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The UK is set to deploy 250 troops in support of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Following the dispatch of Ch-47 helicopters to support French operations last year, the move has raised questions as to the UK’s strategy as it expands its contribution to the world's most dangerous ongoing peacekeeping mission.
Understanding the Background
To understand what is strategically possible it is necessary to appreciate how the conflict has evolved. In 2012, Tuareg separatists joined forces with Islamist militants and, using heavy weapons lifted from Libyan arsenals, swept the government from Northern Mali. Upon taking over Timbuktu they set about destroying local shrines, burning ancient manuscripts, and hunting down musicians. In response the international community intervened. The separatists were turned back at the neck of Mali, near Mopti, with French forces leading the counterattack.
At this point the conflict divided. France continued to conduct offensive counterterrorism raids against Al-Qai’da in the Islamic Maghreb, but a separate effort was required to protect civilian population centres in the north, and facilitate dialogue between the Tuareg and the government. This led to the formation of the UN peacekeeping mission, which drew heavily on battalions from Chad, Burkina Faso and Senegal. European states focused on providing training and planning support to the Malian government in the south. By 2015, talks between the government and Tuareg separatists were making progress. Then it all fell apart.
A String of Setbacks
The first setback occurred around the town of Mopti. In 2012, Fulani cattle herders had been armed and mobilised to defend farming communities. After the Tuareg were driven off they asked for grazing rights on farmland, and were refused. The farmers asked for protection from the government, and when the Malian army showed up, they came in hard. Within months, Fulani herders had started an insurgency, initially burning government buildings, but they quickly created links with Al-Qa’ida to get weapons, and from there terrorist attacks were carried out in the Malian capital of Bamako. Making things worse, the ongoing civil war in Libya, and Boko Haram’s insurgency in Nigeria, created a cluster of Islamist groups who began to cooperate.
At the same time the Peacekeepers were taking casualties. Four battalions of Peacekeepers had deployed to protect population centres like Timbuktu. But the local economy depended upon trade, and as fewer locals could make a living, many turned to banditry. The UN lacked the manpower to protect the trade routes, and so when I visited the battalion headquarters in Timbuktu in 2015 every morning would start with a series of notifications of raids against trade caravans that MINUSMA could never reach in time to protect. As banditry grew, the number of ambushes on UN personnel increased. As of today, MINUSMA has lost 208 troops. These attacks, seen as ceasefire violations, and carried out under jihadist or political flags to attract foreign funding, undermined the developing peace process.
What Can the UK Do?
Those calling for a UK strategy to solve these challenges are likely to go unsatisfied. The UK cannot impose a strategy on MINUSMA, whose actions are dictated by its mandate from the UN Security Council. And, compared to France the UK does not have enough ‘skin in the game’ to call the shots. However, the UK is set to play an important role that could make the formation of a strategy possible.
One fundamental problem in Mali has been coordinating the various efforts. France is seen to operate unilaterally and in isolation from other efforts. The UN meanwhile was split between European training missions in the south, and its ground-holding role in the north, without oversight of Malian units moving north, or the ability to protect the key roads. Moreover because of the ambiguous relationship between bandits, separatists, and jihadists, the French might well target those that other parties wished to talk to.
The UK can help to provide this missing connective tissue between various efforts. UK logistical support to France’s counterterrorism mission has drastically increased France’s reach, security, and tempo of operations, enabling the rapid movement of large numbers of troops. The French and UK troops respect each other, and because UK forces are central to the missions, they also know what is being planned. UK peacekeepers meanwhile are to be reconnaissance troops, mounted on light all-terrain vehicles, and able to patrol long distances. Assertive patrols along trade routes, and pursuing raiders, is a capability that MINUSMA has wanted, and lacked, for some time. Combined with UK training teams in Bamako, Senegal and Nigeria, and liaison officers in Chad, the UK is trying to be a valued partner so that it can bring the right people together. It is up to them to develop a strategy.
In addition, a number of UK partners further afield may deploy peacekeepers to Mali in the foreseeable future. The UK provides training to Kenya, Ethiopia, and Malawi, among others, with the latter a keen contributor to peacekeeping missions. If the UK were theoretically to deliver pre-deployment training to Malawian peacekeepers destined for Mali, the chances are that a Malawian infanteer would be as unfamiliar with the Malian operating environment as a British Dragoon. But if the UK has troops in Mali then this allows UK trainers to be better informed about the operating environment, and enables more accurate evaluation of what trainees do in the field. So, the British deployment could be an enabler and useful conduit for others.
The Bigger Picture
There are more self-interested reasons for the UK to deploy to Mali. With tense negotiations ahead over Brexit, and an ambition to widen the UK’s security and trade partnerships globally, providing niche capabilities to allies and partners is an easy way to generate good will. It is not just France; MINUSMA is set to have significant contributions from Germany, Estonia, Denmark, the Netherlands, and other important European allies with whom the UK wishes to strengthen its interoperability, and joint experience.
A further motivation for the deployment is to combat jihadist militants. The proliferation of these groups in the Sahel facilitates the movement of drugs, arms, and smuggled people into Europe, and threatens partner governments.
The fight has been characterised as unwinnable. In some ways this is true for the UK and France, because both countries have allowed local partners to define victory. The UK could – as it did quite successfully in the 19th and 20th centuries – define its own victory conditions and set about implementing them. But one suspects critics would have rather more fundamental objections to such an approach, and with justification.
For now, all France and the UK can do is make victory possible, and it should be noted that a number of regional governments have proven resilient, and proactive. It must also be acknowledged that things could get much worse if European partners withdrew entirely, just as premature withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 led to a catastrophic outcome in 2014.
One vital question for the UK is how much influence it gains through small deployments. Demands that the UK have a clearer strategy do not take into account that sending 250 people to join a 15,000 strong force does not allow a country to determine how the mission operates. But the emerging UK Integrated Operating Concept frames engagement with allies and partners as a critical way to prevent the need for larger deployments.
Many planners in Whitehall will, therefore, be keen to see what emerges from the deployment in Mali, and what as a result may become possible.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Peacekeepers from Burkina Faso patrol near Timbuktu, June 2015. Courtesy of Jack Watling