The United Nations Security Council has authorized a new, ambitious stabilization mission to be deployed in Mali, consisting of nearly 13,000 military and police personnel who will begin operating on July 1 with a mandate of one year to provide security to “key population centers.” The mission, called Minusma (for Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali), will encompass a political dimension to help set up presidential and legislative elections in July and rebuild a collapsed government.
The UN’s goal, supported by the Malian government, to restore Mali to a fully democratic state, free of insecurity from extremist Islamic factions, will also mean contending with regional problems like droughts, smuggling, refugees, kidnappings, land mines and famines as well as Tuareg rebels demanding an independent state within Mali.
The UN and others will be watching closely as Minusma strives to achieve what could be perceived as the impossible. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has emphasized that Mali must do its share by engaging in national dialogue and reconciliation; and deep in the new resolution is a call for participation by civil society — including women’s groups — in the reconciliation process as well as “requests” that gender considerations be incorporated at all levels and early on in the stabilization effort. This resolution also requires, for the first time by the UN, that the new force manage its environmental footprint.
Whether Mali can do its part in shoring up its own country is a big question.
“This is really at the first level an issue of governance at the heart of the Malian state,” Comfort Ero, director of the International Crisis Group’s Africa program, said at a recent press briefing at the UN. She added that the terrorist groups operating in northern Mali acted like a “trigger,” set off by the governance problems ensuing from the capital, in Bamako.
The resolution approving the mission was passed on April 25 after much hand-wringing over how it would be organized and what it would try to accomplish. The French, who since early January have been fighting the Islamic terrorists scattered throughout northern Mali, first floated the possibility of a UN peacekeeping mission to the Security Council in March. (France is a permanent member of the council.) Given the huge setbacks plaguing Mali since a March 2012 coup, the council was keenly aware of such a mission’s inevitable comparisons to the flaws of another large UN stabilization force — the one in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
One academic expert on Mali noted that though previous UN missions have pursued complex objectives before, this new mission is “the first time that the blue helmets have confronted terrorist elements more or less directly linked to groups like Al-Qaeda,” Isaline Bergamaschi recently wrote for a blog called African Arguments, which is run by the Royal African Society and the World Peace Foundation.
Bergamaschi, a professor at the University of the Andes in Bogota, added that “should the recent and ground-breaking establishment of an intervention brigade to prevent the expansion of armed groups in the DRC [Congo] create a precedent for Mali, the UN mission could have a double identity, both humanitarian and offensive, and could create confusion amongst populations – opening the way for attacks against blue helmets by insurgents.”
The new UN mission is a “test case for the future of international peacekeeping because the council is being been asked to marry several objectives together,” Ero said as she introduced a new report on Mali by the International Crisis Group, which monitors conflicts worldwide. She compared the Security Council’s aim of rebuilding the country and the campaign against well-armed jihadists to the situation in Afghanistan, calling it “a very difficult process.”
The work to contain the crisis actually started this winter. The stabilization unit, for one, will swallow a UN-authorized African Union entourage of about 6,300 soldiers that has been training in Mali under European supervision led by France. These soldiers will provide the core of Minusma and be “rehatted” with the symbolic “blue helmets” of UN peacekeepers. The soldiers are all African: Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo. Chad is most likely to be donating troops, too. Chadian soldiers, adept in desert terrain, have been fighting alongside the French military (and Malian soldiers) to oust the jihadists on the ground and by aerial assaults. As is the case in UN stabilization forces, Mali’s army will not be blended into Minusma.
The new stabilization force “is not going to conduct any antiterrorism activity,” Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the UN, told the media, while the French military, in a scaled-down version, would most likely continue to combat the jihadists. Araud said that the stabilization force would help build up the Malian army, and that “as soon as the Malian Army is able to ensure the sovereignty of the Malian state, there won’t be any need of a peacekeeping operation anymore.”
Araud also said that “if there is an attack by armed groups, the Mission has a robust mandate and will defend itself” as in “normal peacekeeping operations doctrine, which means use of force in self-defense.” Yet Bergamaschi, the academic, bemoaned the ability of the African troops to take on terrorists. The Mali Army, she said in an e-mail interview, could take years to become operational and Burkina soldiers have never fought before.
The Crisis Group report sources Mali’s decline to weak governance, corruption and nepotism, ingredients that helped incite the coup in 2012 and create a domino effect that left the new interim leader, Dioncounda Traoré, installed after the junta, to beg the French to intercede militarily after the jihadists captured the north. The French responded with full UN backing. The terrorists were not, however, the first to pose a threat to the Malian government.
Tuareg rebels, having fled their haven in Libya after that country convulsed in 2011, returned to their homeland in northern Mali with assault weapons and reasserted their claim to create an independent state named Azawad. Mali Army soldiers stationed in the region were unequipped to handle the force of the Tuareg rebels, and the soldiers’ vulnerability prompted a small group to instigate a revolt that ended up becoming a coup, dictated by a captain named Amadou Sanogo.
The domino effect continued, with the Tuaregs fast supplanted by the more aggressive Islamic jihadists, some linked to Al Qaeda. They instituted an extreme form of Muslim law, Sharia, throughout the main centers of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao.
The French military began its assaults in Mali on Jan. 11, 2013, a day after jihadists – most likely the Ansar Dine — toppled a small town called Konna, about 435 miles north of Bamako. French troops, which peaked at 4,000 officers, are now based in Gao and Kidal, soldiering with the ragtag Mali Army and tough Chadian contingents to eliminate remaining radicals, particularly Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb jihadists hunkered in mountain redoubts. They also fight off sporadic attacks in Gao, where members of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad (Mujao) either blend in with the local population or sneak across the Niger River from isolated villages to perform deadly ambushes.
Most recently, France said it would leave about 1,000 combat troops in Mali by December. Chad said that it was quitting Mali altogether, most probably a bluff to ensure that it gets a piece of the UN mission pie. The United States has been providing technical support to the operation, including surveillance drone missions.
Complicating matters, the Tuareg rebels, known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), control Kidal, and some of its members are former Islamic jihadists. It appears that France and the NMLA have agreed not to fight each other in Kidal, but that does not resolve how Minusma will deal with the Malian Army’s contempt for the NMLA and refusal by both to negotiate.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.