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The UN Peacekeeping Mission in Mali Escapes Trump’s Hatchet


A Nigerian peacekeeper for the UN mission in Mali, working near the Niger border to detect cases of Rift Valley fever, 2016. The US decided not to push for cuts to the mission’s budget as it slashes away at other UN peace operations. SYLVAIN LIECHTI

After a month of contentious debate between the United Nations Security Council and UN budget committees, agreement has been reached for the UN to stay focused on Mali and the Sahel region, where terrorism is threatening to destabilize the area. The region extends across Africa from east to west in an arc right below the Sahara.

The Council voted on June 29 to renew the mandate of the peacekeeping operation, Minusma, for another year at its current troop numbers and to prioritize its political and civilian support to the Malian peace process.

The vote, said François Delattre, France’s ambassador to the UN, was “crucial” for setting “clear lines of action for Minusma to help restore security in Malian territory . . . and to close the security gap that terrorist groups are benefiting.”

Feared cuts to the mission by the US did not materialize, as Minusma’s $1.1 billion budget for next year will be slightly below its previous level. Haggling continued minutes before the vote, with Nikki Haley, the American ambassador, huddling with Delattre, right in the Council chamber.

According to one of the permanent-five members of the Council, the US was suddenly citing a 15-day notification rule to let US Congress know that Minusma’s annual budget would actually be a tad higher than what Congress expected (by about $7 to $12 million, according to the P5 ambassador). The sudden glitch sent France into a frenzy to get the vote through. (The P5 consists of Britain, China, France, Russia and the US.)

The US was also objecting to the resolution’s more forceful language on Minusma’s support to the Malian defense and security forces, a dubious group at best. Minusma must help reform this sector if Mali’s government is ever to earn the confidence of its population, say experts.

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At the urging of the US, the UN General Assembly’s Fifth Committee, overseeing UN budget approvals, also just cut the overall UN peacekeeping budget by about 7.5 percent, allocating $6.8 billion for the 2017-2018 budget starting July 1. (An additional $500 million will be approved later this year.)

The vote on Minusma resolution 2364 came two weeks after the Council approved a compromise proposal to create a regional counterterrorism force, the G5 Sahel, which at this point has only 1 percent of the funds it needs to deploy, all from the European Union. A donor conference is being held July 2 in Bamako, Mali’s capital, which the French president, Emmanuel Macron, plans to attend.

Some West African policy observers suggest that the G5 force is an “exit strategy” for France’s 4,000 troops based in the Sahel. Operation Barkhane is tasked with expelling jihadists in the region in coordination with US special forces dotted throughout West Africa.

The plan to commit UN member state dues and logistical support to the G5 force, favored by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, France and regional countries, was scuttled by the US, which is mindful of expenses more than anything else now at the UN. (The G5 is made up of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.)

The US also questioned the logistics of setting up another force in parallel with Minusma, as details on the G5 are sketchy, even for some participating countries, said a diplomat from Burkina Faso. The force will be freer than UN peacekeepers to attack jihadists and criminal traffickers spilling from Mali into Burkina Faso, for example, and threatening Senegal and beyond.

The Security Council agreed that Mali, as the epicenter of extremist ambitions to upset stability in West Africa, needs the world’s sustained attention, while other peacekeeping missions are being either reduced or withdrawn.

“Some longstanding missions were ripe for change,” a US delegate to the UN’s Fifth Committee said.

The Council, for example, just ended the UN mission in Ivory Coast. And with the nearly 15-year-old conflict in Darfur, Sudan, largely contained — by a government pilloried in the West, without the root causes or fates of 2.7 million internally displaced people addressed — the Council also voted to significantly reduce the joint African Union-UN forces (Unamid) in Darfur. It ordered a 44 percent decrease in the number of troops.

“The conflict that gave rise to the deployment of UNAMID has altered in the light of the military successes of the Government against rebel movements,” Guterres wrote in a recent report. This is a deeply concerning conclusion to people who have followed the Darfur conflict for nearly 15 years and who worked there.

The specter of terrorist attacks creeping southward from North Africa into the Sahel, especially in Mali, helped to keep a reluctant US from carrying out its threats of big cuts to Minusma.

An Al Qaeda attack on a popular retreat outside Bamako on June 17, where European Union and other Western forces working in Mali go to relax, may have jolted the US into supporting Minusma more concertedly. The peacekeeping mission is the bloodiest in the UN portfolio, with fatal attacks on troops by jihadists almost monthly.

On June 9, the same Al Qaeda affiliate, Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, or the Group to Support Islam and Muslims, attacked a Minusma base in Kidal, killing four Guinean peacekeepers.

But in the UN’s Fifth Committee, the knives were sharpened for eliminating some civilian posts that are integral to the mandates of peacekeeping missions. For Mali, that has meant helping President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta to build stronger state institutions around the country; protect its cultural heritage, such as in Timbuktu; and back the peace agreement, a result of continuing mediation led by Algeria.

Instead, the Council asked Minusma to continue to usher the two-year-old peace accord between the Mali government and two opposition groups, known as the Platform and the Coordination, into fruition.

In addition, the Council resolution asked Minusma to “achieve its more proactive and robust posture to carry out its mandate,” a reminder that the provision, introduced in last year’s resolution, has produced minimal results as peacekeepers in the dangerous central and northern parts of Mali continue to be attacked. They are also underequipped for asymmetrical attacks from insurgents deliberately targeting “occupiers.”

The Trump administration had called for cutting a billion dollars from the overall UN peacekeeping budget and reverting to an earlier “cap” on US assessed contributions of 25 percent. Previous administrations lifted the cap so that the US has been paying 28.5 percent of peacekeeping costs. Haley recently told Congress the 25 percent level would not hurt UN peace operations, while the UN and most other countries disagree.

An array of diplomats and Secretary-General Guterres has been urging Minusma to do more in its operations. Sweden, for example, which is both a current Security Council elected member and a troop contributor to Minusma, has been urging the UN not to be distracted by security issues and to put more effort into the political aspects of peacekeeping; that is, building the trust of the population as well as in the government and its institutions, including the defense forces. Those goals are far from being reached as many Malians live without pumped water, schools and paved roads.

The 2015 peace accord for Mali expired this month with few benchmarks met and some Mali experts warning that the agreement could collapse. The government of Mali has agreed to a new calendar implementing the accord.

Long after the 2013 French intervention expelling jihadists, insecurity is spreading across much of the country. Indeed, distinctions are blurring between intercommunal and terrorist-based violence. UN officials had always feared that a peacekeeping mission, with a goal to “stabilize” the country, would be explicitly targeted. The mission added more outposts as new areas fell to extremists.

Minusma’s head, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, a Chadian, told media at the UN in June that peacekeepers have pre-empted some attacks. Minusma, for example, has better integrated intelligence into its operations and introduced drones and other surveillance techniques.

But the UN forces sorely lack equipment, such as armored personnel carriers; helicopters are in short supply. Resorting to pickup trucks, peacekeepers in central Mali cannot navigate the desert, repel improvised explosive devices or pursue heavily armed assailants. Nearly 130 peacekeepers have died since Minusma was deployed in 2013, most of them Africans.

The G5 force could help deter such attacks on Minusma troops. Yet, 40 percent of Minusma’s peacekeepers come from the G5 countries, and though the two forces will have separate roles, how the five countries can spare more troops let alone find more resources remains unanswered. Chad is talking about withdrawing from the force.

Burkina Faso is already fighting terrorism as part of the Liptako-Gourma Authority’s task force with Mali and Niger. It has lost 15 soldiers in Minusma and many more right inside its long, open border with Mali in the north. With 1,700 peacekeepers in Minusma, the country will withdraw its battalion from Darfur to concentrate forces closer to home.

Burkina Faso’s military adviser, Col. Major Edouard Ouedraogo, told PassBlue that the G5 would need major support: “It’s very difficult to deploy troops without help from Europe and the US. We are very far from solving security on our own.”

As Annadif of Minusma told reporters: “Now, the big fear is drug trafficking. Terrorists are corrupting the elite as well as ordinary people. Everything is being destroyed.”

Moreover, as Minusma goes begging for more troops, they stay away. Pakistan and India have declined, while Bangladesh maintains a force of 1,500. Cambodia has 300 troops there and China nearly 400. Europe — Germany, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands — has contributed significant numbers of peacekeepers and resources after a long absence from UN peacekeeping. But those deployments are highly circumscribed with assignments such as intelligence and special operations. The Dutch may leave the mission entirely by 2018, just as it joins the Security Council as an elected member.

Ghana and Jordan may contribute troops and helicopters. Germany has sent helicopters, and Egypt is to send armored personnel carriers. The Canadians have been asked but not committed troops, and Senegal was supposed to contribute a quick reaction force last year, but deliberations with the UN and training for desert conditions have delayed deployment. Part of the force should be on the ground next month.

Meanwhile, African troops are bearing the brunt of the harsh conditions.

A report released this year by the Danish Institute for International Studies outlines “the disproportionate dangers that confront African soldiers compared to their European and Asian counterparts in Minusma.”

Chad has lost more than 40 peacekeepers in Mali over four years. One of the world’s poorest countries, rated the most vulnerable to climate change and embroiled in conflict for much of its 57 years of independence, it has sent fighters to Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria, where eight Chadians died last weekend fighting Boko Haram.

According to the Danish report, some Minusma troops from Chad — praised by the UN as capable warriors — had not been relieved from duty in three years.

As first-time UN peacekeepers, the Chadians have been tough and ingenious: in a telling anecdote of creativity to meet UN bureaucracy rules, according to a Minusma official, soldiers who removed headlamps from their trucks in order to patrol stealthily by night found themselves charged by the UN for their headlight replacements, probably at prices they could not afford.

Some are bitter about their UN experience. Two weeks ago, returning Chadian peacekeepers staged “Operation Burns UN Beret” in N’Djamena, the capital, protesting their lack of pay and conditions while serving on the front line. Technically, each peacekeeper is to receive about $1,300 in monthly pay from the UN. As to whether Chad actually pays its troops that amount is unknown.

“We burn all UN paraphernalia — berets, ties, armbands — to bring to the attention of national and international opinion that we are in total disarray,” said a protest statement. “We wonder whether the Chadian military will have the pride to serve with selflessness, dedication and courage in a UN mission.”

Days before the June 9 attack on the Minusma base in Kidal, murdering soldiers from Guinea, an officer returning to Conakry, that country’s capital, described to a news site the tough life for his men in Mali, even in getting potable water.

“Only god can save the souls who live there,” he said.

Susan Manuel has worked extensively in UN peacekeeping and other UN entities as well as in journalism, receiving various awards. Currently, she is an international communications consultant. Previously, she was director, ad interim, of communications and public information for the AU-UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur; chief of the peace and security section in the UN Department of Public Information; acting director of strategic communications and spokesperson’s unit for the UN mission in Afghanistan; spokeswoman and deputy director of communications for the UN mission in Kosovo; regional public affairs officer for the World Food Program; and spokeswoman for the UN peace operations in the Balkans. She also worked for the UN in South Africa and in Cambodia.

In journalism, Manuel worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter and columnist, including in Honolulu, Washington, D.C., and Nevada. She has a master’s degree in journalism and a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from the University of California, Berkeley.

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