Mali: The United Nations Joins the Fray

By Osuolale Alalade

The unanimous decision of the Security Council in resolution 2010 (2013) of 25 April 2013, to transform the current French and the Chadian led military operations in the north of Mali into a United Nations peacekeeping, or in reality peace enforcement mission, reflects an important turning point in the management of the crisis in the north of Mali. The decision finally provides an additional layer of diplomatic leverage that should be critical for France to manage its interests in Sahelo-Sahara. The unanimity on Security Council Resolution 2100 (2013), with only a cautionary apprehension from Russia on the recent tendency of the United Nations peacekeeping missions to deploy offensive capabilities to fight rebels, reflects the evolved primacy of global sentiments on fighting terrorists. Otherwise, sustaining the character of peace operations as non-offensive mechanisms for the maintenance of global peace remains a primary objective. Delineating between peacekeeping, a UN core value, and peace enforcement, the UN parlance for declaring war, and dealing with obnoxious elements that threaten peace becomes a balancing act for the global organization. In Mali, there is no peace to keep in that volatile environment and the war is only just beginning.

The anticipated 12,600 strong UN force would be achieved through a re-hatting of some 6000 troops from West African states and Tchad that constitute the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA). Tchad, the most battle-hardened and significantly experienced of the African forces in desert warfare, has been the main support for the French-led operations to dislodge the Islamists from their numerous inaccessible strongholds. The mandate of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) recognizes the volatility of the mission environment. The treacherousness of the environment stems from many challenges, both domestic and international, that has to be overcome. Critical among these is the problematic relations between the Malian Defense Forces and the political class in the south of Mali. The Malian military hold the civilians responsible for the current situation and has challenged the legitimacy of the civilian leadership class in resolving the complications arising from its mismanagement of the crisis. The Security Council mandate therefore demands that the Malian Defense and Security Forces should not undermine or obstruct the implementation of the transitional roadmap or the efforts of the international community to foster political and security progress.

The political demands of the MNLA for large autonomy from Bamako are not surprising, but its refusal to accept the deployment of Malian forces in the north poses a significant drawback to the attainment of a political settlement that should lead to the reinstatement of the territorial integrity of the country. This is a key consideration of the rebel forces in the north. Without the resolution of the question of autonomy, the demand by the Security Council for moderate elements among the rebels to disarm and delink from terrorist organizations such as the Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and the Ansar Dine would remain unattainable. These terrorist and chaos elements have no political agenda to negotiate about, except, of course, if their ambition to dismantle the Malian state and the imposition of extremist Salafist theocracy in the country is considered a political goal. Accordingly, military operations in the north of Mali can be expected to go on for a considerable length of time. This may range from a very deleterious guerrilla war in the north to very serious fighting that would require more deployments. Such a development would pit a coalition of these extremist groups and their Algerian, Mauritanian or possibly even Nigerien sympathizers against the MINUSMA forces.

Operationally, MINUSMA would be inheriting some of the inconvenient political realities that have emerged since international intervention began in Mali. The commitment of France to long-term military confrontation was doubtful. With significant geo- strategic and economic interests to protect, its approach in Mali has raised serious questions about its readiness to deploy seriously to protect these interests by itself. It worked hard to coax or coerce its proxies to do the heavy lifting. The initial response of France to the disintegration of the Malian defense forces in March 2012 was to farm out critical military engagement to confront the alliance of external terrorists in Mali with local groups to a consortium of African friends, most notably Nigeria and Tchad. Nigeria has appeared in recent times to be a handmaiden for the advancement of Western, including French, strategic interests. Given the French lack of a resolute commitment to military operations involving French troops, the relationship that has emerged with Tchadian forces has been tenuous. Since France had from the very beginning of the crisis sought to consign the heavy lifting to African forces, those working with it have been suspicious of its ultimate intentions. This accounts for France’s last-minute unilateral decision to undertake the initial military face-off in the glare of massive publicity. Its military engagements have been well-choreographed public relations stunt. That has been the problem so far.

The withdrawal of France from the real war in April 2013 to the rear as a sort of rapid reaction force elicited immediate reaction of Ndjamena. Tchadian President Idriss Deby, ostensibly lamenting the death of Thadian soldiers as victims of suicide bombings in Kidal, recalled his forces from the war theater. Tchadian forces, trained in desert combat, have fought alongside French forces in some of the heaviest battles during the war in northern Mali. Tchadian soldiers’ involvement in the guerrilla campaign’s most significant battle to date proved decisive. In the battle of Isfoghas, they gained the respect of their French counterparts in taking the fight to a rebel base in the Isfoghas. It thus came as a rude shock to observers when, after such meritorious intervention, President Deby claimed that Tchad’s forces had no ability to deal with the kind of guerrilla fighting that was imminent in northern Mali. They had also accomplished their mission, he added. The parliament’s reflex approbation of the President’s decision elicited a second-guessing of Tchad’s precipitous withdrawal from active combat in northern Mali.  France almost immediately gave a public counter, literally ordering a reversal of the decision of Tchad. Tchad complied. Its troops would return under a different guise. France, as is usual on matters affecting francophone black Africa, authored Security Council Resolution 2010 (2013). The resolution has also given France the opportunity to again modify its plan. Its one thousand-man military contingent would also be re-hatted and would remain to fight the terrorists. The African mission of the dissolving AFISMA, described as a very incapable force, with a possible exception of Tchad, would stay in the rear on guard duties to protect the cities, the roads and bridges. This is the context in which MINUSMA is expected to combat kidnapping and hostage taking, protect human rights, promote national dialogue on the way forward and initiate an electoral process to break the political deadlock.

Meanwhile, it may not be unexpected that following the current lull in fighting, the militants would regroup and map out how to frustrate the MINUSMA forces. Should the Islamists choose to engage MINUSMA forces, the mission would be hard pressed to focus on its main political objectives. Its peace enforcement profile and role would trump its peacekeeping responsibilities. The UN force may find itself drawn into active defensive combat. If the experience in the intractable Democratic Republic of Congo is anything to go by, it is going to be an expensive operation. This goes to the heart of the UN’s inevitable formal engagement in the fray in northern Mali. The UN presence spreads the cost-military, political, diplomatic and financial- of the fight against terrorism in the Sahelo-Sahara space. African countries would at least be spared the financial costs of their cooptation into the fight against the modern scourge of terrorism. The issue however remains the persistent refusal of the most moderate of the recalcitrant forces in northern Mali to permit the deployment of Malian forces, now under training, in the north. Under these circumstances for how long can the United Nations count on the robust political will of the elite state actors, on whose behalf it has taken on this challenge, sustain a credible long term confrontation with terrorist movements that have proven to be very resilient and adaptive.

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About africapeacesupport

Former Representative of the United Nations SecretaryGeneral in Guinea-Bissau and Head of UNOGBIS.
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