by Paul Wells

Harjit Sajjan’s office offered me an interview with the defence minister. This was more than a week ago now, after Sajjan landed in Vancouver from a weeklong visit to Africa. And if you want the truth of it I sat on the interview for days because I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it.

After our conversation, Sajjan and two other ministers announced Canada will contribute 600 soldiers and $450 million over three years, to United Nations peacekeeping. The sound of self-congratulation from some corners has been so hearty that a lot of what Sajjan told me stands as a useful corrective.

Please stow, if you will, your noble image, from some half-forgotten high school social studies class, of blue-helmeted soldiers, sternly guarding a neat line between two carefully separated armies somewhere.

Those days are gone and they are not coming back.

“This is not the peacekeeping of the past,” Sajjan told me. “There’s no peace to keep. We’ve also made it clear that peace operations are going to be risky.”

Traditional peacekeeping was a relic of 19th- and early 20th-century industrial war, when massed armies would hurl themselves at one another in ways that actually made them relatively easy to separate, delineate and track. Latter-day asymmetric combat, led in many cases by ragtag groups of militants armed with a few trucks and sidearms, follows no neat lines. Civilian and paramilitary groups intermingle, as do friendly and unfriendly armies. Allegiances shift. It’s hard to even know where to send the blue helmets.

This is one reason a lot of countries have gotten out of the peacekeeping business. It’s fun to blame Stephen Harper for the fact that only 103 Canadians served in UN peace operations in July. But to make that theory stick you’d need to explain how it’s Harper’s fault that the United States contributed only 68 soldiers and police to the UN in the same month; Australia 39; Belgium 13; Denmark 75; and even the United Kingdom, which will host next month’s peacekeeping summit, a relatively meagre 336.

Sajjan and his colleagues need to make up a new way for Canadians to be helpful in Africa. That’s the work he was pursuing when he visited five African countries. “This trip was about getting the direct facts, talking to the political leadership,” he said. “Talking to the various programs within the UN … We even talked to some business folks in the area. Because you need to get a really good, deep understanding of what’s really going on.”

Great. Going on where? Africa is three times the size of Canada, with more than 30 times its population.

“I’ve been quite honest about my approach on this,” Sajjan said. “Just because I visit an area doesn’t mean we’re going to be contributing troops (there). And just because I didn’t visit an area doesn’t mean we’re not going to be contributing troops.”

So: Canada is sending up to 600 soldiers, plus some number of civilians, to provide expertise and services. Sajjan just doesn’t know where yet.

When will he know? “I haven’t set a date for when we’re actually going to make a decision.”

This, arguably, makes more sense than it seems to. In 2001, it was really clear where Canadian troops were going: Afghanistan. They then spent a decade learning the regional politics, extending at least from India to Iran, and the infernally complex tribal sociology that affected soldiers’ work every day. Sajjan wants to front-load the homework, and pick a mission later.

Any eventual mission will have almost nothing to do with walking a ceasefire line. Capacity-building for local troops – including, perhaps, training their officer corps in Canada – will matter more. Sajjan’s list of possible tasks for Canadians in Africa kept growing.

“Everything from violence against women, preventing child soldiers from being recruited, (to) actually taking child soldiers off the battlefield.” Canadian soldiers and civilians were doing similar work in Afghanistan by the end. Results were mixed.

Sajjan’s agenda may offer a hint as to Canadians’ eventual destination. Four of the countries he visited are big donors to UN peace operations. Uganda has about as many soldiers in the field as Canada is offering, Ethiopia 14 times as many. But the Democratic Republic of Congo has fielded only 20.

But a UN force of 20,000 has been stationed in the DRC since 2010. It’s a tricky business. All told, 102 soldiers have been killed in that operation. Let’s hold off on the self-congratulation until we know what our soldiers are getting into.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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