(Photo by SIA KAMBOU / AFP) (Photo by SIA KAMBOU/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The bid to stabilise Mali

James Snell reports on the deployment of British Troops in Mali as a part of the UN’s mission to counter jihadist groups

British troops have begun operations in Mali as part of a United Nations mission to counter jihadist groups in the country. UK forces began arriving in February and have, with BBC cameras in tow, started their long-range patrols of the country’s sparse regions. The way the cameras captured it, those involved in these initial patrols seem confident, but also a little uneasy.

It does not take a fantastic memory to recall than in Afghanistan and Iraq

That’s no wonder. Mali is in a difficult spot. The weak central government is protected by a multinational force from Islamist threats which gather around. In 2013, the Islamists swept through the country, capturing and burning Timbuktu, imperilling the survival of the state.

Mali survived thanks to a French intervention which continues to this day and a multifarious coalition of African Union members, UN peacekeepers and reluctant, inevitable American assistance. These forces may play well together but they are seemingly all deficient in ways which are as debilitating as they are individual.

France is unpopular and overstretched, trying to run a counter-terrorism campaign across the Sahel region while backing a marauding warlord in Libya and attempting to reshape the entire Arab Mediterranean. The United States is a weary Atlas, picking up where France falls and occasionally falling victim itself to nasty ambushes and outmanoeuvres from resourceful enemies.

The African nations are often keen to police their neighbours, but are prone to domestic distraction and chaos, and in many cases lack the hardware and training to make a decisive difference.

Into this maelstrom the UN mission, with all its baggage, is thrust. It’s termed MINUSMA — the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation mission in Mali. Created after the Islamist tide swept forward in 2013, its exact dimensions are a little difficult to establish.

The Ministry of Defence is nominally quite clear about what British forces will be doing. It stresses the two regiments currently deployed will be engaged not in a ‘combat’ or ‘counter-terrorism’ capacity, but instead for ‘reconnaissance’ and the mounting of patrols. It stresses the long range and speed of the Jackal vehicles those deployed will be using.

The MoD again: the UN mission will “support local political efforts to build sustainable long-term peace”. This means that “Peacekeepers protect civilian populations, support political dialogue and reconciliation, prevent and reduce conflict, as well as promote and protect human rights”.

The UK mission in Mali begins at a tense time. The region is in an uproar

Make of that what you can.

“Combat is not the objective”, the MoD says — hence the speed and manoeuvrability of the vehicles, one imagines.

Whatever the above says, it does not take a fantastic memory to recall than in Afghanistan and Iraq, a good deal of what British forces did included patrols into local areas, and attempts to win the trust of local leaders. It involved the same efforts at reconciliation and bridge-building which the UN mission in Mali now claims.

Both involved travelling out into the country, moving between the sparser spaces in which terrorist groups operate, attempting to convince local leaders that the international forces are worth trusting and will be there tomorrow. But Afghanistan was a counter-terror war, with an offensive capacity.

How doing these patrols from Jackals in Mali differs from doing them on foot in Afghanistan — that has not been entirely well-established.

The UK mission in Mali begins at a tense time. The region is in an uproar. The president of Chad has just died in battle. Islamist forces are building and surging and swirling around. They are no idle problem. The broader trend of Islamist violence in the area has included two unpleasant attacks, including on foreigners, in Burkina Faso in just the past few weeks. The Islamists in Mali have employed the same tactics. Olivier Dubois, a French journalist kidnapped in the country in April by an Islamist group, has this week appeared in a video released by his captors, begging for his life.

UN peacekeeping missions never seem less helpful when confronted with a surging enemy being fought largely by other people.

The war in Mali is a mess, one that is being addressed piecemeal and increasingly reluctantly by the French and the Americans. It is a fractious situation into which the UN mission awkwardly fits.

French and American forces do long-range patrols of their own, of course — although those patrols are not exclusively ‘reconnaissance’; they do not forestall the possibility of combat as the UN mission must.

All international participants in the bid to stabilise Mali are groping around for the same solutions: to fight the Islamists when necessary, but also to conduct the sort of work that would be termed ‘counter-insurgency’ by the less squeamish among them.

Their modus operandi seems to retain a great deal of chasing around the desert in armoured convoys, not necessarily doing anything of use

This doesn’t just mean driving around in armoured vehicles and calling in aerial power to destroy enemies when they appear: it includes the business of reassuring local leaders that if they wanted to pledge their support to a new national government, the Islamists could be prevented from extracting revenge. It means telling them — and meaning it — that they and their children can be protected from reprisal if they turn away from violent men.

Only then — when the powers that be offer their honest support — can the terrorists be prevented from seeing the desert as a sea through which their insurgent armies freely travel, with isolated settlements serving as welcoming ports of call.

International missions in Mali don’t appear to have succeeded in doing any of this. Where the French met resistance, now America has done the same. Their modus operandi seems to retain a great deal of chasing around the desert in armoured convoys, not necessarily doing anything of use, and occasionally being brutally attacked by insurgents who know the ground.

From what we have seen of the patrols captured by the BBC, there is little reason to hope for anything different from the UN mission which now contains British forces.

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