The U.N. Security Council this morning authorized the creation of a new force of 12,640 U.N. peacekeepers to consolidate French military gains against Islamist militants in northern Mali.
The new force -- to be called the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Force (MINUSMA) and comprised primarily of African soldiers -- is expected to secure several northern towns, where an insurgency by Islamic militants and Tuareg separatists was recently put down by French special forces and their feeble Malian army allies.
The council's action comes as the French military -- which intervened last January in Mali at the government's invitation to repulse what they feared was an all-out offensive on the capital -- is looking to withdraw most of its forces from Mali, and to place the U.N. in command of thousands of African troops that have already deployed in Mali in support of the French operation.
But the mandate adopted by the 15-nation council reflected the continuing uncertainty about the durability of France's military successes in Mali. A July 1 timetable for transferring peacekeeping authority to the United Nations is contingent on the further assessment of the threat posed to the peacekeepers by the armed militants. Today's resolution also authorizes French troops, operating under the command of the French government, to use military force to deter any threats against the U.N. peacekeepers.
France -- which currently has about 4,000 troops in Mali -- is hoping to scale back its presence by the end of the year, leaving a more permanent force of about 1,000 troops to carry on counterterrorism operations against remnants of the insurgency, and when needed, protect U.N. peacekeepers.
The French role has proven controversial within U.N. circles. While the U.N. is grateful that France will provide a last line of protection against the insurgents, it has expressed some misgivings about the risks of being too closely associated with a military counterterrorism campaign, fearing it would expose U.N. personnel in Mali and beyond to reprisal by extremist groups.
The U.N. resolution -- which was drafted by France -- condemns the Islamists' January 10 offensive towards southern Mali and welcomes the French decision to intervene to "stop the offensive of terrorist, extremist and armed groups." But it assigns no explicit combat role for the peacekeeping mission.
The mission -- which will be headed by a U.N. special representative -- will undertake several tasks, including securing strategic towns in northern Mali, promoting reconciliation between the Malian government, Tuareg separatists, and other groups in northern Mali that denounce any affiliation with extremist groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The U.N. will also help Mali -- which saw a military coup last year -- prepare the ground for a democratic transition, including "free, fair, transparent and inclusive" presidential and legislative elections, to be held respectively on July 7 and July 21.
The U.N. peacekeepers will be granted limited authority to protect civilians "under imminent threat of physical violence" if they are able and if such attacks occur in the area where the U.N. is present. They will also monitor human rights violations, including those committed by Malian government forces; help protect cultural and historical landmarks; use "all means necessary, within the limits of their capacities and areas of deployment" to help the Malians; and "as feasible and appropriate" hold human rights abusers accountable for their crimes.
The resolution hints -- but does not include explicit orders -- that the U.N. could use that authority to apprehend any future suspects wanted by the International Criminal Court.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Earlier this week, John Ging, director of operations for the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), returned from a four-day trip to Mali to remind governments that the world's relief agency is short of funds for its life-saving work in Mali.
The U.N.'s humanitarian agency's 2013 appeal for $373 million, he said, has resulted in only $17 million in commitments.. That money came from only four countries -- Britain ($8million), Canada ($3.5 million), Saudi Arabia ($2 million), and the United States ($1.15 million) and the European Commission and United Nations). The U.N.'s remaining 189 countries have pledged nothing.
"We need the generosity of the international community," Ging said. "Unfortunately although Mali is in the center of media global attention the response for our appeal has been very poor.... We have not been able to mobilize the effective humanitarian response on scale of what is needed."
So, what are we to make of this shortfall?
Has the world gone cold-hearted in the face of an unfolding human tragedy in the Sahel, one which has subjected civilians to the hardships of hunger and the brutality of Islamic extremists imposing severe penalties on civilians, while Malian soldiers carry out reprisals against their suspected backers?
Have the major donors, dogged by persistent economic stress, become too poor to give generously to every cause? Or is the U.N. playing the ritual "shame game" to get countries to dig deeper into their pockets for yet another humanitarian crisis?
Humanitarian aid specialists say that the U.N.'s request for funding in Mali has simply come at a bad time, upping the competition for a limited pot of money at a time when governments are already being asked to contribute elsewhere, including roughly $1 billion to support peacekeeping efforts in Mali and more than $1.5 billion to ameliorate the severe humanitarian crisis in Syria. Meanwhile, large-scale humanitarian operations in places like Somalia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, show no sign of abating.
"With respect to Mali -- the humanitarian appeal definitely came at a bad time given the implicit competition between it and the peacekeeping appeal, and Syria is definitely sucking all the air out of the room as well," said Jeremy Konyndyk of Mercy Corps, whose organization has been forced by poor security and limited access to suspend distribution of relief in northern Mali.* Konyndyk noted that food supplies in the conflict areas in the north have been dwindling, and supply routes have been shut down. "Needs are extremely high in Mali now, and in the north needs will be higher than in 2011-2012."
"The Mali crisis in West Africa remains a much less accessible issue for most policy makers," said Michel Gabaudan, the president of Refugees International. But he said he expects the money will start flowing as news stories converge with the realization of the political imperative to respond. "I'm not too worried that we don't see an immediate massive response after the appeal was just launched."
Complicating matters is that the sudden surge in new humanitarian crises, he said, is coming at a time "when governments are all constrained by the economic crisis."
Indeed, a look at the U.N.'s financial tracking system shows that appeals for humanitarian assistance remain chronically undersubscribed. A $6.2 million U.N. appeal for aid in Afghanistan has generated less than 1 percent in commitments. While only tiny portion of international spending on Afghanistan goes through the U.N., countries that rely heavily on the global body for assistance are also seeing shortfalls, including Mali's neighbor, Niger, where the U.N. has secured only 2 percent of the nearly $6 million in funds it has sought.
In January, Ging rang the alarm bell on Syria, warning that governments had failed to meet the country's humanitarian needs. A week later, foreign governments, including previously frugal Gulf states, met in Kuwait and pledged to spend more $1.3 billion, according to U.N. estimates. So far, only $308 million -- about 20 percent -- has been funded.
But the U.N. has been unable to generate the same kind of momentum for Mali.
A Turtle Bay-based diplomat from a country that contributes to U.N. humanitarian efforts said that the numbers can be a bit misleading, providing an incomplete picture of the humanitarian money that flows into a place like Mali (which, along with other countries in the Sahel region, has been the beneficiary of large sums of assistance in recent years). He said it doesn't reflect the fact that governments' budget cycles in many foreign capital begins later in the year, making most U.N. appeals appear woefully underfunded now.
So, does that mean that the necessary money will inevitably flow into Mali as the needs grow increasingly clear? Not likely. Global aid trends show a mixed picture.
In the years following the peak of the economic crisis, humanitarian assistance has climbed, from $12.4 billion in 2007 to $17.1 billion in 2011, according to the Global Humanitarian Assistance report. Two massive natural disasters -- the Haiti earthquake and the Pakistan floods -- saw spending reach as high as $18.8 billion in 2010. But the level of unmet needs -- measured by the percentage of U.N. humanitarian aid appeals that go unfunded -- has grown by 10 percent between 2007 and 2011, meaning that the U.N. is falling further and further from its aid targets. One reason, said Konyndyk, is that the U.N. appeals are more comprehensive than they have been in the past.
But there are signs that funds may be hard to secure.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry informed Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, that the upcoming sequestration cuts would slash "about $200 million from our humanitarian assistance accounts at a time when we face growing needs in Syria, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel."
Konyndyk said Washington's priorities favor Syria, which has raised some concern that scarce resources will need to be redirected from other worthy crises, including Mali.
And recent history provides a worrying model. In February 2010, the United States Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance was forced to temporarily redirect as much as 40 percent of assistance to trouble spots like Somalia in order to ensure funding for the Haiti operation, my colleague Josh Rogin reported at the time.
Konyndyk voiced concern that the coming federal cuts will force the administration to make the painful choices they made in Haiti. "There is a real squeeze. I think we could see under sequestration some similar choices being made in order to make sure Syria is funded. There is huge pressure on the administration to increase aid even further in Syria and I don't see anything like that with respect to aid for Mali."
*(An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Mercy Corps had to shut down all its programs in Mali. The relief group only suspended distribution of goods in the north. Turtle Bay regrets the error
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
When France eventually ends its military operations in Mali, the French military intends to position a rapid reaction force somewhere in West Africa to support African peacekeepers facing serious challenges to their authority by Islamist insurgents, according to U.N.-based diplomats familiar with the plans.
French diplomats have begun detailing plans with the United Nations, the United States, and other key powers for a so-called "beyond the horizon" force that would be ready to carry out combat operations within Mali in the event that the Islamic fundamentalist rebels threaten to return en masse.
Paris has not informed its allies where this new force would be deployed, but diplomats said it would most likely be in Senegal, Niger, or Chad, where France maintains military bases.
France's U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud, meanwhile, has sought to assure his counterparts that Paris will not abruptly pull out of Mali in the coming weeks, saying that the French military presence will be phased out gradually to allow time for a new U.N. peacekeeping mission to get its bearings.
The French military intervened in Mali on Jan. 11, after a coalition of local and foreign insurgents, including members of al Qaeda's North African franchise, launched a military offensive in a series of strategic towns in central Mali, raising fears of a dash to the capital, Bamako, where thousands of French nationals reside. The French force, which has grown to more than 4,000 soldiers, has reclaimed control of several cities that had fallen under control of the insurgents, but sparks of fighting have continued, particularly in the strategic northern city of Gao.
The discussions over the new force mark the first step in an intensive French effort to craft a diplomatic and security strategy that will allow France to reduce its presence in Mali, while ensuring that U.N. blue helmets will be in a position to maintain security.
Paris is hoping to begin work as quickly as possible on a resolution that would formally establish a new African-led peacekeeping mission, responsible for maintaining security in several northern Malian towns and support political talks between the country's government in Bamako and insurgents, thus paving the ground for national elections. French officials are hoping to convene a Security Council meeting as early as Wednesday to begin the push for a new resolution.
But the French are facing a major hurdle from Mali's rulers, who came to power as a result of a military coup and who fear that a U.N. force would not only be too weak to confront their northern enemies, but prod them into yielded power to a newly elected government. Diplomats say work on a peacekeeping mission cannot proceed until the Malian leadership makes a formal, and unequivocal, request to the United Nations for troops.
U.N.-based sources said that they expect France, and possibly other Western governments, to contribute a small number of staff officers in the eventual U.N. mission's headquarters. But the vast majority of troops will come from the region. There are currently more than 5,000 African troops from Chad, Niger, and other West African countries in Mali. The African troops, which are currently supporting the French and Malian military campaign against the country's insurgency, are expected to serve in the new U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
France's defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, today restated the French military's intention to declare victory in Mali, pack up their kit, and leave in "a matter of weeks," though ongoing counterterrorism operations in northern Mali would continue for "a while."
"We have no reason to stay," he told France 2 television.
But France does have reason to stay, actually a few.
For one, the Malian army is unfit to secure its own towns and borders from foreign and domestic insurgents.
Second, African forces assembled on the quick lack the capacity to hold territory recently captured by French troops.
And third, international efforts at the United Nations to oversee an international peacekeeping force comprised of some 6,000 to 10,000 blue helmets remain stalled in New York.
"The French know that they need to leave something behind, but they haven't defined what that is yet," said a senior U.N.-based diplomat. "We obviously have a keen interest in knowing what that is."
Earlier this week, Mali's president sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon requesting a peacekeeping mission. But the letter was drafted in "ambiguous terms" that raised questions about its commitment to a U.N. mission. For instance, Mali imposed some reservations that precluded the transfer from an African-led to a U.N.-led mission until Mali has established complete sovereign control over its territory.
The Malian gambit left many in the Security Council in the dark.
"Now, we don't have any further information on the way forward," said one council diplomat.
"I have no clear picture of what the options for the immediate future might be," added another council diplomat, noting that France has yet to introduce a detailed plan outlining what sort of international military presence would remain in Mali after it leaves.
The only thing that is clear, the official said, is that France is keen to go.
"President [Francois] Hollande did not want to intervene in the first place, and his [Socialist] party did not like it," the official said. But the "French are a little bit scared about the ability" of African forces to fill the security vacuum when they go.
U.N. officials and Security Council diplomats say they are confident France will leave behind some sort of heavily-armed rapid reaction force in support of an African-led U.N. peacekeeping mission. One diplomat said that France's announcement of its intent to leave is in part calculated to force the Malian government -- which cannot survive without foreign military backing -- to accept a U.N. mission.
Herve Ladsous, the U.N. peacekeeping chief, met in Ireland last week with the French defense minister. The French minister assured the U.N. that it would leave some troops in Mali, but did not say whether they would serve under U.N. or French command.
Mali's trepidation reflects the misgivings the government has about what a U.N. peacekeeping force might mean: a process of national reconciliation that would require the government strike a compromise with its bitter foes, the restive Tuareg insurgents who triggered the armed uprising in northern Mali early last year before it was overtaken by Islamists. It would also set the stage for a political transition, including elections that would require many of the country's military leaders -- who came to power through a military coup -- to make way for new leaders. And it would ratchet up pressure on Malians to hold their own troops accountable for atrocities carried out in recent weeks.
"Once again, there seems to be a total disconnect between the reality on the ground in Mali and the politics in New York," said Richard Gowan, a specialist on U.N. peacekeeping at New York University's Center on International Cooperation. "I think that there is a sense that while the Malian authorities are being ambiguous that ultimately they will have to bow to French pressure. And if the French insists on a U.N. force then they will have no alternative but to comply."
As for the U.N. planners, Gowan said, the U.N. "secretariat is still working on the assumption they have to have plans in place to take over responsibility in April."
But the challenge, added a second U.N.-based official, is how the secretariat can prepare a major peacekeeping mission without clear instructions from France, and more widely from the Security Council, on what precisely they will be expected to do. "We can do some table top planning," the official said. "But we really can't start until the council gives us a clear range of options for a peacekeeping mission."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
The first phase of France's military offensive against Islamist insurgents in Mali will likely come to an end in the coming weeks or months, giving way to a more open-ended, nation-building exercise. It remains unclear what such a mission would look like, what it would do, and who would formally lead it. Though one thing appears all but certain: France is likely to be at the center.
In Paris and New York, peacekeeping and military planners have been seeking to fashion a plan that could ensure long-term stability in northern towns recently captured from militant Islamists by French and Malian forces, prod Bamako to negotiate a political settlement with the country's restive Tuaregs, and ultimately lay the groundwork for national elections.
So far, the United States, France, and Britain appear to be coalescing around a proposal to send U.N. peacekeepers to Mali to secure newly captured towns and to serve as a facilitator for future political talks. The proposal is likely to face some resistance from African powers, who will provide most of the troops for a peacekeeping mission, and who have demonstrated an increasing appetite for managing regional military and peacekeeping operations.
But the more immediate question is about France's intention. Paris has not decided what military and peacekeeping role it will play in the future, if any. Here's a series of options reportedly under consideration:
1. No French force remains in Mali. On the outer range of French planning, this contingency is probably the easiest option to eliminate. There are some 6,000 French nationals living in and around the capital of Bamako, and it was their fate that prodded French special forces into action in the first place. They're not likely to allow a repeat.
2. France could leave behind a battalion of up to 800 troops or so, kit them out with blue helmets, and have them provide the backbone of a future U.N. peacekeeping mission. The benefit of this strategy is that it would encourage other European powers -- who have advanced military capability and are comfortable serving under U.N. command -- to serve alongside the French and its African partners. France has played a similar role in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon.
3. France could leave behind an independent contingent of forces under French military command. They would serve as a guarantor for a separate U.N. peacekeeping mission, which would be comprised primarily of African peacekeepers. This is similar to the role it played in Ivory Coast, where French troops played a lead role in the military campaign to force former Ivoirian leader Laurent Gbagbo from power following his election defeat.
4. France could maintain a larger military force in Mali through a bilateral agreement with Bamako along the lines of its military presence in Chad, where French forces intervened in 1986 to protect then President Hissene Habre, who had come under attack from Libya. The French operation -- dubbed Sparrowhawk -- has never formally ended, and a small force of French troops still maintains a presence. This scenario, however, seems unlikely. French President Francois Hollande has voiced reluctance to keep boots on the ground and his U.N. envoy, Gerard Araud, has insisted that France is keen to end the military operation as soon as possible, though not sooner than necessary. At the moment, France has begun discussion with other key international and African powers about the prospects of presenting a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a new force.
The U.N. has had mixed feelings about France's approach to Mali. In December, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed serious misgivings about the wisdom of France's initial plan to have African and European officers, and supported by the United Nations, back a campaign by the Malian army to retake the north by force from Islamist insurgents, saying that military force should only be used as a "last resort." Ban's hesitance reflected anxiety about the consequences of direct U.N. participation in a military operation against al Qaeda. While Ban has applauded the French military intervention as a necessary response to a sudden Islamist military advance towards the capital, Ban has resisted appeals for greater direct support for the mission.
"I am obliged to bring to the attention of the Security Council the assessment of the Secretariat that, if the United Nations were to provide logistics support to military forces engaged in an offensive operation, it would place civilian United Nations personnel at grave risk, and undermine their ability to carry out their current tasks," Ban wrote in a January 20 letter to the Security Council.
But the view inside the U.N. has not been monolithic. The U.N.'s chief peacekeeper, Herve Ladsous, a former French diplomat, has pushed for greater involvement in the French-led military operation, primarily through the provision of logistical support for poorly equipped African troops. In the end, the Security Council will decide what role the U.N. will play in Mali. So far, that remains unclear.
Will, for instance, U.N. peacekeepers play any role in confronting the ongoing threat posed by terrorists? Will they be mandated to crack down on the illicit weapons and narcotics trade that fuels the insurgency in northern Mali? Will they be required to maintain law and order?
In the meantime, the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping has already begun its own contingency planning, focusing on three key options:
1. A full-fledged U.N. peacekeeping mission led by a U.N. special representative. This is the preferred option for French, American, and British officials, as well as U.N. peacekeeping officials. It provides the U.N. political leadership with full control over the mission and gives key Western powers, particularly in Europe, greater confidence to participate. But the vast majority of peacekeepers in the mission will come from Africa and leaders there will not want to cede decision-making to the United Nations.
2. A hybrid force. Facing demands by African leaders for a greater say in regional matters, the U.N. established a joint U.N.-African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Sudan. This hybrid force established the notion of joint AU leadership in the mission. The force has been viewed as a model for the future within Africa, but it has been criticized as cumbersome and ineffectual by U.N. peacekeeping officials. France and Britain strongly oppose it.
3. A compromise option would involve splitting the mission into two. The United Nations would command a stabilization force in northern Mali, where most of the fighting has occurred. A second political mission in Bamako would be managed jointly by the AU and the U.N. It would help facilitate political talks between the Malian government and the country's ethnic minorities, particularly the northern Tuaregs, and pave the way for national elections.
As the key players consider the various options, a more strategic question will have to be addressed. What kind of Mali do the French and its African and U.N. partners want to leave behind? And do they have the capacity to make that happen?
"What we are looking for is a strategy that will not return Mali to the status quo ante," said one senior U.N. official. "We need to support the rule of law and transform the institutions so that this will be the last time blue helmets are needed in Mali."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.