Mali: continuing a troubled yet needed UN Mission
Afghanistan, Syria, Mali and Libya have been hotbeds of conflict for years on end. Through NATO or UN missions, the West is directly or indirectly involved in each of these conflicts. This Clingendael Spectator series on Western interventions debates the current status and future of these conflicts. Third stop: Mali, where the UN peace operation is becoming increasingly less effective. Without the operation however, the security situation in Mali and perhaps even the broader Sahel region would likely deteriorate significantly.
Until 2016, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was a relatively successful peace operation. It managed to improve stability in northern Mali, decrease the number of civilians killed in the conflict and allow large numbers of displaced persons to return home.
MINUSMA also supported the organisation of the 2013 elections and assisted the peace process, culminating in the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali also known as the Algiers Agreement.1 Many of these achievements are still standing and are particularly impressive considering the size of Mali, the logistical challenges, the hostile security environment and, in spite of a $1 billion budget, the relatively limited resources for implementing its vast mandate.
MINUSMA has seen an extraordinary number of fatalities compared to other recent UN peace operations
Since 2016, however, MINUSMA’s effectiveness in terms of stabilisation and the protection of civilians is being challenged. Violence has increased as jihadist groups have been attacking MINUSMA, the Forces Armées Maliennes (FAMA) and the Algiers Agreement signatories. As a consequence, MINUSMA has seen an extraordinary number of fatalities compared to other recent UN peace operations.
In addition to the challenging situation in north, central Mali has destabilised significantly. In the regions of Mopti and Segou the growing presence of jihadist groups and the attacks they launch, have triggered the further retreat of an already relatively absent state.
Jihadist activities and retaliation by government forces have stoked the proliferation of self-defence militias and a vicious cycle of intercommunal violence that has reached unprecedented levels. MINUSMA has been mandated to help the Malian government address the situation since June 2018, but has never received adequate resources to be effective.
MINUSMA needs time to succeed, but this requires valuable time that Mali does not have at the moment
A research team from the Effectiveness in Peace Operations Network (EPON) conducted, among others, sixty-six interviews with MINUSMA- and other international officials, Malian officials, civil society representatives and researchers. The team found that MINUSMA is heavily criticised: Interviewees and focus group meeting participants feel that the mission is no longer able to improve peace and stability in Mali and they readily described MINUSMA’s shortcomings.
At the same time there is consensus that without MINUSMA the security situation in Mali, and perhaps even the broader Sahel region, would likely deteriorate significantly.
Four strategic policy dilemmas
Currently, MINUSMA is at a crossroads. It needs time to succeed, but this is also valuable time that Mali does not have at a moment when civilians are dying in attacks and major funders like the United States are losing interest in supporting a costly UN mission that is not able to deliver quick results.
MINUSMA might be able to regain momentum in its efforts to stabilise Mali and the broader Sahel region if strategic choices are made on a number of policy dilemmas. On the other hand, if the UN Security Council makes budget-driven choices and continues to desire more without adequate resourcing, the results may be disastrous.
1: Should MINUSMA be decentralised?
A primary strategic policy dilemma is if MINUSMA should be decentralised. Although large parts of MINUSMA’s civilian component were meant to be deployed in the field, logistical and security reasons have prevented this from happening.
One of the main problems with the centralised nature of the operation is that the majority of the Malian population does not actually experience the benefits of MINUSMA
Currently, large parts of the civilian component are concentrated in Bamako. This makes communication with the central government easier and facilitates the institution-building side of the mandate. However, one of the main problems of centralisation is that the majority of the Malian population does not actually experience the (major) benefits of MINUSMA’s operations.
2: Northern or central Mali?
Another dilemma is whether MINUSMA should concentrate its efforts on northern or central Mali. Originally, MINUSMA was set up to deal with the conflict in the north. The 2019 mandate renewal has focused more attention on the central regions, particularly on the protection of civilians, while the mission’s tasks in the north remained the same.
With roughly the same resources, attention paid to the central regions may go at the cost of gains made in the north. This raises the question if the Security Council has made MINUSMA’s mandate more unrealistic.
3: Linked with government?
A third is whether MINUSMA should link more closely with the government. The mission’s current strategic aim is to restore and extend state authority throughout Mali’s national territory. In the central and northern regions, the challenge is that more popular support for the national government and its security branch is required to overcome one structural cause of instability in Mali: state weakness.
MINUSMA’s support of the Malian government may risk increasing instability as a result of lacking good governance
In the absence of sufficient human rights due diligence, legitimacy, and inclusivity by the Malian government, MINUSMA’s support for it may risk increasing instability as a result of lacking good governance.
4: Counterterrorism and stabilisation or politics?
A final dilemma is whether MINUSMA should support counterterrorism and stabilisation, or focus on politics. Current counterterrorism efforts conducted in Mali are highly problematic as they have further fuelled local conflicts.
The limited support of the government, its poor human rights- and governance record and its reported use of ethnic proxy militias, who are responsible for committing atrocities against the civilian population, make it an awkward partner for MINUSMA. At the same time, returning to political tasks alone may further destabilise the country and potentially the whole Sahel-West African region.
The Way Forward: Some strategic policy options
With MINUSMA’s 2019 mandate renewal the Security Council essentially decided that the mission has to struggle on with the current resources, while expanding its focus from central Mali to the north.
This spread of resources may not directly have detrimental effects on the mission, but it will become harder to stabilise the country. Most likely, Mali will continue its slow process of destabilisation, but the country will not immediately collapse or break up.
In the coming years, the Security Council will likely again be confronted with the question of how to move both MINUSMA and Mali forward. The following strategic policy options, although not uncontroversial, could well be advanced by the Council:
1. Continue MINUSMA as political mission
Drawing down the military force and concentrating on the civilian component of MINUSMA appears to be the most cost-effective solution in the short-run. However, the risk and serious consequences of northern Mali breaking away, or the effects of a total Malian state collapse on the broader region, should be a reason to drop this option.
In the absence of military presence, MINUSMA is less able to continue its military and civilian confidence-building role. Moreover, a military drawdown would signal a lack of interest from the international community in developments in Mali and give momentum to those forces that want to continue the conflict.
2. Transform into counterterrorism mission
Although this is a less likely and equally problematic option, it is clearly the preferred option of the Malian government, many Malian stakeholders (particularly in the capital Bamako) and key regional players to transform MINUSMA into a counterterrorism mission.
Currently, MINUSMA is only meant to provide logistical support to the regionally operating Joint Force of the Group of Five for the Sahel (JF-G5 Sahel) for counterterrorism, but the unit’s operations on Malian territory could be integrated into MINUSMA itself.
Since MINUSMA as a whole is unlikely to receive such a counterterrorism mandate, the JF-G5 Sahel could be deployed as a Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) comparable to that of the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), as was originally foreseen by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Alternatively, a model like the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the UN Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) could be envisioned in which MINUSMA is replaced with a regional counterterrorism force that is supported by UN logistics.
Without the mission’s confidence-building presence, the stability of the whole Sahel region might be at further risk
The benefits of both models are, among others, that the international military counterterrorism strategy would be better integrated into the region. It would also be better resourced, more accountable in terms of human rights obligations and more legitimate as it would be part of the UN system.
Two major disadvantages are that the JF-G5 Sahel is essentially the Forces Armées Maliennes, which has not yet been re-established, and the breakdown of the state—the primary challenge in Mali—cannot be solved militarily.
3. Continue peacekeeping, but better resourced
While the need for a large scale presence of MINUSMA in northern Mali may not seem evident at the moment, the importance of continuing political and military support to the peace process should not be underestimated.
Without the mission’s confidence-building presence, the stability of the whole Sahel region might be at further risk. Depending on the level of success in the central regions, the north might eventually break away again.
Whatever strategic policy option will be picked, security and stability in Mali eventually will require reparation of the social contract between the state and the people
At the same time there is a serious need for the protection of civilians in the central regions, which requires additional resources. Enhancing MINUSMA’s outreach and representation might prevent the central regions from collapsing, though solutions need to be found to ensure stability in the long-term. Further expanding the mission in the central regions without affecting the stability of the north would require that MINUSMA have additional resources.
This would clearly be the best option for Mali. However, in addition to the higher costs—which would be a challenge for the UN under the current budget constraints—this would allow certain parties to dodge their responsibilities further, as the UN would be taking care of them.
Which Path Forward?
Whatever strategic policy option will be picked, security and stability in Mali eventually will require reparation of the social contract between the state and the people. This is a much more complex need than a peace operation or the UN system can achieve.
In the end, any contribution MINUSMA can make will depend on the willingness of Malians to strive for an effective and inclusive government. At the same time, supporting such a long-term process cannot be done on the cheap. Missions like MINUSMA cannot continue to be requested to do more with the same or even less resources.
This article was originally published by EPON (The Effectiveness of Peace Operations Network)