure simultaneous progress, not only on security, but also on governance, development and reconciliation.”

He also said that, although the attacks have continued unabated overall, he is “encouraged” by the fact that there had been fewer fatalaties and casualties among MINUSMA personnel. “It demonstrates that our efforts, and in particular of the mission, are bearing fruit.”

As for how CAF personnel would respond to being fired upon, Bowes told the committee that “Canadian rules of engagement” would apply, echoing a statement by Sajjan that “they will have the authority to defend themselves.”

For now, Canada's air and ground personnel are trained and ready for whatever may come.

Ken Pole is a FrontLine Contributing Editor.