NAIROBI, Kenya — Thousands of United Nations peacekeepers could be headed to Mali as early as July.
The UN troops, which could number more than 12,000, would replace a French force that has been battling back Al Qaeda-linked militants since January.
Although a small French force is expected to stay in Mali to carry out offensive actions, the Security Council decision indicates a willingness by the United Nations to employ a more muscular approach to peacekeeping. The “blue helmets” will be working in a conflict zone, after all, where there is no peace to keep.
A similar strategy is now being used in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a UN peacekeeping mission often criticized for failing to protect civilians from brutal militias will be augmented by a special “intervention force.” The new UN troops are tasked with actively pursuing rebel groups in the east of the country.
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The UN may have learned its lesson in Somalia, where an African Union force with UN backing stretched its peacekeeping mandate to the breaking point while fighting an outright war against Al Qaeda aligned insurgents. The force was remarkably successful in pacifying large parts of the anarchic country.
In March 2012, the military overthrew Mali’s government and allowed the northern half of the country — a desert region the size of Texas — to fall under the sway of a coalition of ethnic Tuareg rebels and Islamic extremist groups that include Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).
After ousting their Tuareg allies, the Islamic militant groups in January threatened to advance on Bamako, the country’s capital, triggering a forceful military intervention by France.
Since then the Islamic militants have been chased out of the main northern towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, and have been bludgeoned by bombs in their mountain hideouts in the west. Nevertheless, insurgents have launched regular counter-attacks in all three cities using suicide bombers and other guerrilla tactics.
At its peak, French forces in Mali numbered 4,000, but the drawdown has already begun. A group of soldiers provided by Chad to back the French force has also started withdrawing. Chad President Idriss Deby, however, said his troops might join the new UN force.
For its troops, the UN mission will draw on forces already mobilized by West African countries, 6,000 of which are already inside Mali.
The peacekeepers' mandate will be to “stabilize population centers” and “support the re-establishment of state authority throughout the country.” They will also be tasked with protecting civilians and aid workers. A 1,000-strong contingent of French troops expected to remain in Mali beyond the end of the year will be on hand to carry out any offensive or counter-terrorism actions that may be required.
The UN force, known as MINUSMA, will also support planned elections in July, which aim to quickly set up an elected government in the country and draw a line under a year of political strife.
The UN mission is expected to cost about $800 million for a year of work. It will be the world's third largest peacekeeping force, after those in Congo and Sudan. At the same time, a European Union training mission is already under way to help professionalize Mali’s troubled army.
While the French appear to have easily overrun the Islamic militants in the north, some fear they may be just hiding, waiting to re-emerge against a weaker opponent. Meanwhile, the Tuareg rebels, although chastened by their betrayal at the hands of the militants, have continued to reject calls to disarm and begin negotiations.
Hurried elections might also contribute to the climate of insecurity and are unlikely to solve Mali’s deeply ingrained problems of political corruption, mismanagement, poor governance and nepotism.
Political analysts in Bamako describe the system that was overthrown by last year’s coup as a sham and a facade in which elections were mistaken for democracy.
Mali’s troubles, it seems, are far from over.