The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, the most demanding and bloodiest operation in the organization’s global portfolio, is moving its major functions from its base in Bamako, the capital, to Gao, a remote city also on the Niger River, and other camps in the north. The goal is to keep a vigilant eye on the rebels and Islamic jihadists roving this half of the Sahel region and to better protect the mission’s forces.
That work represents a far cry from the mission’s original mandate to safeguard civilians, as another recent fatal attack on peacekeepers shows.
News of the violence against UN peacekeepers in Mali coincides with last-minute reports in local newspapers about an attempted coup against the government.
“Mali is in the forefront in the fight against violent jihadi movements in the region,” said Jeff Laurenti, an American analyst who is expert on the UN. “The security priority for the UN’s Mali mission is to smoke out, flush out and eradicate violent Islamic insurgents. This is an African front in the struggle that Americans are leading in Iraq and Syria against ISIL insurgents there, a front with full Security Council authorization.”
For the UN mission, which lost 29 peacekeepers in 2014, reinforcing its military forces will enhance its presence and help fulfill its mandate in “the challenging environment of northern Mali,” said Radhia Achouri, the mission’s spokeswoman.
The most recent assault, on Jan. 17, occurred at the mission’s base in Kidal in the far northeast, killing a Chadian peacekeeper and wounding four others. A suicide vehicle had blown up at the camp’s checkpoint, and another vehicle exploded at an entrance as the camp was hit with rockets and mortars, causing major damage. The Chadians make up the entire troop contingent in Kidal, making them completely vulnerable to incurring fatalities when the base is attacked.
With the UN mission being “the main international foreign presence on the ground,” Achouri said, it has become “a target for all spoilers — extremists, jihadists and traffickers — who would like to have the ground exclusively to themselves so as to be able to continue their nefarious activities.”
As Jean-Hervé Jezequel, the Sahel senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, noted, it’s important to “give more muscle to Minusma,” referring to the abbreviated name of the UN mission.
The military and technical reinforcements could not be more urgent. The mission suffered by far the largest number of fatalities for a peacekeeping mission in 2014, with more than half of those killed Chadian. (Minusma has lost 34 peacekeepers since the mission was rolled out in July 2013.)
All the deaths in 2014 occurred in the second half of the year, attributed by the UN to the Mali Army’s withdrawal from Kidal, a reduction in French forces in the country and a delay in peace talks.
The mission has an authorized limit of about 12,000 troops but has netted only about 9,200 till now. Its new boss, Mongi Hamdi, a former foreign minister of Tunisia and previous UN official, began in January.
“No mission has been as costly in terms of blood” than Minusma, said Hervé Ladsous, the head of UN peacekeeping, speaking in New York in January. He added that threats to staff security run “extremely high” through rocket fire on their bases, roadside explosive devices, land mines and suicide bombers.
Roadside bombs have posed the biggest single threat, with seven Senegalese peacekeepers injured by one triggered at the Kidal airstrip in early January.
The mission is trying to improve its ability to counter the danger of improvised explosive devices by procuring mine-protected vehicles and other armored vehicles and providing more training to peacekeeping troops, who are mostly African. It is also adding surveillance and reconnaissance tools.
“We are reviewing our concept of operations to adapt it the environment we are operating in, and which is not a peacekeeping context,” Achouri said.
Besides strengthening UN bases in northern Mali, Minusma must also keep a cease-fire going among the more moderate rebels and the Mali government and contend with the other growing threat in the Sahel, transnational crime. That potent collection of arms, drug and human trafficking is being channeled to Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East and on to Europe. It is said to be financing insurgents.
But the UN’s strategy to fight terrorists in Mali may not jibe with the desire of the peacekeeping forces on the ground.
“There is in New York [at the UN] some willingness to engage more directly with the terrorists and jihadists,” Jezequel said. “But it is unclear how far they will go on this trend.”
Jezequel added that Minusma may indeed be conflicted about its mission, as the people working at Bamako headquarters appear willing to confront the terrorists, but the troops in the field want more protection. “All contingents are not on the same page,” he said.
A major problem, Jezequel noted, speaking from his office in Dakar, Senegal, is parsing who are the terrorists promoting jihad and who are the armed groups that want independence from Mali.
“It’s hard to identify the terrorists,” he said, referring to the wide range of rebel and extremists groups, such as Ansar Dine.
As for jihadists, international and regional leaders and policy experts are drawing more attention to the spiraling chaos in Libya and its fallout in the Sahel, warning that the militancy in Libya could require deploying an intervention brigade force from the UN.
This sentiment was echoed by Mali’s foreign minister, Abdoulaye Diop, in a speech to the Security Council in January. He contended that Libya’s warring militias pose a serious risk to Mali’s delicate stability.
Minusma is charging ahead with ambitious plans, starting with finishing new camps or renovating others in the north and the east. These include operations in Gao, Kidal, Mopti and Timbuktu, where police, military and civilian personnel are to be redeployed or added (and overlap at some stations with soldiers from a separate French operation, called Barkhane).
Two infantry companies of Minusma are now operating in Gao, with reinforcements ready to be sent, Achouri said. Additional build-ups will improve the base in the more treacherous city of Kidal, near the Algerian border.
In a new foray, some European countries are sending troops to Minusma. Swedish combat troops are based in Timbuktu to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance, using Hercules C130 planes. Timbuktu also has a battalion of UN peacekeepers from Burkina Faso, as well as French soldiers from Operation Barkhane, both of whom are stationed at the airport.
Denmark has sent about a dozen personnel to Minusma, along with a Hercules C130, for transport support. The Dutch have deployed troops to Gao, where they sleep in tents because of the lack of barracks. The Chinese, who built their own barracks in Gao, sent a force protection unit to safeguard the UN headquarters there.
Although Minusma is playing down its reinforcements in the north, saying it already has a substantial presence there, its headquarters in Bamako are being relocated from its spacious but awkward quarters in a former hotel to a space to be built near the capital’s airport, on land provided by Mali. The timing, however, is undetermined, Achouri said.
The UN has another challenging act in Mali: prodding the peace talks between the Malian government and the rebel groups scattered throughout the north. Progress, Ladsous conceded, has been “fairly modest,” and talks will be renewed in early February in Algiers, according to Ladsous.
Hamdi, Minusma’s new head, is a potential strong card in the negotiations, as he speaks not only French but also Arabic, the latter language of some rebel leaders, like those in the MNLA, or the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, who want to create their own breakaway country in Mali.
But the peace process, Jezequel said, is “at risk,” so it’s vital that a deal be signed soon, and then it will “take years to settle” the situation down. Besides disarmament, a treaty would clarify who are the armed groups and who are the jihadists, depending on who agrees to the deal.
Bruce Whitehouse, a professor at Lehigh University and a Mali specialist, assessed the draft agreement in Fragile States, a digital forum. He takes issue with aspects of the draft, including the glaring lack of civil society participation in negotiations. Just as important, he said in an interview, is not to push for a “quick timetable” to wrap up a deal.
Whitehouse added that it was unclear how much the government was committed to the agreement, given the general public’s ambivalence toward it. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of Mali “is not trying to sell the agreement to the public,” so if things go wrong, it can disavow its role in the results, Whitehead said.
Gao is hardly a conducive setting for a major military base. The city lacks modern infrastructure, including full access to the Internet, and is a two days’ drive from Bamako on roads that have been mined. A city of mud-brick buildings meant to deflect the Saharan heat, Gao’s economy is strung along on agriculture and fishing, with the closest city being Niamey, the capital of Niger.
The Songhai ethnic group predominates in Gao and the rest of the north; unlike the Tuaregs, who make up some of the rebel groups and are nomadic herders, the Songhai are sedentary people. Yet both groups, who are Muslim, rely on each other for trade.
Moving the bulk of Minusma throughout the upper half of Mali may present another strategic advantage: it will tie the mission closer to Operation Barkhane, France’s military set-up in the Sahel.
Indeed, the goal of the French — and by default the UN mission — is to eradicate jihadists that threaten security in the region. Minusma may be the only mission in the UN peacekeeping sphere to be connected so intricately with a European power in Africa. And Minusma could soon become the largest mission in the UN as others draw down in Haiti and possibly Sudan.
France’s military presence in Mali has from the start drawn both criticism and praise. It intervened in 2011 to push out Islamic extremists who seized a large portion of the country, but the French reprisal turned out to be temporarily successful, as encroachments from extremists continue. France has tried to withdraw most of its troops from Mali but has acknowledged that it cannot leave entirely.
As the terrorist attack on Jan. 7 in Paris by armed gunmen on the newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket illustrated, France’s fight against terrorists domestically and abroad will justify Barkhane more so. Barkhane extends to four neighbors of Mali: Burkina Faso (its base), Chad, Mauritania and Niger, and numbers about 800 troops. It is meant to provide a light, flexible footprint, but its success is hard to measure.
Barkhane’s companies in Chad, Mauritania and Niger consist of about 30 troops each; France has American company in Burkina Faso, where the United States operates a drone mission for surveillance in the Sahel, but the operation is moving to Niger.
In Mali, Barkhane units operate in Tessalit, Kidal, Ansongo, Timbuktu, Bamako and Gao, with Gao being the biggest. In Bamako, Minusma’s headquarters sits across the street from a huge French barrack, hidden behind concrete walls topped with barbed wire, the French flag clearly in view. (Minusma is the French abbreviation for the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali.)
To complicate matters, Mali’s army has absconded from Kidal and Tessalit, after being driven out by the MNLA. The Mali Army, however, has a sizeable presence in Gao and other remote cities, making the north a patchwork of various military camps.
The French, in a further twist, work with the MNLA in Kidal and Tessalit, which runs Kidal as semiautonomous government and may be affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Whether Minusma can win against the hard-core terrorists and criminal networks menacing peacekeepers and the region is not assured, despite the major steps underway. Whether it can protect its peacekeepers better is equally questioned.
“We don’t know if it will work in the long run,” Laurenti said of the strategy, adding that the countries that make up most of Minusma are “not in the front rank of the world’s militaries. Still, they’re willing to put boots on the ground, which is what’s needed to hold the ground. And, so far, they have been loyally working with the French.”
Jezequel is slightly more positive about Minusma, saying that it has the ability to “appease the tensions,” between government troops and rebels, as demonstrated in a clash in late December near Timbuktu, when Minusma intervened to ease the stress.
“From time to time,” Jezequel said, “they are useful when they decide to mobilize and enforce the cease-fire.”
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.