Central Mali, MINUSMA

The UN Peace Operation in Mali: A Troubled Yet Needed Mission

MINUSMA peacekeepers from Senegal, during an operation in central Mali in the villages of So (Bandiagara), Sadhia Pheul (Bankass), and Djominati (Bankass). (UN Photo/Gema Cortes)

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 organization 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. 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.

Since 2016, however, MINUSMA’s effectiveness in terms of stabilization and the protection of civilians (PoC) has decreased. 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 sustained an extraordinary number of fatalities compared to other recent UN peace operations.

In addition to the challenging situation in the north, central Mali has destabilized significantly. In the regions of Mopti and Segou, the growing presence of and attacks carried out by jihadist groups have triggered the further retreat of an already relatively absent state. Jihadist activities and retaliation by government forces have stoked the proliferation of self-defense militias and a vicious cycle of intercommunal violence that has reached unprecedented levels. MINUSMA has only been mandated to help the Malian government address the situation since June 2018, but has never received adequate resources to be effective.

A research team from the Effectiveness in Peace Operations Network (EPON) conducted 66 interviews with MINUSMA and other international officials, Malian officials, civil society representatives, and researchers; organized focus group meetings with civil society in Bamako, Gao, and Mopti; and conducted literature and document research. The team found that MINUSMA is heavily criticized. Interviewees and focus group meeting participants feel 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.

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 the moment, during which civilians are dying in attacks, and major mission funders like the United States are losing interest in supporting a costly UN peace operation that is not able to deliver quick results.

MINUSMA might regain momentum in its efforts to stabilize 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.

A primary strategic policy dilemma is whether MINUSMA should be decentralized. 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. 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. At the same time, one of the main problems is that the majority of the Malian population does not see the major benefits of MINUSMA’s operations.

Another dilemma is whether MINUSMA should concentrate its efforts in northern or central Mali. Originally, MINUSMA was set up to deal with the conflict in the north. MINUSMA’s 2019 mandate renewal has focused more attention on the central regions and particularly on PoC, while the mission’s tasks in the north remained the same. With roughly the same resources, attention paid to the central regions may be at the cost of gains made in the north. This raises the question of whether the Security Council has made MINUSMA’s mandate more unrealistic.

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. This task, like MINUSMA’s supportive role for the Joint Force of the Group of Five for the Sahel (JF-G5 Sahel), is at times at odds with the tasks associated with implementing the Algiers Agreement. In the central and northern regions, the challenge is that support for the national government and its security sector is required to overcome one structural cause of instability in Mali—state weakness. However, in the absence of sufficient human rights due diligence, legitimacy, and inclusivity, it may further contribute to another cause of instability—insufficient inclusiveness and good governance.

A final dilemma is whether MINUSMA should support counterterrorism and stabilization, or focus on politics. Current counterterrorism efforts conducted in Mali are highly problematic as they have further fueled 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 destabilize 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 has in essence decided the mission has to struggle on with the current resources, while having to focus on central Mali in addition to the north. This might not further destabilize the situation in the north directly, but it may not be enough to help stabilize the central regions. Most likely, Mali will continue its slow process of destabilization, 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. Its decisions at that time may have to be more drastic. The following strategic policy options could conceivably be proposed or advanced by the Council.

1. Drawdown and possible continuation of MINUSMA as a 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 of a collapse of the Malian state affecting the broader region, should be enough to drop this option. In the absence of its 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, give momentum to those forces that want to continue the conflict, and undo the current peace dividend.

2. Readjustment to a 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 Bamako), and key regional players. Currently, MINUSMA is only meant to provide logistical support to the JF-G5 Sahel, but the military counterterrorism efforts of the JF-G5 Sahel on the Malian side of the border could be integrated into MINUSMA. 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 or 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.

The benefits of both models, among others, are that the military counterterrorism strategy would be better integrated into the international approach for the region and it would 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 FAMA, which is not yet reconstituted, and the breakdown of the social contract—the primary challenge in Mali—cannot be solved militarily.

3. Continuation as a peacekeeping and stabilization operation, 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 and, depending on the level of success in the central regions, the north might eventually break away again.

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 deployment in the north and, therefore, not risking the stability of those regions, 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 requires reparation of the social contract in the country, which 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.

Jaïr van der Lijn is the Director of the Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and Independent Consultant. He tweets @JairvdLijn.