After launching a counteroffensive against Islamist forces in Mali earlier this year, French President François Hollande is eager to transfer ownership of the mission to the African International Support Mission (AFISMA) under the direction of the United Nations. While the United States should continue to support French efforts to stabilize Mali, history shows that the U.N. is not effective at peace enforcement.
A U.N. peacekeeping operation should be deployed only after French and African forces have restored stability. Moreover, the U.N. should not lead the effort in Mali but instead be a complementary partner to an African-led AFISMA.
Immediately after the Malian army toppled the government of Amadou Toumani Touré last March, a coalition of Islamist groups occupied northern Mali’s three administrative regions of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal. In a belated response, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) approved Resolution 2085 in December 2012, authorizing the use of force to reclaim Mali’s northern territory.
Earlier this year, Islamist militants launched a southward offensive, capturing the town of Mopti on Mali’s north–south demarcation line. In response, France, Mali’s former colonial ruler, took swift action, launching Operation Serval and deploying 500 troops to stall the militants’ advance toward Bamako. The force was later increased to approximately 4,500 troops.
Despite Islamist forces’ advance to Diabaly, well below the north–south demarcation line, French and Malian armed forces pushed the militants out of northern Mali’s captured regions. Currently, French and Malian forces claim to have recaptured the three administrative regions of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal.
While progress has been made, the situation is far from resolved, and there is still a substantial risk of renewed conflict. Prior to French intervention, militants had secured resources and constructed camps in northern Mali’s desert in case they were forced to retreat. Some reports indicate that militants are also seeking refuge near the Algerian border. This sets the stage for a guerilla insurgency following French withdrawal.
Furthermore, some reports suggest that militants have blended in with the local population and are waiting for an opportunity to re-emerge. A recent spate of suicide attacks in conjunction with a counterattack on Gao by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa is the first sign of the Islamist coalition’s transition from an occupying force to an insurgent movement.
As Mali’s former colonial ruler, France regards Francophone Africa as its near abroad. Many French nationals live, visit, or are active in the region. They are also targeted for kidnapping by criminal and terrorist groups. Additionally, France fears the radicalization of its African immigrant community, many of whom maintain ties to their homeland.
Hollande’s government has had to clarify French intentions and objectives in Mali. While Hollande initially stated that French forces would be in Mali “as long as necessary,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that French forces would be on the ground only for a matter of “weeks.” While France has achieved most of its objectives—including halting the militants’ progress toward the capital and aerial attacks on targeted sites—restoration of governance and restoring peace and stability in the North will be a difficult task and will require prolonged engagement.
Although the U.S. lacks France’s historical connection to Mali, the proliferation of terrorism throughout the region is a threat that should not be underestimated.
Indeed, the crisis in Mali is partly the result of the Obama Administration’s failure to aggressively address threats to stability and security posed by the fall of the Muammar Qadhafi regime in Libya in September 2011. Specifically, the Obama Administration failed to secure and account for weapons from Qadhafi’s large stockpiles. Many of these weapons have fallen into the hands of Islamic militants or criminal groups throughout the region.
With respect to Mali, the Obama Administration was correct in its decision to refuse support to Mali’s transitional government—which is heavily influenced by the military that overthrew President Touré last March—prior to reinstitution of an elected civilian government. However, the Administration’s passivity as security conditions deteriorated exacerbated the crisis. The sudden move by Islamist militants in the North toward Bamako clearly caught the Administration and the international community flat-footed.
The U.S. ultimately voted in favor of the UNSC’s Resolution 2085 in December 2012, months after the coup. In recognition of the need for stronger action, Resolution 2085 ran counter to the U.N. Secretary-General’s recommendation urging military force as a “last resort” and did not condition military force on government restoration.
Although France is taking the lead in Mali, Washington has provided air transport and other non-lethal support to French troops and African forces, including refueling capabilities, intelligence, and logistical support. Last week, the Obama Administration also finalized a status-of-forces agreement with Niger, allowing a more permanent U.S. presence in the region.
Wrong Move: United Nations Peace Enforcement
In recent weeks, the UNSC has considered the possibility of a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali. In their deliberations, the U.S. and other UNSC member states should heed the past lessons and tragedies that led the U.N. to conclude that “the United Nations does not wage war. Where enforcement action is required, it has consistently been entrusted to coalitions of willing States.”
As troubling as instability is in Mali, the U.N. is not the proper instrument for peace enforcement. A U.N. operation should proceed only after French and African forces have overcome the militants and restored basic peace and security and with Malian consent.
In that second stage, the U.N. peacekeeping role should not be to lead but to serve as a complement to the African-led mission. Previous U.N. peacekeeping missions have resulted in the international community using a top-down approach to resolving crises that have ill-served unstable situations in Africa, such as the U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
With this in mind, the U.S. should rethink Vice President Joe Biden’s announcement along with President Hollande that AFISMA, which has already begun deploying its approximately 8,000 troops, should be under the auspices of the U.N. Malians, in conjunction with neighbors and regional stakeholders, should lead the development of a concrete road map for a way forward.
What the U.S. Should Do
- Beware of mission creep. The U.S. should continue to assist France in its current capacity but refrain from deploying combat troops.
- Urge France to maintain military engagement in Mali until peace and stability are restored and the threat of resumed militant violence is minimized. Recent suicide bombings and other attacks clearly indicate that the situation remains volatile.
- Insist that the U.N. peacekeeping operation be limited and act in partnership with AFISMA and not assume control.
- Send trainers to regional capitals. While many regional governments have provided troops to the AFISMA mission, they are limited in capacity and training.
- Condition the resumption of bilateral support to Mali on the transition to an inclusive civilian government. Certain benchmarks should also be met to ensure that Mali’s government is committed to democratic governance.
- Urge the Malian civilian government, once established, to hold the military accountable. Allegations of human rights abuses by the Malian military ought to be addressed, and those who are responsible for such crimes should be charged.
America’s Security Interests
France’s military intervention changed the course of events in Mali. While it is clear that the Obama Administration has no intention of dictating events in the region, the U.S. has a responsibility to guarantee America’s security interests. These interests would be best served by a longer French presence to counter militant activity, using assistance to ensure a civilian transition, and encouraging African nations to assume greater responsibility for regional security.
—Morgan Lorraine Roach is a Research Associate in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, and Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Davis Institute, at The Heritage Foundation and editor of ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).