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UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked the Security Council to approve 2,500 extra troops and police for the Mali force, known by its acronym MINUSMA, and to keep the mission in place until June 2017.
Since the mission was established in April 2013, 68 peacekeepers have been killed, including 12 in the span of just two weeks in May.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said earlier this month that the requested troops would include a rapid-reaction force and specialists in high-security convoys.
“I think it’s clear to everyone that the security situation in parts of Mali has deteriorated. I think the UN staff have paid for it in blood,” Dujarric said.
A dangerous mix of Islamist organisations such as Ansar Dine and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as well as Tuareg separatists have excelled in using a combination of improvised explosive devices and ambushes in the unforgiving desert terrain of the country’s north.
Attacks on UN peacekeepers “are increasingly complex and sophisticated”, Ban wrote in a report to the Security Council. Banditry and lawlessness are also threatening the livelihoods of the citizens they were sent to protect.
The MINUSMA military chief of staff, General Hervé Gomart, laid out several challenges at a press conference Thursday in Bamako.
“To combat terrorist groups, we have to know where they are, how many of them there are, and how they work,” Gomart said.
“That requires technical capacities that we don’t have today. But what is needed above all is intelligence – human intelligence,” Gomart admitted.
The UN Security Council will vote on the renewal of the Mali mission on June 29.
Porous borders, particularly between Mali and Niger, present one of the biggest challenges to intelligence gathering. Deep in the semi-desert there is no fence or customs post to mark national borders. Jihadists can move freely, hiding and launching attacks in the vast arid terrain, which also hinders coordinated counter-attacks.
Mali’s government has been unable to maintain security with its domestic forces alone. It has relied on coordinated operations on either side of its border with troops from Chad, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, working alongside 3,500 French troops still in the region.
“We are precisely on the line that marks the border,” said Eric, a French army captain, as his Operation Barkhane detachment was joined by soldiers from Niger and Mali.
“The aim is to control this transit zone for the population and [protest against] armed groups,” said the officer, who under the guidelines of the French armed forces gave only his first name.
The right to “Hot pursuit”, which refers to an army’s ability to pursue suspected militants across national borders, remains a delicate issue. While French forces are able to cross regional frontiers freely, so far no formal agreements have been concluded between the West African states to give the same right to their respective armies. Instead, permission is given on a case-by-case basis.
That may need to change if the jihadists are to be countered effectively.
“Armed terrorist groups do not respect borders, contrary to national armies that must stop at borders,” said French Commander Alexis, involved in the Siham operation in Niamey.
States need to “allow these armies to … cross the border if they find opponents and to pursue and intervene without seeing borders as a constraint”, he added.
In his visit to Mali back in February, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told the local French community that France was fully engaged in liberating Mali.
“Liberty must be defended. It is, in essence, a battle of humanity against barbarity,” Valls said.
Ban has also called for MINUSMA to be allowed to take “all necessary” measures to protect itself following several violent confrontations with locals.
In April, angry demonstrators protested against day-to-day “harassment” by French forces in the restive city of Kidal before breaking into a restricted area of an airport runway.
Two protesters were killed and nine injured in that incident.
“MINUSMA forces just stay behind their barbed wire and have no idea what’s happening outside it,” said Fahad Ag Almahmoud, secretary general of a pro-government militia.
“You have to get out there to prevent danger,” Almahmoud said, accusing the force of failing to learn about its enemy and therefore opening itself up to vulnerabilities.
Much of the reluctance to get to know the terrain more intimately is being blamed on a lack of equipment, support and even pay among contingents supplied by African countries, which make up more than two-thirds of the fighting force.
Ban’s report said 12 units lacked “major equipment” while pointing to a lack of helicopters and specialists as a cause for concern.
The Chadian contingent of MINUSMA was at the forefront of the French-led military intervention launched to oust Islamist rebels from Mali in 2013, an operation that later gave way to the UN mission. But Chadian troops have deserted their posts in disputes over pay and conditions, complaining that they hadn’t been paid, and have endured heavy losses, including in “friendly fire” incidents caused by internal disputes.
Faltering peace deal
The UN mission is supposed to oversee the implementation of a faltering peace deal signed in 2015 by the government, loyalist militias and the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), a coalition of rebel groups.
The accord calls for the creation of elected regional assemblies but stops short of autonomy or federalism for northern Mali, known by locals as Azawad, and was designed to bring stability following a military coup and jihadist takeover in 2012.
But according to Malian columnist and security expert Alexi Kalambry, certain armed groups that are unhappy with how the agreement is being rolled out are turning a blind eye to attacks on MINUSMA, which they could help prevent.
“Every time there is a stalemate in negotiations the number of attacks goes up. It’s linked, and MINUSMA know all about this,” Kalambry said. “They should have modified their mandate as soon as they saw they were being targeted.”