U.N. Peacekeeping Mission Failure in Mali: An Operational and Strategic Failure

Photo Credit: UN.org

By: Emily Gilbert, Columnist

After several years of bloody conflict, including a French military intervention, the Malian government and Tuareg-led rebels signed a peace agreement in June 2015.[i] However, since the peace agreement, the security situation in Mali has remained volatile. As of August 2016, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is the deadliest in the world, with 110 casualties and 69 fatalities due to “malicious acts.”[ii] After a year of political and security setbacks, it is clear that the U.N. peacekeeping presence cannot enforce peace without the engagement of the Malian government and insurgent groups. If the international community truly wishes to see peace in Mali, MINUSMA’s mandate is not the tool to achieve it.

MINUSMA is tasked with the impossible. The mission is responsible for overseeing the ceasefire, supporting peace and reconciliation, and protecting civilians. A recent spate of attacks on U.N. troops led the U.N. Security Council to both extend MINUSMA’s mandate and increase force levels up to 13,289 military personnel and 1,920 police personnel.[iii] This same resolution placed strategic priority on the implementation of the peace agreement by relevant Malian stakeholders.[iv]

Operational Weaknesses

While the recent resolution highlights the international community’s concern over the increase in violence in Mali, it does little to address the underlying weaknesses in MINUSMA’s operational architecture. The revised MINUSMA mandate raises troop levels by 2,049 military personnel, a nearly twenty percent increase from the previous year. While this may seem significant, the disparate quality of training for military troops limits MINUSMA’s operational flexibility and resilience.[v] For example, insurgent groups regularly use landmines and roadside bombs in their attacks on security forces in the region.[vi] Major General Michael Lollesgaard, Commander of MINUSMA, has gone on record stating that the lack of counter-IED training and capacity contributes significantly to U.N. mission casualties. Five Chadian peacekeepers were killed in such attacks in May 2015.[vii] With such fundamental issues affecting troop quality, the ability of U.N. peacekeepers to effectively execute their mission—a key aspect of which is protecting civilians—must be examined.

There is no algebraic equation to determine the correct number of peacekeepers required to fulfill MINUSMA’s mandate. While there are concerns about the consistency and quality of troops used in the mission, the geography and demographics of Mali play a role in operational difficulties as well. The northern territory of Azawad, the epicenter of the 2012 Tuareg uprising where the worst violence and instability persists, is over 800,000 square kilometers. With an estimated 17 million people, Mali’s size and population dwarf the UN forces responsible for keeping the peace.[viii] While much of the instability in the country has been isolated to the northern territories, recent attacks underscored the expansion of terrorist networks into the central and southern regions of Mali.[ix] If the international community is serious about this peacekeeping mission, it will need significant investments in training, resources, and manpower.

The Strategy of Political Engagement

Failure to address persistent political grievances placed pressure on the peacekeeping mission to fulfill objectives for which it is woefully unprepared. Since the peace deal was signed in June 2015, there has been little progress on its implementation. The government and militias continue to criticize each other while critical portions of the agreement languish, including provisions mandating the disarmament of militias and the integration of Tuareg groups into joint military patrols in the region.[x] Furthermore, the Malian state has made little effort to redeploy into northern Mali, which leaves only MINUSMA and the French mission Barkhane as security forces in the region.

The continued fighting between rebel groups and lack of engagement by Malian security forces has created a vacuum in which a wide range of bad actors has flourished. Illicit networks continue to exploit smuggling routes across northern Mali and the Sahel, fueling terrorism and criminal activity.[xi] The lack of commitment on the part of the Malian government and other stakeholders ensures that Mali will continue to experience instability and violence well into the future. Major General Lollesgaard underscored this point when he stated, “The only way to improve the situation here in the long term is to get the political process running. You can add 5,000, you can add 10,000 [peacekeepers], but if we’re not getting progress in the implementation of the peace agreement, it will never be enough.”[xii]

The international community sees MINUSMA as an appropriate tool for achieving its strategic objectives. The emphasis on protecting civilians, supporting peace and reconciliation, and overseeing the ceasefire are intended to provide the operational architecture for achieving these objectives, but issues plaguing the peace process in Mali underscore the conflict’s inherently political nature. Currently, MINUSMA is expected to facilitate peace in an environment where the stakeholders, including the Malian government, do not fully back the peace agreement. A strategy for peace needs to reflect this reality. Without the full engagement of Malian stakeholders, no improvements in troop training or numbers will save a doomed strategy for peace.

[i] “Malian Rivals Sign Peace Deal,” Al Jazeera, June 21, 2015, accessed at: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/06/malian-rivals-sign-peace-deal-150620173301883.html.

[ii] United Nations, “Peacekeeping: Fatalities by Year, Mission and Incident Type as of August 31, 2016,” accessed at: http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/fatalities/documents/stats_5a.pdf.

[iii]United Nations, “Security Council extends mandates of UN peacekeeping operations in Darfur, Golan and Mali,” United Nations News Center, June 29, 2016, accessed at: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=54357&Kw1=agreement+for+peace&Kw2=mali&Kw3=#.V_MS_RTk72B


[v] Conor Gaffey, “Peacekeeping in Mali: The U.N.’s Most Dangerous Mission,” Newsweek, June 12, 2016, accessed at: http://www.newsweek.com/mali-un-mission-northern-mali-conflict-aqim-africa-peacekeeping-468907

[vi] Associated Press, “UN peacekeeper killed, 8 wounded in north Mali attack,” Washington Post, October 3, 2016, accessed at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/un-peacekeeper-killed-several-wounded-in-north-mali-attack/2016/10/03/c3772348-89ab-11e6-8cdc-4fbb1973b506_story.html.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] World Bank “Population, total,” accessed at: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL.

[ix] “Mali: United Nations Peacekeepers Killed in Attack,” BBC, May 29, 2016, accessed at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36408943.

[x] Conor Gaffey, “Peacekeeping in Mali: The U.N.’s Most Dangerous Mission,” Newsweek, June 12, 2016, accessed at: http://www.newsweek.com/mali-un-mission-northern-mali-conflict-aqim-africa-peacekeeping-468907

[xi] David Lewis and Adama Diarra, “U.N. Mali mission struggling in desert north with no peace to keep,” Reuters, February 4, 2015, accessed at: http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-mali-un-idUKKBN0L81HN20150204

[xii] Ibid.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.