Mali – Peacekeeping Force and Army overhaul


UN Peacekeepers to replace  French and African Forces

UN Peacekeepers (Picture: United Nations Photo)
UN Peacekeepers (Picture: United Nations Photo)

In response to a resolution put forward by France, the UN Security Council on April 25th formally approved a 12,600-strong UN peacekeeping operation to take over from the African-led mission in Mali (AFISMA) on July 1st. The mission will be known as the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

The UN also authorized the blue helmets “to use all necessary means” to carry out security-related stabilization tasks, protect civilians, UN staff and cultural artefacts and create conditions for the provision of humanitarian aid. MINUSMA’s core task is to support the political process in Mali along with the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

MINUSMA can also draw on the UN Missions in Liberia (UNMIL) and Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI) for temporary sharing of troops, assets and logistics.

France To Keep 1000 Troops

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced on a visit to Bamako in April that France would maintain a ‘support force’ of 1,000 soldiers in Mali on a ‘permanent basis.’ This was France’s first public commitment to a long-term military presence. He said the goal is to ensure that ‘all the work done to break the terrorists is not destroyed.’

President Francois Hollande said withdrawal of troops would begin in April followed by two stages – a reduction by half of the French troops to 2,000 men in July and then down to a force of 1,000 men by the end of 2013.

France’s Ambassador to the UN, Gerard Araud, confirmed at the UN meeting that his government intends to keep 1,000 troops inside Mali.

A first “symbolic” withdrawal of 100 men from the First Regiment of Parachute Hunters withdrew from Tessalit on April 10th. These troops played a decisive role in the battle of Ametetai, an Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb (AQLIM) hiding place.

The French force in Mali remains highly active however.  On April 10th, a contingent of 1,000 soldiers launched Operation Gustav, described as “the biggest offensive so far”.  The aim was to sweep through a valley north of Gao thought to be a logistics base for jidhadists. On April 29th the sixth French solider to die in Mali since France swept in to the country in January, was killed in the far north.

Chad  – Will they go or will they stay?

Chad, out of all the African countries supplying troops to Mali, has been seen as the most effective.  The country’s 2,250-strong contingent has fought both independently and alongside French troops, only joined AFISMA on March 9th although it had been operating in Mali since the French-led advance began. Chad has experienced soldiers who are used to fighting in harsh desert terrain and have played a key role in northern Mali. The Chadians have claimed the killing of the two leading jihadist figures – Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar – but have suffered the heaviest losses amongst their own troops – 36 dead as of end-April and over 70 wounded. At least three Chadian soldiers died on April 12th in a suicide bombing in Kidal, northeast of Gao.

On April 13th, possibly prompted by France’s announcement of a phased pull-out, Chad’s parliament voted overwhelmingly for a gradual withdrawal. Prime Minister Dadnadji Djimrangar said: “We paid a heavy price for this noble mission.”

President Idriss Deby told French journalists that Chad would contribute troops to a UN force in Mali if asked.

African Arguments said the bottom line for Deby is that the FATIM (Chadian Armed Forces Intervention in Mali) needs to pay clear dividends. Until now the deployment has been a way to show how far Chad has come since the dark days of 2006 and 2008 when two serious rebellions came within hours of unseating Deby.

It has helped to establish a narrative of the country as a regional leader, and perhaps persuade detractors that the $600m of oil revenues siphoned off from social spending plans, to buy military equipment – including six re-conditioned Sukhoi jets, attack helicopters and armoured personnel carriers – was money well spent.

Deby might now have more pressing concerns at home. On May 2nd it was reported that there had been an attempted coup in N’Djamena.

Mali’s ragtag army – the overhaul begins

The European Union  training force, EUTM, began a top-to-toe overhaul of Mali’s army in April when the first of four battalions arrived in Koulikoro, 60 km from Bamako. The EUTM budget is €12.3m.

EUTM spokesman France’s Lt-Col. Philippe de Cussac, said: “Initially, the training will be very general. Afterwards, there will be a specialised training in telecommunications, artillery and engineering. We will also train special forces elite snipers.”

Once trained, each of the four Mali battalions will have a unified command with an infantry-mobile core, backed by artillery and engineering, and a logistics component. A first batch expected to be ready for combat in the north by early July.

General Francois Lecointre, who heads the EUTM identified the two greatest challenges.  The Malian army is very poorly equipped – it has mismatched equipment, made up of donation from richer nations over two decades. Much more problematic than that however is its lack of team spirit – it has no clear hierarchy and chain of command.

A Malian army officer told the UN humanitarian news agency IRIN: “The army has been systematically marginalized by political leaders over the past 30 years. We have lost our cohesion, our sense of discipline – arguably the foundation of a good army – and our morale.”

Since the beginning of the French-led onslaught on the Islamists in the north, the Malian army has regularly been accused of abuses, particularly against Arabs and Touaregs.   “The last time most of these soldiers received training in international human rights was 10 years ago,” the Malian army officer said.

A commission has been set up to investigate allegations of abuse in Mali. Col. Didier Dacko, in Gao, said that when accusations of prisoner mistreatment emerge, the suspected soldiers are immediately transferred to Bamako, where Ministry of Justice staff investigate the allegations and decide whether the soldiers should be prosecuted.

The EUTM wants now to establish an army capable not just of standing on its own two feet but also of respecting human rights.The 200 trainers come from France, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Spain and Ireland.

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