The Dutch contingent of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali is withdrawing its seven helicopters from the operation by spring, leaving a wide hole in reconnaissance and intelligence gathering for the mission that desperately needs those assets. With no immediate supplier for replacement helicopters in sight, the withdrawal presents an additional strain on the mission, known as Minusma, which faces major deadly challenges from terrorists and transnational crime as well as clashes among armed groups in north and central Mali.
The UN Security Council, which authorizes peacekeeping missions, may insist that Minusma is not engaged in counterterrorism but the reality is hard to miss, presenting “many associated problems for the peace process and long-term prospects in Mali,” said Andrew Lebovich, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a Ph.D. candidate in African history at Columbia University in New York.
“MINUSMA is faced with an incredibly difficult task in Mali,” Lebovich said in an email while traveling in France. “They have tried to revise their tactics and mandate repeatedly as the security situation has decreased, and they are faced with difficult and dangerous situations on a daily basis.
“I think the major issue remains that it is not a peacekeeping mission, but rather a UN mission in the middle of an active conflict. The UN has dealt with similar situations before (such as in Congo), but MINUSMA has been slow to accept and adapt to this role, despite the best efforts of many involved.”
The withdrawal of the helicopter unit and immediate lack of replacements is emblematic of how Minusma must operate without crucial resources in a hostile environment, leaving troops in sometimes-fatal positions. The helicopter unit being withdrawn was characterized as a maintenance step by the Dutch, but it appears to be part of a pre-emptive move to minimize the Netherlands’ role in the bloodiest UN mission in the world.
Seventy-one peacekeepers have been killed in action since 2013 in Minusma, most of them Africans. Most recently, a Togolese peacekeeper, Sgt. Essonani Beguedou, died on Nov. 6 in a convoy attack in central Mali and seven other peacekeepers were wounded.
The Dutch have suffered their losses. Four of its peacekeepers died in accidents in Mali in the last two years: two were killed in a mortar-firing exercise in July 2016, outside Kidal, amid the simmering war zone in the north. Two other soldiers died in March 2015 in a helicopter crash during a military exercise.
A spokesman for the Netherlands’ defense ministry at first discussed by email an opportunity for an interview about the helicopter unit but then declined.
In October, the Dutch government agreed to continue to contribute to Minusma with about 290 military personnel, still focusing on intelligence gathering and supplying a unit for “long-range reconnaissance and police officers and civilian personnel,” the ministry of defense site states.
Dutch troops have been deployed to Minusma since 2014, part of a push by Western nations to involve more Europeans in UN peace operations; the majority of troops in Mali are provided by South Asian and African nations. Minusma was originally led by a Dutchman, Bert Koenders, who is now foreign minister for the Netherlands.
Since its deployment in 2013, Minusma has been working to stabilize the situation in Mali after a Tuareg rebellion in 2012 was followed by a jihadist insurgency. Minusma is still working to an extent with Operation Barkhane, the French antiterrorist contingent set up in Chad that originated as Operation Serval in northern Mali to expel the Islamic jihadists from the region. As a further sign of how treacherous Mali has become, a French soldier from Barkhane was killed on Nov. 5, also in the north.
Minusma has a broad mandate, but its main role is to help the Malian government carry out a peace agreement, referred to as the Algiers Accord, signed in June 2015 between the government and former Tuareg rebels. Progress has been slow.
Intercommunity pressures in Kidal, in the far north of Mali, are creating more obstacles toward attaining peace, as feuds between rival Tuareg clans and no government control of the city have left the area a breeding ground for violent extremism and illegal smuggling. The Minusma base there is a target of local animosities, subject to rocket attacks and roadside bombs.
“Attacks take place on an almost daily basis in both central and northern Mali, which creates significant risks and problems for civilian populations as well as the Malian government and foreign forces,” Lebovich said.
Plenty of problems persist in carrying out the peace accord. “I think President [Ibrahim Boubacar] Keita is not to blame for the continued insurgency itself, but the Malian government remains very divided on prospects for a peace deal and tepid at best in its desire to actually enforce the Algiers Accords,” Lebovich added. “That said, the accords themselves would have taken time to implement even with full support from all parties involved.”
For Minusma, which needs to conduct reconnaissance and gather intelligence across a desert terrain, helicopters can make a huge difference. They provide transportation and escort duties; are relied on for security; and act as powerful deterrents to further attacks on UN peacekeepers.
“We have seen that there are hardly any attacks on our convoys and our patrols when we have helicopter support,” Maj. Gen. Michael Lollesgaard, the force commander for Minusma and a Dane, said in a phone interview in October.
In addition, three Mi-17 helicopters were recently withdrawn from the mission’s Indonesian contingent. This loss will be compounded by the Netherlands’ withdrawal of its four Apache attack helicopters and three Chinook transport helicopters in 2017. Out of a total of 16 military helicopters, Minusma will be left with only six: three armed helicopters provided by El Salvador and three utility helicopters belonging to the Bangladeshis.
“We will definitely have some operational shortfalls once we lose the helicopters,” General Lollesgaard said.
While several countries have discussed replacement helicopters, no formal contribution has been secured. A new German troop unit, numbering about 430, has arrived in Mali, but the Germans did not bring military helicopters. A recent report said they would deploy medevac and military helicopters to Minusma in 2017.
Another European company, from Sweden, is settling into its role of providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR. The 250-person unit, based at a sprawling UN camp in Timbuktu, has been working in Minusma for more than two years. The contingent is “further developing the way we work as well as our camp,” said Kalle Bendroth, the spokesman for the Swedes. “Our time here has shown that our training as well as our equipment is well suited for the kind of activities we conduct.”
Bendroth added, “We continue to collect information and get a better understanding of the area with every patrol we conduct.”
Yet, Sweden has no helicopters in its Minusma role, and though the need for medevac helicopters was raised in the Swedish Parliament, the problem has not been resolved.
Canada’s defense minister, Harjit Sajjan, was in Bamako, Mali’s capital, in early November to discuss a possible deployment of Canadian troops to Minusma. Canada’s presence in Minusma would be welcome not only for its skills and equipment, such as helicopters, but also for the Canadian military’s Francophone language abilities. French is the main language in Mali.
Some Canadian politicians opposed to Canada’s involvement in UN peacekeeping contend that Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, is using the peacekeeping carrot to win a UN Security Council seat in the future. (The Netherlands won such a seat to share with Italy in the next two years.)
Organizing for the provision of replacement helicopters is a major logistical operation, and the UN peacekeeping department is publicly courting countries that could fill Minusma’s needs, like Canada.
At a debate in the UN Security Council on UN peace operations and “asymmetric threats,” organized by Senegal in November, the United States ambassador referred to the sore need for more helicopters by Minusma.
“We Member States must urgently and durably address the pending shortage of helicopters, which could mean significant delays in medical and casualty evacuations,” said Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN.
The Dutch decision to withdraw its helicopters was supposedly related with wear and tear on the equipment, caused by the harsh weather conditions in Mali — relentlessly high temperatures coupled with a landscape steeped in sand.
General Lollesgaard, however, refuted this notion, saying, “I think the Dutch and all other contributors have been very good at maintaining and adjusting the helicopters to work in the very harsh environment.”
Instead, the withdrawal has been viewed as a way to avoid further Dutch casualties in Mali. The overall scope of Minusma has been authorized by the Security Council to grow by 2,000 more troops, but finding forces to deploy in Mali has been tough.
On a hopeful note, a combat convoy battalion and an infantry battalion are scheduled to arrive before the end of 2016, according to General Lollesgaard. While more troops are reason for optimism from his point of view, Minusma’s ability to fulfill its mandate and avoid further casualties will largely depend on better access to sophisticated military equipment.
And then there is the lagging peace agreement. “At the end of the day, while Operation Serval was able to prevent a more serious state collapse in Mali and push jihadist groups out of the cities and towns of the north, it failed to deal with the underlying political problems that fueled rebellion on the one hand and sapped the state of its capacity to provide governance on the other,” Lebovich said.
“The Accords and a UN mission are not enough to fix those problems, but there can be no real peace in Mali until these fundamental issues are addressed.”
[This article was updated on Nov. 12, 2016.]