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Sep 15, 2017 | Commentary

On July 13th, the U.N. envoy for West Africa and the Sahel issued an explicit warning to the United Nations Security Council. Mohamed Ibn Chambas explained that violent extremist activity in Malian border regions had increased significantly in the past few months, signaling a spread of hostilities from the northern desert expanses of Mali to Burkina Faso and Niger. Chambas commented that “efforts by member states in the region to deliver on development, improve infrastructure, create jobs and strengthen human security are being hampered by traditional and new drivers of conflict and insecurity.”

The UN effort to mitigate those drivers has been widely criticized. The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has been dubbed almost ubiquitously, “the deadliest peacekeeping mission in the world” – and for good reason.  According to the UN, 125 UN peacekeeping personnel have died during the mission in four years. The 31.25 casualties per year average is almost double that of the next highest active UN peacekeeping mission.

MINUSMA is unique compared to the other major peacekeeping missions of 10,000 troops or more in that it is the only mission operating against an active and diverse terrorist element. A host of violent groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), al-Murabitun and Ansar Dine are operating in the region. There is also a secular separatist movement seeking independence for the ethnic Tuareg. Much like in Syria, it’s difficult to distinguish between the terrorist elements and the Tuareg freedom fighters. Even more difficult is to create a stabilization vision which satisfies everyone.

Going hand in hand with the high fatality rate, MINUSMA has also been criticized for its lack of credible capability in counter-terrorism operations. Most peacekeepers—particularly those doing most of the dirty work, the contingent of fellow West Africans—lack proper equipment and training.

The top 7 troop contributors to MINUSMA are ranked as follows: Burkina Faso, Bangladesh, Chad, Togo, Niger, Guinea, and Senegal. According to the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, those nations spent about $4.26 billion dollars combined on defense in 2016. Each new American Zumwalt-class guided missile destroyer will cost about that much. As brave and well intentioned as these peacekeepers may be, that financial reality limits these nations’ ability to outfit their military for difficult asymmetric conflicts.

Aside from resource scarcity, there is reason to believe that MINUSMA forces from developing nations are not properly trained. A study from the Danish Institute of Security Studies cited a civilian officer in Gao who called certain contingents of troops, “unpredictable and erratic.” They are “either on [a] low gear or [a] fast, violent and aggressive gear, but there is nothing in between,” he said.

The study also reported that the bulkiest contingent of troops, from African nations, are being put into the most difficult military situations. The European forces are mainly focused on reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence, whereas the heaviest troop contributing countries (TCC) are on the front lines doing the majority of the fighting in the most dangerous areas: “Some soldiers, notably from Chad, have reportedly been stationed in Tessalit and Aguelhok close to the Algerian border for two to three years without leave.”

The mission is Mali is also suffering from a dearth of adequate air and mechanized capabilities. There are only three military helicopter units and two fixed wing units in MINUSMA. National contingents also have restrictive rules about how their equipment can be used. For example, according to another DIIS report, the El Salvadorean attack helicopters can only venture one hour outside of their base in Timbuktu.

Outside of that radius of support, supply convoys are expected to protect themselves. A unit of 130 troops in 13-14 armored personnel carriers (APC) are expected to protect a supply convoy roughly 8-10 kilometers long, without proper air support or anti-IED capabilities. When an APC is hit by an IED, the convoy is forced into a dangerous delay, leaving troops vulnerable. Often, troops are forced to continue in unarmored UN vehicles. Obviously, this can cause significant psychological strain on a convoy that can require weeks of travel over Mali’s harsh terrain.  A RAND report highlighted the fact that “militarily the organization is struggling to maintain supply routes to existing locations…forces are pushed into static positions as a result of military necessity.” An interviewee told RAND that the “only ops are for survival,” rather than security or civil-military relations.

To be fair, certain vehicles simply cannot function in the dusty and scorching conditions of the Sahara, where temperatures reach 50 degrees Celsius. Numerous reports noted that half of the German Bundeswehr vehicles deployed to Mali were rendered un-operational by the conditions.  The German Tiger combat helicopter is grounded in temperatures over 43 degrees Celsius.

Further complicating the task is the sheer size of Mali, which is almost three times as large as Iraq. Much of it is covered by swathes of the Sahara Desert and, like many terrorist groups, the Malian insurgents are thriving in those enormous and sparsely populated areas. Realistically, how can MINUSMA be expected to stabilize an enormous region with extremely limited resources?

The MINUSMA experience raises some broader challenges. Is UN peacekeeping as it is currently structured capable of combating an insurgency with an under-armed transnational force? How does the world need to react to neutralize a growing security threat capable of upsetting order in the entire region?

Western military powers have a choice in how to solve this problem. For one, they can write more cheques. Increased military aid would allow heavy TCCs to outfit their soldiers with modern equipment, vehicles and weapons. Or, they can become more directly involved. The 4,000 plus French troops participating in Operation Barkhane and 1,300 plus European MINUSMA troops can be supplemented by troop contributions from non-participating nations like the United States and Canada. Either way, the current model for international peacekeeping in Mali is unsustainable and unlikely to solve the many problems facing the country.


Matt Cohen is a Junior Research Fellow at the Centre for Security Governance.

Feature Photo: UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti