ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — As Mali adapts to worsening security problems internally and the rest of the Sahel region by working with new partners, like a Russian paramilitary group, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali must also change too.
That is what Dennis Gyllensporre of Sweden, the mission’s most recent force commander, suggested in a phone interview in December from Paris, where he was meeting with French armed forces officials. Gyllensporre, a lieutenant general for the Swedish armed forces, led the military side of the UN mission, Minusma, for three years, until October 2021. His term occurred during one of the most tumultuous times for one of the UN’s largest peace operations. Two coups and a delayed presidential election in Mali has left it slammed by economic and diplomatic sanctions amid a “security trend” that in general “is negative,” Gyllensporre said in the interview. It was also a time of high Minusma soldier deaths — 40, mostly killed in action — while he was in charge. (Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, the president of Mali who was overthrown in the 2020 coup, died on Jan. 16.)
“The deteriorating security situation adds to the threat against the peacekeeping mission,” Gyllensporre told PassBlue. “We’re seeing an increase in the number of attacks against the peacekeepers, particularly in the northernmost parts of the country, where generally it’s more difficult to operate.” Minusma, known as the world’s deadliest peacekeeping mission, recorded a twofold increase in fatalities among its troops from roadside bombs in 2021; half of the 28 uniformed peacekeepers’ deaths recorded by the mission came from improvised explosive devices.
Gyllensporre came to Minusma after a four-year appointment in Sweden as chief of defense staff and head of special forces. Before joining the UN mission, Gyllensporre served in Sudan, Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina for Sweden. He’s written several books on military strategy and security studies, including UN peacekeeping work. He holds a master’s degree in computer science and engineering; an M.B.A; a master’s in military arts and science; and a Ph.D. in governance and policy analysis. Gyllensporre has left the Swedish Armed Forces and is now a professor of security policy and strategy at the Swedish Defense University, in Stockholm.
Minusma was established in 2013 to instill peace in Mali after insurgents had taken over large swaths of the country and France stepped in militarily to push some of the insurgents out. Nine years later, Mali’s instability has worsened as France’s Operation Barkhane counterterrorism troops are restructuring and insurgents have spread from the north to the center of the country, leaving Minusma troops and civilians more vulnerable.
On Jan. 17, a UN spokesperson said all Minusma flights had been grounded in Mali after the government suddenly changed procedures to approve UN flights because of the new regional measures imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) forcing Mali to close its borders.
Media reports of the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group now providing security help to Mali are also addressed by Gyllensporre. His successor at Minusma is Lieut. Gen. Cornelis Johannes Matthijssen of the Netherlands. Minusma employs 15,000 people; 13,000 of them are soldiers, according to its website.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. — KATARINA HOIJE
PassBlue: How does the deteriorating security in Mali affect the peacekeeping mission’s ability to carry out its work, which is primarily protection of civilians and enabling the Algiers peace agreement to be implemented?
Gyllensporre: In the long term, it’s become more difficult and riskier to carry out operations. The Covid-19 pandemic and the need to adapt sanitary measures add to the challenges. Today, the main security challenge is in central Mali, especially when it comes to protection of civilians. In northern Mali, the UN, the French force Barkhane, including the French-led Takuba task force, as well as Malian army units are the main targets of the armed groups. In central Mali, the target is the civilian population. This is slightly simplified, but there’s quite a big difference when it comes to the security threats and risks in between the two regions. We’ve seen an increase in roadside bombs, so-called IEDs [improvised explosive devices] in attacks against Minusma. At the same time, we’ve increased the number of operations — in frequency, length and complexity. Minusma does much more on the ground now compared with before.
PassBlue: Can you give examples of how Minusma extended its reach in Mali during your time there, from October 2018 to October 2021?
Gyllensporre: One very concrete example is in the Timbuktu region, where we’ve extended our operations near the border with Mauritania — an area where we hadn’t had real access before, and the village of Lerneb [about 120 miles west of Timbuktu]. It’s an area troubled by tribal disputes that occasionally erupt in violence. We’ve increased the number of patrols, becoming more active on the ground, while also engaging in conflict mitigation efforts, facilitating solutions for the different actors to resolve the conflict.
PassBlue: Minusma is often described as “the world’s deadliest peacekeeping mission.” The force has recorded more deaths to date than any other active UN mission. During your time in Mali, the force also saw an increase in militant attacks against the peacekeepers. What was it like to work in such a hostile environment?
Gyllensporre: Dealing with the fatalities and injuries is by far the hardest part of the job as force commander. During my time in Mali, I saw 40 peacekeepers killed and over 300 of our soldiers wounded in action. I made it a priority to meet with the fallen peacekeepers’ families, a difficult task to keep up, but also something I personally felt was important to do.
PassBlue: What does the increase in attacks against the peacekeepers mean for the protection of civilians in Mali?
Gyllensporre: It’s worrying. You want to act as quickly and forcefully as possible. Unfortunately, there are limits to what you can do. As the force commander, I needed to weigh the risk for the peacekeepers against what we can achieve on the ground. I’m not only responsible to my employer — in this case, the UN, and the population I’m there to protect but also to the force-contributing countries and, ultimately, the individual soldiers’ families.
PassBlue: Considering the threats against the peacekeeping mission, did you ever stop troops from deploying?
Gyllensporre: There have been situations when I’ve deferred operations due to risks for the peacekeepers. This doesn’t mean that we’ve changed our objectives or our ambitions. Rather, the way we reach the objectives are adapted; in this case, waiting for the right conditions to intervene.
PassBlue: Of the 21 peacekeepers who died from “hostile acts” in 2021, the last year you served with the mission, all of them were African, with most of them from Chad. What is the UN doing to ensure a safe working environment for the troops?
Gyllensporre: One of the most important tasks for Minusma, apart from implementing the mandate, is to make sure the soldiers can perform their tasks safely. Ultimately, it’s my job to ensure that the soldiers can return home in good condition after completing their mission. A lot’s been done to improve safety for the peacekeepers, including at our bases, but peacekeeping still comes with a risk, as we’ve seen with the over 240 peacekeepers who died in Mali since 2013. Chad’s the biggest troop contributor to Minusma. The Chadian soldiers are also deployed to the most demanding and volatile areas, like Aguelhok and in the town of Tessalit, near the border with Algeria.
It’s also about better resources. First of all, we need more helicopters, not just for relocation, but for medical care to quickly move the soldiers from the field to a good medical facility. Secondly, it’s important to have good protection against IEDs. This is something that the UN headquarters in New York has put a strong focus on. They work proactively to support Minusma.
PassBlue: Did you have areas that became impossible to operate in during your time with the mission?
Gyllensporre: In principle, no. The mission to protect populated areas and those who are the most vulnerable, defined by the mandate, means we need to be where there’s a threat. That said, sometimes the challenges we faced made it complicated to actually operate in some areas. The level of risk depends in part on the level of training and equipment of some force units. Other factors that play a role are where the Malian army units operate. Barkhane also conducts operations, particularly in northern Mali. It’s a puzzle that’s laid ahead of each operation.
PassBlue: Considering the deteriorating security situation, the dangers the soldiers face and the risks posed by the armed groups, what would happen if Minusma left Mali?
Gyllensporre: Minusma’s withdrawal would have a destabilizing effect. The mandate provides the mission with a unique position in Mali. Its presence, range and as a convening power allows Minusma to take initiative and to better align the other international actors. I don’t see that any other actor could take on that role.
PassBlue: How has Minusma been affected by the two military coups — one in August 2020 and a second in May 2021 — now that Mali is run by a military-led government?
Gyllensporre: With our presence in central and northern Mali, we had a stabilizing effect, possibly preventing the illegal armed groups from taking advantage of the situation in Bamako [the capital] to expand their influence.
PassBlue: Has Mali’s role as a partner in the fight against Islamist insurgents in the Sahel region of West Africa and the country’s relationship with international partners changed since the military-led government took hold?
Gyllensporre: The relationship between Minusma and the Malian forces continues to be good. The military leadership changed after the first coup, but those who were given the task of leading Mali’s army have continued along the same lines in the field, working toward the same priorities as before the coup. That said, military takeovers and nondemocratic leaderships are, of course, unfortunate and troublesome in all aspects.
PassBlue: Does the military-led government impact Mali’s role in its fight against terrorism?
Gyllensporre: As before the coups, Mali is still the epicenter of terrorist activities in West Africa. The Malian leadership’s increasingly stepping up efforts to safeguard its sovereignty. Ongoing partnerships and military cooperation find themselves in a new context.
PassBlue: How does the deployment of mercenaries from the private Russian Wagner Group add to this new context?
Gyllensporre: Mali’s a sovereign state that makes its own decisions based on what the leadership believes is best for the country. The government, however, needs to consider the impact such a deployment may have and possible consequences for its partnership with other security actors in Mali. All troop contributions need to adapt to the changing security situation.
PassBlue: Late last year, there was rising aversion toward the foreign military forces in the region, culminating when a French army convoy was blocked for days, first in Burkina Faso and later in Niger. What can you say about that problem?
Gyllensporre: There were several occasions when Minusma patrols and convoys were blocked by civilians, including during operations aimed at protecting the population. In the vast majority of these cases, women and children blocked the access. To a large extent, this was orchestrated by actors who wanted to limit Minusma’s operational reach. They managed to manipulate the population via various media channels and at the village level through a coercion that required the local leaders to distance themselves from Minusma and other security actors. There have been situations where Minusma has been accused of collaborating with terrorists. Misinformation is among the many challenges the mission faces.
PassBlue: Do you see fatigue within the Malian population as the security situation deteriorates despite Minusma’s longtime presence?
Gyllensporre: When you’re visiting a village, people always tell you they want security, food and health care. While it’s natural to direct your grievances toward those who are in the country, committed to improving the security situation, Minusma has been subject to a fair deal of criticism –more than we deserved. We’re in Mali to support the Malian state to enable them to deliver basic services, so while I understand people’s frustration, other actors, including Mali’s government, also need to do their part.
PassBlue: Will Minusma continue to play a role in Mali?
Gyllensporre: Minusma still has an important role to play. It’s unique in the sense that it’s a multidimensional effort, providing security, governance and humanitarian support under the same umbrella. If one were to remove Minusma from the equation, it would be a disadvantage for Mali and Malians. It’s sometimes an ungrateful task to work as a stabilization force in an environment where the overall security trend is negative. Minusma must continue to adjust to the changing circumstances in Mali, for the benefit of the population.
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Katarina Hoije is a freelance journalist based in Ivory Coast, covering conflict, commodities, power brokers and their connections and sometimes how sheep-shopping disrupts a presidential election in Mali.