Small Wars Journal

Mali: The Tradeoff Between Impartiality and Military Aid

Wed, 01/06/2021 - 10:40am


Mali: The Tradeoff Between Impartiality and Military Aid

Alexander J. Teynor

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Unilateral military actions by a state actor in the era of globalization and numerous international institutions receive harsh criticism and subject to strict moral, ethical, and legal review by the international community.  The basis for this is that under the United Nations (UN) Charter, Chapter 1, all member states are, in theory, guaranteed “sovereign equality” and the right to “self-determination” (United Nations, 1945).  When a member state commits forces against or within the borders of another member state, questions concerning the violation of a state’s sovereignty and the legitimacy to act surface, which will be discussed later in this paper.  The Global War on Terror (GWOT) complicates the issue of state sovereignty by highlighting the importance of operational environment permissibility, which enables or denies foreign state actors to conduct military operations within a host nation’s borders to varying extents (Department of Defense, 2017).  Since the introduction of this nuance, the criticism of foreign state actors intervening in another’s affairs shifted from principally violating another state’s sovereignty to criticizing a foreign state’s hidden motives and facilitating the resurgence of proxy wars.  This instance is undoubtedly the censure of the ongoing French-led Operation Barkhane, previously Serval, in Mali.

            Mali’s historical struggle with insurgents and violent extremist organizations (VEO) is an excellent case study to analyze not only the future of warfare against non-state aggressors but also to study the effectiveness and limitations of UN peacekeeping missions.  In the case of Mali, counterterrorism warfare and UN peacekeeping operations are two sides of the same coin.  These missions overlap, but one military organization cannot execute both missions simultaneously and achieve a constructive outcome at the same time.  The post-coup d’état interim government of Mali recognized this and wrote to both the UN Security Council (UNSC) and France requesting military intervention to halt the military offensive of the Tuareg insurgents backed by several Islamic extremist organizations (United Nations Security Council, 2012).  By making such a request, the interim government of Mali granted permission to the French government, and subsequently the UNSC, to deploy and counter the insurgent offensive.  After the French successfully expelled organizations like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar Dine, the French transitioned from collective defense to strict, regional counterterrorism operations in the Sahel (French Armed Forces Headquarters, 2020, p. 3).  During Operation Serval, the UNSC deployed the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) peacekeepers to assume nation stabilization responsibilities.  The decision of the French government to remain in Mali for counterterrorism received reproach for acting in self-interest as opposed to adhering strictly to a form of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine (Wing, 2016, p. 60).  Nevertheless, the global propagation of VEOs, capable of sabotaging state authority, requires intervention beyond a UNSC mandate because UN peacekeepers have restrictive orders, limited force capability, and lack a comprehensive doctrine to resolve the systemic issues plaguing Mali.

            This paper will explore the background and underlying issues in Mali that led to a coup d’état and insurgent rebellion in the northern regions of Mali, eventually triggering a multinational military intervention.  Evaluating UN peacekeeping forces through the lenses of legality and legitimacy, political, and operational effectiveness will provide a suitable picture of the successes and failures of the UN peacekeeping intervention.  Examining the French military and MINUSMA through these perspectives will illustrate each organization’s strengths, weaknesses, and how each operation complements the other.  This paper will attempt to answer the questions of the future of UN peacekeeping missions, namely in ungoverned spaces against VEOs and whether UN peacekeeping operations partnered with individual or regionally partisan state actors are a feasible solution.

            First and foremost, one must understand the physical and human geography of Mali to understand the root causes of the conflict.  Mali is a country, about twice the size of Texas, located in the Sahel transition zone.  The Sahel transition zone is not only the geographical transition of the environment from the Sahara Desert to the savanna but also the transition of differing cultures, ethnicities, and religions which come into conflict with each other across the zone (Magin).  Cultural differences alone are not the proximate cause of instability and violence in the region.  With the growing effects of climate change, such as increasing desertification, recurring droughts, and food scarcity, the nomadic tribes further north must compete over natural resources for their survival.  The government of Mali historically neglected the northern regions both politically and institutionally, leaving the Tuaregs and other minority groups to fight each other and then encroaching further south to secure vital resources (Arsenault, 2015).  After France withdrew from Mali as a colonizer, the government of Mali increasingly ignored the northern regions by failing to improve infrastructure, policing, and provide essential services, thus creating contempt against the government.  Minority groups in the north instigated rebellion several times before against the government but in 2012 after the proliferation of weapons from the Libyan Civil War, increasingly armed insurgents, specifically the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), partnered with groups like AQIM, MUJAO, and Ansar Dine to secede from Mali and create their own state, Azawad (Shurkin et al., 2017, p. 11).

            The secession of Azawad served as the impetus for a military coup against the Malian government in 2012.  Low and mid-ranking military officials disapproved of the way President Amadou Toumani Touré handled the Tuareg rebellion and the eventual secession of Azawad, culminating in a coup to overthrow the presidency.  At this time, the international community opted to remain divorced from the internal affairs of Mali and the regional states offered to intervene and mediate the transition of power.  Meanwhile, AQIM, MUJAO, and Ansar Dine established strongholds in the northern regions, alienated their Tuareg partners, and the resulting violence created an influx of internally displaced persons (IDP) to the southern regions of Mali.  The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) facilitated the transfer of authority to an interim government, appointing Dioncunda Traoré to lead as president (Central Intelligence Agency, 2020).  President Traoré then submitted letters to the French government and UNSC for military assistance in destroying the VEOs in the north in order to allow the Malian army to restore state authority in the north (United Nations Security Council, 2012). 

            France agreed to provide military support to the interim Malian government after the UNSC unanimously approved, without abstentions, UNSC Resolution 2085 (2012), which also authorized the deployment of an African-led military coalition.  Without the unanimous approval of the UNSC and the request from the Malian government giving France legitimate authority to act, French intervention would have been less likely as many critics viewed this as a neocolonialist opportunity (Wing, 2016, p. 73).  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon publicly supported French “bilateral” action stating French military intervention was within the “spirit” of the UNSC Resolution 2085 (United Nations News, 2013).  The “bilateral” qualifier simply signified Mali’s approval.  At the same time, the French military assumed full responsibility of offensive operations against the VEOs in northern Mali despite Resolution 2085 calling for the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) to lead operations, as noted in its name.

            France launched its offensive into Mali with Operation Serval in January 2013.  The objective of the French military, partnered with the Malian army and AFISMA, was to defeat the terrorist organizations and secure the northern regions so the state could hold and elections and rebuild a legitimate government.  Malians overwhelmingly welcomed French troops upon their initial arrival in-country, further evidence of legitimating French intervention (Bergamaschi, 2013, p. 7).  Operation Serval quickly achieved its objective of reclaiming the northern territories, driving the VEOs underground, and provided the necessary security to hold free and fair elections the following summer and fall (Wing, 2016, p. 67).  Critics of French intervention argue French forces should have withdrawn following the completion of their operational objectives; instead, the French transitioned into a new operation called Operation Barkhane in 2014, one year and a half after the start of Serval.  Operation Barkhane is the current, French-led counterterrorism operation in the Sahel where instead of focusing on securing terrain in Mali, the French are leading missions across the Sahelian nations in order to isolate and defeat the VEOs (Charbonneau, 2017, p. 1).  The French military partnered with both the “G5 Sahel” and AFISMA, which later reorganized under MINUSMA in order to maintain the bilateral image and legitimate effort in stemming VEOs in the Sahel.  Geographical challenges posed by the Sahelian terrain require more formidable assets than just maneuver forces to assist in the counterterrorism and stabilization efforts.  It is reasonable to understand French authority in leading the operations as the French and European Union (EU) provided superior assets (e.g., aviation, fires, intelligence, sustainment) MINUSMA lacks (French Armed Forces Headquarters, 2020, p. 16).  The critical strength the French and G5 Sahel (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, and Chad) coalition have over MINUSMA’s operational capability is also its inevitable political weakness.  French forces can operate beyond essential population centers and international borders in order to counter VEOs.

In contrast, MINUSMA’s UNSC mandate restricts them from leaving key population centers because it must be present where there is a danger to the civilian population despite also having the authority to conduct long-range patrols.  MINUSMA simply lacks the numbers and sustainment capabilities to implement both contradictory tenets of the mandate.  France’s complementary ability to conduct operations in depth against VEOs began losing political support from local populations in Mali, citing the lack of local security and institutional progress, which is problematic when conducting counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations (Charbonneau, 2017, p. 13).  MINUSMA is better suited to not only direct attention inward towards addressing civil complaints but also to bolster the legitimacy of France’s supporting operational role.

            UNSC Resolution 2100 (2013) transformed AFISMA into MINUSMA to shift the African coalition’s focus from conducting any counterterrorism operations to focusing on stabilizing Mali and enabling political development.  The UNSC mandated MINUSMA to protect key population centers, create political space for the implementation of the transitional roadmap, protect civilians, and promote human rights.  Every year the UNSC renews MINUSMA’s mandate, applying more significant political pressure as political progress in Mali continued to experience delays.  The language in the two most current UNSC Resolutions 2480 and 2484 (2019) confirms the UNSC’s dissatisfaction with MINUSMA and the Malian government’s institutional and political reform.  Each UNSC resolution calls for or draws additional attention to the term “tangible” results as being critical to MINUSMA’s deployment.  In practical terms, this gives MINUSMA authorities the ability to create their metrics to determine what success looks like in their reports to the UN Secretary-General.  When exercised in conjunction with MINUSMA’s already restricted operations, MINUSMA substantially limits its assessment of success and progress to the key population centers of Gao, Kidal, Timbuktu, and other major cities.  VEOs operate on the fringes and mix in with the local populations; therefore, MINUSMA’s reporting of “tangible results” may not be accurately reflective of the situation on the ground.

 Further compounding the issue is the media coverage of the Malian War against VEOs.  Loss of life in warfare and or peacekeeping operations does not necessarily equate to failure.  It is merely the uncomfortable nature of warfare against adversaries who exercise little empathy for their militants, civilian populations, and their opponents.  Conversely, VEO casualties do not necessarily result in strategic success either and often inspires more extremists to join the VEO’s cause (Thrall et al., 2017).  As news of coalition casualties publishes, constituents of troop-contributing nations raise questions and protest the drawn-out foreign military interventions; thus, applying political pressure to leaders of the coalition states (Wilkins, 2020).  Both the French/G5 Sahel and MINUSMA coalitions received repetitive criticisms over their progress. Still, their division of labor in securing Mali and other Sahelian states from VEO influence and hostilities remains Mali’s best hope for progress. 

            There is significant consensus among scholars stating France’s continued involvement has neocolonialist motives and that France used Traoré’s request for help as an opportunity to re-establish itself in its former colony (Charbonneau, 2017, p. 10; Wing, 2016, p. 72).  Mali and neighboring Sahelian states host several significant uranium deposits, and French forces have, in at least one instance, received orders to secure uranium sites (Irish et al., 2013).  Bruno Charbonneau (2017) adds to the debate that the French government simply used the justification of ‘terrorism’ to grant itself legitimacy for transitioning to Operation Barkhane to expand further its influence in the Sahel (p. 2).  France’s President Hollande foresaw this narrative in 2012 and reaffirmed his agreement to support President Traoré’s request based on the defense agreements France signed with its former colonies (Bergamaschi, 2013, p. 7).  More recent analyses of French intervention stem from and mirror the growing dissent in the Malian population as protests across the state continue to oppose French involvement and the current government.  Malians began protesting French involvement as early as 2015 and continue to protest today in 2020, which requires continuous reaffirmation from the French and G5 Sahel coalition on the nature of the partnership and the coalition’s progress (France24, 2016; Jacinto, 2020).  It is difficult from a third-party perspective to decipher the reasons for growing Malian opposition towards the French.  One viewpoint is the possibility of VEO influence operations organizing and triggering protests in crucial population centers where VEOs knowingly operate and conduct attacks (Sangare, 2017).  Another reason could be the Malians blame the French/G5 Sahel coalition for their government’s lack of progress and that their presence alone perpetuates anti-imperialist sentiment and violent extremism in the northern regions (Charbonneau, 2017, p. 13).  One final motive could be the reality that it is difficult for many people to accept is the reality that no nation can successfully achieve a quick, decisive victory in the GWOT.  The Malian sentiment resembles American dissatisfaction with the inability of NATO or any international coalition to achieve lasting security in conflict regions since the onset of the GWOT.  Public opinion of the Malians is essential, but it should not hamstring efforts in the Malian War; nation-building will take time.  After eight years of military and peacekeeping operations in Mali, the debate should center around the French/G5 Sahel and MINUSMA’s effectiveness and how they can improve.

            Exploring the French coalition and MINUSMA’s effectiveness by examining their legality and legitimacy to operate, the political benefits and hindrances of each organization’s mission and their overall ability to achieve their objectives will serve as the basis for the analysis.  This framework will provide an informed response to the academic consensus against French involvement.  Additionally, this framework will analyze how the UN peacekeeping mission partnered with the French/G5 Sahel can achieve security and nation stabilization better together as opposed to un-partnered UN peacekeeping operations.

            The UNSC mandate supports MINUSMA’s legitimate legal authority for intervention, whereas the French government received a variety of criticisms from a legal perspective.  The French government received a request for help from the interim government. However, many questioned the legality of allowing a non-UN military intervention since the interim government was not elected; instead, ECOWAS appointed the interim government.  The French government responded to criticism by citing Article 51 of the UN Charter, “the principle of legitimate defense,” regarding the existing French-Malian collective defense agreement, and the spirit of UNSC Resolution 2085 (Bergamaschi, 2013, p. 7).  Despite the objectionable legal foundation, France received widespread support from the Malian population and praise from the UNSC for its counterterrorism efforts written in subsequent UNSC Resolutions (Wing, 2016, p. 60; United Nations Security Council, 2014).  Another critique arose when the French transitioned from Operation Serval to Operation Barkhane to expand their counterterrorism efforts.  Charbonneau (2017) argues the French government labeled the security issue under the guise of “terrorism” to expand their legal authority, further legitimize their military presence across international borders, and to entrench itself further into the Sahel region.  He continues to argue that by labeling the issue as a terrorist threat, the French government failed to acknowledge the totality of the situation, which led to the secession of Azawad and the eventual military coup (p. 2).  This argument creates the disingenuous assumption that military operational planners completely disregarded civil matters and the origins of the conflict.  It assumes incompetence instead of the more likely reason, partitioning out strategic objectives and responsibilities. 

By deploying in tandem with MINUSMA, the French government and MINUSMA established a division of labor in their strategic objectives.  French and G5 Sahel are concerned with counterterrorism, which transcends the non-demarcated borders of Sahelian states while MINUSMA’s security objectives focus on securing government institutions, civilians, and elections.  Dividing the strategic objectives per each force’s directive or political restrictions does not neglect root causes, nor does it create any indication of France’s motives for renewed regional hegemony.  The G5 Sahel coalition, which now has an elected Malian government, continues to welcome French intervention and makes further efforts to control the opposing narrative of neo-colonialism (Wilkins, 2020).  Provided G5 Sahel support continues, the French military will continue to conduct operations with adequate legal authority in conjunction with MINUSMA.

            MINUSMA forces operate under the mandate to remain impartial to Malian internal affairs as with any peacekeeping operation (PKO).  The image of neutrality does not guarantee MINUSMA popular political support from the Malians.  Malians, especially those residing in the north, are primarily concerned with their security and are becoming increasingly distraught with the lack of progress.  As terrorists continued to attack MINUSMA forces and their facilities, increasing resentment against MINUSMA presence built due to the civilian proximity to attacks against MINUSMA, resulting in civilian deaths (Shurkin et al., 2017, p. 33).  Additionally, since UN PKOs typically contain troops from nearby states, the operation itself is subject to local politics as well.  Local political influence became increasingly evident after MINUSMA casualties increased, ultimately making it the deadliest ongoing PKO in the world.  Contributing nations like Chad threatened to withdraw their troops because their troops sustained the highest casualty rates in the PKO (Boutellis, 2015, p. 2).  The French and G5 Sahel coalition complement MINUSMA well in this case, where security is the primary political concern for Mali.  French and G5 Sahel coalition forces, though subject to greater political scrutiny, are not subject to restrictive mandates from the other UNSC permanent members, nor do they risk losing troops or funding the same way MINUSMA could.  France’s relatively small military footprint, in comparison to MINUSMA’s 14,000 troops (United Nations Peacekeeping, 2020), enables the French government to maintain political support from French citizens by minimizing French loss of life and maximizing casualties inflicted against Sahelian VEOs.  French and G5 Sahel resolve are therefore more unwavering than MINUSMA contributing members.  France’s ability to commit fewer troops, employ force-multiplying enablers, and, most importantly, counterterrorism experience enables it to balance MINUSMA’s weaknesses further.

            UN PKOs like MINUSMA lack the force capability and organizational doctrine to solve complex problems such as restoring governance and securing the borderless frontier of the Sahel-Sahara region.  Since its inception, MINUSMA did not have the resources and large enough force to secure the large, austere area of Mali.  For comparison, there were 130,000 United States (US) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops at the peak of operations in the current war in Afghanistan.  That number recently dwindled to about 17,000 total after 19-years prosecuting the GWOT in Afghanistan (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 2020).  Although, there are many different geographical, historical, and military nuances between operations in Afghanistan and Mali that contribute to the differing force structure requirements.  The number of forces also does not correlate or equate to success either but comparing force sizes is useful for understanding the resources required in a counterterrorism and nation-building effort.

France augments MINUSMA’s relatively small force structure by deploying force-multiplying enablers such as attack aviation aircraft, transport aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, and over 800 resupply and light armored vehicles.  Therefore, fulfilling the shortcomings in MINUSMA’s offensive, logistical, and intelligence capabilities (French Armed Forces Headquarters, 2020, p. 16).  Additionally, European nations supporting French and MINUSMA efforts created an intelligence fusion cell to bolster MINUSMA’s poor intelligence sharing and analysis capabilities (Boutellis, 2015, p. 8).  Without these capabilities provided by the French-led coalition, MINUSMA would not be able to extend its security and surveillance beyond major urban centers.  The vast, austere terrain and poorly maintained road network require a thorough logistical network supported by air mobility and an accurate intelligence picture through reconnaissance and long-range patrols.  Perhaps the most critical aspect of putting MINUSMA’s mission at risk is that the organization does not have a “blueprint” or established methodology for state stabilization (Boutellis, 2015, p. 4).  Planning and conducting operations without a doctrine becomes a trial and error process and requires further analysis at an appropriate timescale to see effects, hence the slow progress in Mali. 

VEOs are continuously adapting their methods to target and exploit MINUSMA.  The small and mobile French force cannot counter VEO exploitation directly, but by reducing the VEO threat against the PKO, French forces buy MINUSMA time so it can focus and refine its mission.  Intervention against VEOs will not prevent all attacks on the PKO.  Determined VEOs will inevitably continue to circumvent French/G5 Sahel and MINUSMA intelligence to attack the weaker target, MINUSMA, in this case (Boutellis, 2015, p. 8).  In summary, the limiting UNSC mandate to protect vulnerable populations combined with the undermanned and under-equipped MINUSMA force prohibits from securing and creating the political space required.

            Partnering with non-UN military forces is not the politically popular option, particularly at the global level because of the partisanship and risk associated with a global power influencing the PKO to its advantage.  It is imperative to consider the precedent set by the French/G5 Sahel-MINUSMA partnership as a viable operational option in the future.  China, an emerging global superpower, continues to insert its influence into PKOs by contributing troops to them for ulterior motives.  China aims to train its military during these PKOs and get their troops the appropriate operational experience.  Furthermore, China’s track record with intelligence leaks and information theft indicates that China’s intentions are not entirely humanitarian (Cabestan, 2018, p. 4).  The immediate reaction should not be to counter opposing global superpower influence, though caution is warranted. Instead, the UNSC or the member state under duress should continue to permit non-UN forces to operate in conjunction with underprepared PKOs.  VEOs will always use the rulebooks of their opponents against them, and their commitment to their ideology far exceeds the willpower and political resolve of troop-contributing nations in PKOs.  Mao’s theory of protracted war and the ongoing campaign of the mujahideen turned Taliban fighters against occupying powers confirms this.  Regardless, VEOs, like any organized force, need space and time to generate combat power and plan operations.  If the direction of the GWOT and similar cases like the Malian War necessitates the constant maintenance and security of ungoverned and under-policed regions, then the UN PKOs operating against a VEO adversary must commission a parallel military coalition to assist.




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About the Author(s)

Alex Teynor is an Infantry Officer in the U.S. Army who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY in 2015.  Alex earned his B.S. in Human Geography focusing his undergraduate thesis on security issues in the Sahel region in Africa, primarily in Mali.  He is currently working towards his M.S. in Global Studies and International Relations with a focus in Conflict Resolution at Northeastern University.    



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 8:01am

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