UN Strikes Back as Conflict Escalates in Mali

Chadian peacekeepers serving with the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) patrol the area around Tessalit, northern Mali, November 3, 2013. (UN Photo/Marco Dormino)

Last week in Mali, northern rebels clashed with each other; rebels attacked peacekeepers; United Nations forces responded with air strikes; and pro-rebel protesters drove UN troops out of an airport in the northern city of Kidal. Two years after a French-led military intervention began, northern Mali has become a battleground between Tuareg and Arab rebels, loyalist militias, regional jihadists, and the Malian government and the UN peacekeepers supporting it.

In early 2013, French and African forces smashed a coalition of jihadists who had controlled northern Mali for much of 2012. The intervention was meant to restore Mali’s territorial integrity and its civilian democracy—both of which collapsed during the complex crisis of 2012-2013. Almost from the moment that French-led forces drove jihadists out of northern Mali, however, a campaign of guerrilla attacks began, starting with a suicide bombing in the city of Gao in February 2013. Meanwhile, and despite a ceasefire agreement and ongoing peace talks, Mali’s government has not found a political settlement with northern rebels.

Mali collapsed in 2012 due to the intersection of three crises with long historical roots. First, there was an uprising by the Tuareg-led rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (French acronym MNLA, where “Azawad” refers to the dream of a Tuareg state). The MNLA’s rebellion was the fourth such venture since Mali’s independence in 1960. The recurring uprisings reflect deep Tuareg grievances over state neglect, repression of earlier rebellions, and resentment at being governed by a remote capital. Second, the collapse included a coup by Malian soldiers against the outgoing civilian president—whose regime fell rapidly in part because widespread corruption had weakened support for him and his government. Third, the rebellion in the north and the turmoil in the south created opportunities for jihadists—who had been operating and putting down roots in Mali for years—to push aside the ostensibly secular Tuareg rebels and claim northern Mali for themselves.

The intervention achieved short-term military successes, but did not create conditions that facilitated resolution of these long-running crises. The model underlying the intervention, as with recent interventions in Libya and elsewhere, was a simplistic one: shoot and vote. The international community calculated that if it expelled jihadists from northern cities, then moved quickly to hold elections for a new civilian government, and simultaneously supported negotiations between Malian authorities and non-jihadist rebels, Mali could regain its footing.

This logic faltered because of its refusal to grapple with just how deep the problems ran. The elections in July/August 2013 installed a new civilian government, headed by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, in Bamako. Yet his government has not been able to make peace with rebels, in part because of the rebels’ internal fragmentation and in part because of the government’s own missteps. In addition to the MNLA, there are various groups and factions, such as the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (French acronym HCUA) and the Arab Movement of the Azawad (MAA). In July 2013, the MNLA and the HCUA signed an accord with the government of Mali that paved the way for elections and agreed to a post-election peace dialogue, but the deal left “many important questions unanswered,” including the disarmament of the MNLA and the status of Kidal.

These issues fueled further conflict. In a provocative and unsuccessful bid to assert governmental authority over Kidal, Mali’s former prime minister Moussa Mara visited the city in May 2014. His visit triggered a battle between Malian forces and the MNLA—and ultimately contributed to his own resignation earlier this month. Rebels quickly signed a cease-fire, but just as quickly violated it, with the MNLA and a faction of the MAA occupying northern towns such as Ber and N’Tillit. In July, the government and northern groups initiated peace talks in neighboring Algeria, but multiple rounds have yet to produce an effective settlement. With past, failed accords looming large in Mali’s collective memory, players at the talks may not be disposed to make a durable peace.

The conflict is now constantly evolving. Here is one snapshot from earlier this month, highlighting the complexity and the fragility of the situation: “A precarious calm reigns around the district of Ber. Inside the town are MNLA troops and those of the UN’s blue helmets. A dozen kilometers from Ber, on the left bank of the Niger River, are the fighters of GATIA, another armed Tuareg group, but pro-government. The MNLA and GATIA each have the support of a wing of the MAA.” With northern groups at each other’s throats and the central government’s authority weak, peace seems a remote prospect.

Jihadists are another force disrupting any chance at equilibrium. Once they lost territorial control, they pursued a strategy of guerrilla attacks inside Mali combined with occasional but shocking demonstrations of regional reach, such as the January 2013 hostage crisis at Algeria’s Tigentourine gas facility. Terrorist attacks occurred in the Sahel region before Mali’s crisis, of course—the point is that regional jihadists emerged from the French-led intervention with much of their capacity for violence intact. Inside Mali, UN peacekeepers, French soldiers, and the Malian military have become primary targets of this violence. To take a few examples, there have been suicide bombings in northern Mali in March 2013, April 2013, May 2013, September 2013, October 2013, July 2014, August 2014, and January 2015. With the northern rebellion re-escalating and insecurity across the north, it is almost impossible to begin thinking through how to seriously grapple with the problem of jihadism.

The world’s attention, to the extent that it was ever focused on Mali for brief periods in 2012 and 2013, has shifted elsewhere. But one lesson of the ongoing conflict is that the search for quick solutions immediately after the intervention failed Mali in the medium term. Engagement by Mali’s neighbors has made small breakthroughs at various points—such as the cease-fire after the May 2014 battle in Kidal—but Mali’s leaders and partners will need to think in terms of years of reconstruction and peacebuilding. Even if the parties reach an accord in Algiers, implementing it on the ground will be difficult. Proponents of a political settlement will have to be patient, and the government will have to work tenaciously to build legitimacy and trust.