Since its rollout in 2013, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali has been actively recruiting more European troops to strengthen its ranks of police, military and civilian personnel from African and Asian countries, typical sources for UN missions.
The mission’s main mandate is to protect civilians, stabilize the country and carry out a peace treaty that was signed by the government and former rebels last year: no easy matters in a country contending with sporadic jihadist attacks targeting the UN, other foreigners and the Malian army. As a result, the mission, deployed after an Islamist extremist uprising in the country, preceded by a coup, has turned into a counterterrorist operation as well.
Now, the Mali operation has sizable contingents from Sweden and the Netherlands as well as smaller units from elsewhere in Europe, making it an increasingly Westernized mission in the UN fold in Africa, with almost 10 percent of the 11,000 troops European. (The UN’s mission in Lebanon is the most European in composition.)
Most of the Europeans working for the UN in Mali have had experience in Afghanistan, where NATO troops were drawn down in 2014, bringing much-needed equipment to the peace mission, like satellites, unarmed drones, turboprop planes and helicopters as well as logistical and planning skills — commonly known as train and equip and assistance programs.
Germans are about to arrive. In January, the government approved the deployment of up to 650 soldiers to the Mali mission, known by its French acronym, Minusma. They will either serve with Dutch forces or replace them in the northern city of Gao, doing reconnaissance and intelligence gathering and analysis in the restive region.
Integrating European troops into Minusma has entailed overcoming language barriers, adapting to the Sahara desert — snakes, scorpions, scorching heat and relentless sunshine — managing malaria threats and navigating the ups and downs of UN bureaucracy. Maj. Gen. Michael Lollesgaard, force commander for about a year and a Dane, drew a diplomatic picture of the Europeans’ presence in Minusma.
Reached by phone from Bamako, the Malian capital and the mission’s base, General Lollesgaard said that European involvement has been a “positive experience,” and has helped enormously in running training programs for other Minusma peacekeepers to counter roadside bombs and to operate aircraft.
The contributions from Europe, he added, have created “greater legitimacy for more countries to participate.” One big challenge for Europeans, however, “is relearning how to operate with [UN] bureaucracy” after being away from UN peacekeeping for years.
Yet Hervé Ladsous, the head of UN peacekeeping, took a less sanguine view when he told the UN Security Council not long ago that member states were not giving enough logistical and combat support to Minusma.
Other experts do not foresee European troop investments growing. William G. O’Neill, program director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the Social Science Research Council, a think tank in Brooklyn, N.Y., said he didn’t envision European tolerance “changing drastically” regarding involvement in places like Mali or Democratic Republic of the Congo, given Europe’s visceral reaction to casualties among their troops.
For Europeans, the advantage of sending their troops to Mali can ensure their combat-readiness. Installing military personnel in Mali also helps Europeans to keep an eye on transnational crime in West Africa as well as multiplying jihadist networks. But as Europe tracks the expansion of an ISIS terrorist cell in Libya, in North Africa, it may shift its priorities there.
The Europeans, nevertheless, have adapted to conditions in Mali, General Lollesgaard said, adding that Afghanistan’s conflict environment prepared the Dutch and Swedes, for example, to Mali’s complex situation, noting that there have been “very few casualties on the European side.”
Minusma, one of the UN’s largest peacekeeping operations, has been the deadliest mission in the UN in recent years, as security threats in Mali loom over all of the operation’s work. In 2015, for the second year in a row, the greatest number of casualties for UN bases was recorded in Mali, where at least 25 personnel were killed in ambushes from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, or when vehicles had hit land mines.
The attacks keep coming. On Feb. 5, Malian troops backed by UN helicopters stormed one of its police bases used by Nigerian peacekeepers in Timbuktu to recapture it from suspected Islamist militants who had seized it, the UN said. A Mali Army commander was killed in addition to three attackers; a fourth blew himself up and others are being sought.
In November in Bamako, Malian security forces, with French and American commandos, fought two gunmen at the Radisson Blu Hotel in an attack claimed by a branch of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and another jihadist faction. Minusma sent 11 first-responders to the site for assistance. No one from the UN was killed, but 20 people were murdered in the hotel, which has since reopened. The attackers also died.
With about 11,000 uniformed and civilian personnel, the Mali mission has drawn peacekeepers from countries as varied as Bangladesh and Cambodia. Military personnel come from nearly 50 countries and police personnel from 24. Only 2 percent of all personnel are women, General Lollesgaard said.
The Dutch lead the number of European contingents with about 400 personnel, soon to drop to 100, followed by Sweden, which has about 250 personnel (7 percent are women), based mostly outside Timbuktu. Like the Dutch, the Swedes are primarily providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, task forces.
General Lollesgaard conceded that working with so many different troop nationalities, who offer ranging degrees of skills and equipment, is hard. A mismatch between Minusma’s needs and the type of troops arriving from Europe is said to be a continuing problem, according to Katarina Hoije, a Swedish journalist based in Bamako who has reported on the conflict in Mali since 2012.
The Dutch presence in Minusma originated with the mission’s first leader, Bert Koenders, who left Mali when he became foreign minister of the Netherland in 2014. Another Dutchman, Koen Davidse, is deputy chief of the mission. Mahamet Saleh Annadif, a Chadian, is in charge. The presence of Swedes and Dutch may also be strategic for their respective diplomats at the UN in New York, as the two countries vie for elected seats on the UN Security Council for the 2017-2018 term.
So far, no Danes have been sent to Minusma, even though 20 have been promised, General Lollesgaard said. Denmark, however, has pledged $3 million to the Minusma trust fund, said Radhia Achouri, the spokeswoman for Minusma. The British have sent two staff officers to Bamako, and France has dispatched about 30 staff officers there and in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. France also runs a separate counterterrorism operation of 3,000 troops, called Barkhane, in the Sahel region.
In addition, a large Chinese contingent in Minusma, of about 400 people, has its own barracks in Gao. And 60 men with C-130 military planes are soon arriving from Norway to stay for 10 months, General Lollesgaard said.
The US has assigned about 10 peacekeepers to Minusma, training African peacekeepers in the mission on how to counter roadside bombs. (The US makes other contributions to African peacekeeping through the African Union.)
The European Union has its own company, EUTM, in Mali, training the country’s army; sometimes, EUTM holds training exercises with Minusma. About 22 countries participate in the European force, currently led by Brig. Gen. Werner Albl of Germany.
Although General Lollesgaard said that the European troops were used to challenging environments from their time in Afghanistan, the Sahara poses other tests. “We’re adjusting to the desert environment, but it is extremely hot.”
For the Swedes based at the UN supercamp near the Timbuktu airport, a daunting challenge is the heat. (The supercamp is home to numerous national troops, including from Burkina Faso, Egypt and El Salvador.)
“Today, it is 34 Celsius,” said Gustav Dahlgren, the public information officer for Swecon-Timbuktu, the unit’s name, by phone from Mali in late January. In Fahrenheit, that temperature is 93. In April, it can nearly reach 50 degrees Celsius, or 122 Fahrenheit.
“It’s a good difference compared with our climate,” Dahlgren said. The peacekeepers must be careful about hydrating. By midsummer, the rainy season is in full swing, accompanied by humidity and mosquitoes, posing a malaria threat. The Swedish troops are rotated every six months, so the current unit, including Dahlgren, arrived in December. That means they will be living in Timbuktu during its hottest months.
As part of the Swedes’ round-the-clock reconnaissance patrols, which can extend for 10 days amid the isolated dunes of the Sahara, the possibility of armed terrorists lurking about is shared with the risk of vipers and scorpions crawling around. Scorpions are difficult to see in the daytime but they glow at night, making them easier to detect.
The risk of snakes is another worry. At Camp Nobel, the Swedes have strict rules on where to eat to discourage rats and their predators, snakes. No one has been bitten so far, Dahlgren said.
He described one benefit of being on a reconnaissance patrol in the Sahara. Exhausted from a day of high temperatures and no shade, “You fix your bed with the mosquito net” to sleep in the open, and through the net you see through to a “very beautiful sky” — “a very cool situation.”
Dahlgren brushed off the headaches of dealing with UN bureaucracy, saying that Swedes were used to managing with procedural layers in Afghanistan, but that “the problem among ourselves is we need to understand the bureaucracy of the UN,” he said.
Even General Lollesgaard said he had trouble getting small amounts of money through the notorious UN red tape, calling it “painful.”
The stoical Swedes grumbled last year, however, when some soldiers in Timbuktu complained that their food rations — 1,800 kilocalories daily per person — were not enough, although that is the amount set and delivered by the UN. Dahlgren said the food situation is progressing. A typical meal, he said, consists of biscuits, beef with vegetables and, now, candy.
Other challenges for blending Europeans into Minusma involve communication. Few of the Europeans speak French, Mali’s main language.
“It’s definitely an issue, and we’re working around this,” General Lollesgaard said of French. “I don’t speak it either,” although he speaks English and German besides his native language.
Minusma is trying to hire more interpreters but those who understand Dutch or Swedish are scarce in Mali. “French is one thing; it’s important that the troops speak Bambara, Peul, Tamashek” — local languages — as well, Lollesgaard added.
As with other peacekeeping missions in countries where malaria is endemic, Minusma has sick soldiers; about 30 cases a month crop up, General Lollesgaard said, noting that the overall risk is deciding how long troops should take antimalarial medicine before doing so becomes a health hazard. Bed nets become compulsory in the rainy season.
One important problem that does not seem to be dogging Minusma is accusations of sex abuse by troops, compared with the continuing record of new cases in the UN’s mission in the Central African Republic. (Chadian peacekeepers, however, were accused of raping a woman in Gao in 2013, as reported by PassBlue.)
“We’re doing everything we can to train and inform our personnel,” General Lollesgaard said. “We’ve been lucky so far, with no cases on that account. Keep your fingers crossed.”
Alexander Brotman contributed reporting to this article.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach 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 Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working 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.