UN Peacekeeping in Mali: A Pre-history


  • 2013•07•29

    Peter Nadin

    UN Peacekeeping in Mali: A Pre-history

    UN Photo/Blagoje Grujic

    On Sunday, 28 July 2013, under the watchful eye of UN peacekeepers, the West African nation of Mali held a peaceful presidential election. The vote followed some 16 months of political and social chaos that included a rebellion in the north, a military coup and an Islamist uprising that provoked a French military response.

    This article surveys recent events in Mali as a background for examining the pre-history and overall prospects of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, which began its peacekeeping mission on 1 July 2013.

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    In April 2013, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2100 authorizing the establishment of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (known by its French acronym — MINUSMA).

    With a troop strength ceiling of 12,600, MINUSMA will be UN peacekeeping’s third-largest force, behind UNAMID in Darfur, Sudan (20,071), and MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (18,884). On 1 July, MINUSMA officially began its mission, making this an opportune moment to examine the mission’s pre-history and overall prospects.

    Mali as an intersection

    The Mali situation lies in a busy intersection between:

    • the United Nations (MINUSMA)
    • the French (Opération Serval)
    • the European Union (EU)
    • Islamist insurgents
    • the Tuareg
    • the Malian state
    • the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS).

    Mali is a land-locked country in West Africa, hemmed in by seven countries (Niger, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire). It is a land of contrasts: the mountainous Kidal region resembles the “planet Mars”; the iconic sands of the Sahara grip the northern portion of the country; while the southern regions (including the capital, Bamako) are situated in the fertile delta of the Niger and Senegal rivers.

    Colonized by the French in the late 19th century, Mali gained independence in 1960. Since then, the country has been ruled by four leaders: Modibo Keïta and Moussa Traoré (both under one-party rule), and Alpha Oumar Konaré and Amadou Toumani Touré (under a pluralist system). Over the past two decades, Mali has been recognized as one of the most stable countries in the region.

    However, this so-called stability finds its contradiction in the north of the country.

    Over many years, the Tuareg, a nomadic people of northern Mali (and Niger), have found themselves at the fringe of Malian political and economic life. During the Libyan Civil War, many Tuareg fighters fought on behalf of Muammar Gaddafi, against the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC). Following the fall of Gaddafi, many of these fighters returned to Mali to provide the backbone of the re-energized Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA). That group, in alliance with a range of Islamist armed groups, launched a campaign against the Malian military, capturing the towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in the process.

    The pressure applied to the Malian military reached a boiling point — resulting in a coup in March 2012. As for the insurgents, their groups have splintered (as outlined in below:).

    The Armed Group Puzzle
    National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) — The main nationalist Tuareg armed group. Declared an Independent Azawad Region based in north Mali on 5 April 2012. The group’s strength quickly diminished after a host of Islamists groups moved against it. Tuareg residents of the North subscribe to the Sufi branch of Islam. Ansar Dine — Islamist leaning and comprising Tuareg fighters, this group joined the MNLA in the initial rebellion. However, it quickly switched its allegiance and joined with MUJAO against its former ally, the MNLA.
    Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — Al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate, originally based in Algeria, undertakes kidnapping, ransom and trafficking activities across the region. The group subscribes to Wahhabi (Salafi) Islam. Islamic Movement for Azawad — Splintered from Ansar Dine and positioned itself as a more moderate element. The group is purportedly open to dialogue.
    Signed-in-Blood Battalion — A splinter group of AQIM; responsible for the In Amenas hostage crisis (at the Algerian Gas Plant). Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) — An AQIM splinter group; performed a “tag team” with Ansar Dine to evict MNLA across the Independent Azawad Region.

    After a renewed offensive launched by Islamist elements in early 2013, the French intervened. French forces pursued the military intervention route (Opération Serval, authorized by UN Resolution 2085) and — using a combination of air power, special forces and a lightly armoured spearhead force — successfully evicted the insurgents from the major northern cities. After this initial phase, the French withdrew the majority of its forces (around 4,000); just 1,000 French troops remain, providing a robust parallel force alongside MINUSMA. This, however, might prove problematic.

    Originally, Opération Serval was to fade into the background, allowing for a 7,000 strong ECOWAS force to step forward. However, that ECOWAS force, known as the African-led Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), was quickly usurped by the creation of the UN mission, MINUSMA.

    Although initially the insurgents did not operate in complex physical terrain (mostly desert/arid areas), it appears likely that many fighters will flee into the mountains close to the Algerian border. It is from here that they may seek to engage in an asymmetrical campaign against MINUSMA and French forces.

    Two central challenges

    There are two central challenges for the Malian state: (i) the creation of polity, which is inclusive of the long marginalized Tuareg and (ii) the military.

    First, the issue of Tuareg reconciliation is necessary for the future of the Malian state. A ceasefire was signed between the government and the MNLA on 18 June, paving the way for presidential elections on 28 July 2013. A few additional mechanisms seek to foster further reconciliation efforts — namely the Transitional Roadmap and Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission. It is hoped that the ceasefire coupled with theses mechanisms will mark the start of more amicable set of relations between the parties.

    Second, as it currently stands, the Malian army is neither capable nor equipped to project state authority into the northern recesses of the country. The state will need to satisfy the resource needs of the army before it can hope to secure the north on its own. The European Union (EU) has provided a EU Training Team (EUTM) of 200 trainers to undertake a range of activities aimed at improving the Malian military. The end goal of this project is the creation of four new battalions — or approximately 3,000 troops.

    Mission prospects?

    MINUSMA faces an up-hill battle. Richard Gowan of the Center for International Cooperation at New York University stated in a recent op-ed piece that MINUSMA is “a potentially flawed peace operation”. He is right to be pessimistic about the operation; the machinery of the operation is delicate and is deployed to a hostile region where no real peace agreement exists as a template to manage the various actors.

    There are a number of key factors that will play in to the mission’s prospects.

    When it comes to the division of labour, MINUSMA and Opération Serval will operate in parallel. These types of parallel missions have proven problematic in the past. The division of labour must be clear, and communication between the missions must be continuous. While on paper the division of labour is clear — Opération Serval will undertake peace-enforcement activities, while MINUSMA will stablize “key population centres, especially in the north of Mali and, in this context, … deter threats and take active steps to prevent the return of armed elements to those areas” — in practice such lines quickly fade and problems arise.

    The Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG), Albert Gerard Koenders was also appointed SRSG for Côte d’Ivoire not long after crisis of 2011 (Choi Young-jin was SRSG at the time). This crisis was resolved when French and UN forces acted to forcibly remove President Laurent Gbagbo, after Gbagbo refused to recognize the results of the presidential election. Koenders’ experience with the French in Côte d’Ivoire (known as Operation Licorne) is likely to prove invaluable in Mali, and this is arguably the primary reason for his appointment.

    Force enablers like helicopters (both attack and utility) will be vital to the mobility of the mission. MINUSMA will be asked to traverse a huge expanse of desert, which stretches across the northern width of the country. If they are unable to move, they will be ineffective.

    As for force generation, at this stage the force (see Adam Smith’s article for a more detailed analysis) is likely to be made up of mostly ECOWAS and Chadian troops. These troops will be “re-hatted” (meaning they will exchange their green AFISMA berets for a blue MINUSMA ones). China and Sweden have also signaled their intention to provide personnel and materiel (600 and 170 troops, respectively).

    Finally, a regional approach is advisable, as many contemporary conflicts are interlinked. That is, they do not constitute separate conflicts — limited by borders — but rather constitute regional conflict complexes.

    The Security Council, without denying completely the regional dimensions of various conflicts, has frequently compartmentalized its responses. Mali is no different. What happens to the militias when they are chased out of Mali into neighbouring countries? They do not cease to exist once they cross the border. The problem is simply transported to another place, to be dealt with at another time.

    A recipe for success?

    There is a fair degree of pessimism surrounding MINUSMA as it begins its mission. Conditions are tough and the journey that lies ahead is an arduous one. The mission does indeed have a veritable “wish list” of mandated tasks.

    Yet, on the other hand, MINUSMA faces a more amenable set of conditions than those that continue to confound the UN missions in the DRC and Darfur. The recipe for success may well exist. It is up to the Malian government, the Tuareg, civil society and the local population to find it, with the support of the African Union, ECOWAS, EU and UN.