Mali’s Peacekeeping Mission: Full-Fledged Behemoth, or Have Lessons Been Learned?

The UN Security Council has asked the UN Secretary-General (SG) to report by the end of March on the feasibility of and conditions for the creation of a UN peacekeeping operation in Mali, which would likely absorb troops from the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) and the small advance UN political and human rights presence already there with the UN Office in Mali (UNOM).

But as the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operation (DPKO) is about to send an initial “exploration mission” to Bamako, the fear is that many in New York–in the Security Council and UN Secretariat alike–have already made up their mind that a full-fledged UN multidimensional peacekeeping operation is the way to go; some are reportedly already looking for an acronym for the new peacekeeping operation.

The prospect of a new UN peacekeeping mission in Mali should be an opportunity for a broader strategic discussion between the UN Secretariat and member states (Council members & troop-contributing countries in particular) on where UN peacekeeping is going in light of lessons from past UN missions on the continent, and some of the challenges the UN is likely to face in Mali.

Without prejudging the conclusions of the assessment that will be carried out on the ground, here are some initial thoughts for the mandate and format of a possible UN peacekeeping mission in Mali.

Key Conclusions

  • Talks of peacekeeping troops should not distract from the fact that the crisis in Mali remains a political and governance one. The mission should therefore include a strong political mandate, in support of ongoing regional efforts by ECOWAS and the AU and the implementation of the transition road map, but also an exit strategy based on specific benchmarks for drawdown.
  • The issue of the host country’s consent will need to be carefully considered when drafting the initial mandate. With divisions in Bamako, and the upcoming July elections, it could easily be reversed, especially if Malians start seeing a large, static, and risk-averse UN peacekeeping presence as a burden rather than serving its interests of keeping Islamists at bay in the north.
  • A lighter UN peacekeeping footprint, operating in parallel with a robust non-UN rapid response force, could help reduce the risk to UN staff. It would also mean that the protection of civilians component of a future mandate should focus on supporting the political process and national institutions (in conformity with the HRDDP), which may also help manage Malian expectations.
  • A phased deployment with an initial short-term mandate focused on a few key functions could give the UN some room to better tailor the mission design and capacities based on ongoing discussions with national counterparts.
  • Given the central issue of organized crime and trafficking, which made it possible for criminal groups and jihadist organizations to expand their influence in northern Mali, it should be included in early assessments and analysis, which should in turn inform the mandate.


The stars seem to be (at least temporarily) aligning behind a French push for a UN multidimensional peacekeeping operation in Mali to be authorized soon, in part because the push includes a Council resolution by April which would provide an exit strategy to its already prolonged—if so far successful—military intervention launched on January 11, while “multilateralizing” it, even if it means keeping a small rapid reaction force alongside the UN mission for some time.

Key Council members seem to support the idea on the basis that such an arrangement would provide greater Security Council oversight of the mission than an AMISOM-type partnership with the Africa-led force AFISMA, or a UNAMID-type hybrid mission. The United States floated the idea soon after the beginning of the French intervention, and Russia, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council this month, indicated this week that it was ready to discuss a UN peacekeeping force for Mali.

Although there are some concerns over whether there is yet a peace to keep in Mali, such a UN operation would also address some of the UN Secretariat’s earlier reservations with regards to a UN-funded support package for an offensive military operation expressed in the Secretary-General’s December letter (S/2012/926) and November report (S/2012/894). It would provide ECOWAS troop contributors with the predictable funding and logistics they need; last week, the African Union expressed support for the transformation of AFISMA into a UN operation under certain parameters. And a recent letter from the interim President of Mali, Dioncounda Traoré, to the Secretary-General presumably expressed host country consent for a multidimensional UN operation, but without a heavy UN presence in Bamako.

This apparent enthusiasm for deploying a UN peacekeeping mission in Mali is soon likely to be tempered by the challenges it will face on the ground. Limitations of the current UN peacekeeping model should not necessarily lead to inaction on the part of the UN, but rather it could be turned into an opportunity for fresh thinking. It could become the impetus for a broader discussion between the UN Secretariat and member states (Council members and troop-contributing countries in particular) on the need for the peacekeeping tool to reform itself and adapt to realities on the ground, building on some of the lessons from past peacekeeping experiences on the continent, from Chad (MINURCAT) to the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO).

The first lesson is that peacekeeping troops on the ground are not a substitute for a political strategy aimed at building accountable and legitimate institutions and fostering genuine national reconciliation. The Department of Peacekeeping Operation (DPKO) taking over from the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) and replacing UNOM and AFISMA by a multidimensional UN peacekeeping operation should not distract from the fact that the crisis in Mali is first and foremost a political (and governance) one before being a security crisis. A deployment focused on the northeastern part of the country only (much like in the case of MINURCAT and MONUSCO) could further risk sidelining the UN mission from the political process in Bamako while drawing its leadership into complex operational and security matters. There is also the risk that it may unwittingly play into the North-South divide.

The mission and its future SRSG should therefore be given a strong political mandate, with a regional dimension in support of ongoing efforts by ECOWAS and the AU including towards the implementation of the transition road map adopted on January 29 by Mali’s National Assembly. The Council resolution should also include an exit strategy based on specific benchmarks (including both political and security governance ones) for drawdown. Short of that, the peacekeeping mission risks being perceived as “instrumentalized” by certain Western powers through the Security Council.

Related to this is the fact that the very presence of a peacekeeping mission will not achieve coordination and coherence of messages and efforts between the many actors on the ground. Regardless of the willingness or not of others to coordinate, the UN mission will have to be empowered by the Council to play such a role. The European Union (EU) did not wait for the UN mission to be authorized to deploy an initial 70 EU military instructors in February as part of its EU training mission for Malian Defense and Security Forces. France will likely keep a small rapid reaction force alongside the UN mission for some time. And the UN already has a Special Envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, and a Special Representative for West Africa, Said Djinnit, and the African Union a Special Representative and head of AFISMA, while the UK, and France, also each have a special envoy for the Sahel.

Another important lesson from past UN missions is that the success of a peacekeeping mission is largely dependent on the consent of the host country, which is reversible; particularly if not nurtured by regional and global powers, including members of the Security Council. While the current interim President of Mali, Dioncounda Traoré, may have expressed its country’s consent to the UN mission, this should not discount the fact that Bamako remains profoundly divided. The French military intervention may have (temporarily) strengthened the authority of the interim president (and through him the otherwise discredited former regime), but the influential military junta that previously strongly opposed the deployment of foreign troops in Mali is not about to disappear, as indicated by the nomination of Captain Sanogo as head of the Military Committee for Reform of the Armed Forces and Security in February.

The timing and duration of the initial peacekeeping mandate should be carefully considered. The presidential and legislative elections announced for July 7 and July 21 could lead the new Malian government to ask for the departure of the UN mission (if authorized beforehand), particularly if it starts seeing the UN presence as a burden rather than serving its main interest of keeping Islamists at bay in the north.

This highlights another possible tension: while it would absorb (through re-hatting) much of the AFISMA forces, a UN stabilization mission would likely not engage in combat and counterinsurgency operations, much of which have until now been carried out by the French and Chadian troops, which are not part of ECOWAS. This would not, however, protect static UN troops guarding major cities in northern Mali from becoming the target of Islamic insurgents and terrorists. A smaller number of UN troops with a limited set of tasks (focused on force protection and operational security) operating in parallel to a robust non-UN (possibly French-African) rapid response (fighting) force with air support, as well as US drones already operating out of neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger, could help reduce such risks.

This leads us to the important issue of the footprint and the need to resist the “one-size fits all” approach. Regardless of the conclusions of the conflict-analysis assessments, the temptation for the UN will again be to push for the authorization and deployment of a full-fledged, multidimensional peacekeeping behemoth that includes every piece in the DPKO toolbox—including, for instance, corrections officers, even if prisons may not be a central issue to the current crisis—in support of an all-encompassing Council mandate. And the interim government in Bamako would have difficulty resisting this, particularly if UN troops are deployed primarily in the northern part of the country.

A lighter footprint would also mean that the protection of civilians (PoC) component of a future mandate should focus on supporting the political process and working with key national institutions towards establishing a protective environment in conformity with the UN Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (HRDDP). A light footprint and a PoC mandate that is not centered on the provision of “physical protection” by armed peacekeepers may also help manage Malian expectations.

Instead, the UN could use a phased deployment approach (such as the one used for the UN Support Mission in Libya, UNSMIL), with an initial short-term mandate and a limited number of key functions to start with (political and electoral affairs, human rights, and security sector reform, for instance). This would address some of the above concerns regarding the outcome of the elections, and help manage the consent of the host authorities while offering the UN system some flexibility and room to adapt its presence based on longer-term plans developed with national counterparts. It would also permit a better tailoring of the future mission design and capacities (including staff profiles) including possibly the need to bring outside capacities on board (building on the CIVCAP).

This could be of particular relevance if the UN were to take a different approach to dealing with the central issue of organized crime and drug trafficking, which made it possible for criminal groups and jihadist organizations such as al-Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb (AQIM) to expand their influence in northern Mali and erode state authority. Since there are clear links between insurgents, terrorists and criminal groups, and the region’s vulnerability has created a permissive environment for illicit activity, any long-term solution will require an effective crime control strategy. As discussed in a forthcoming International Peace Institute publication, peace operations thus far have treated organized crime as “the elephant in the room.” As Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kosovo, and other cases have demonstrated, ignoring the problem will not make it go away.

Arthur Boutellis is a Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute.