This week at the UN General Assembly, Mali’s president was the bearer of bad news: the jihadists the French military crushed to much fanfare a few years back have returned with a vengeance, and they’re undermining a peace accord. Reuters:
Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita warned the United Nations on Friday that the failure to fully implement a nationwide peace accord was helping al-Qaeda and Islamic State-affiliated groups spread their influence in the country.
U.N. peacekeepers are deployed across northern Mali to try to stabilize the vast region, which was occupied by separatist Tuareg rebels and al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in 2012 before France intervened in 2013. Tit-for-tat violence between rival armed groups has distracted Mali from fighting Islamist militants and the country has become the deadliest place for U.N. peacekeepers to serve. […]
Keita said Islamist militants were using the slow implementation of peace accords to “manipulate” and “destroy” links between different ethnic groups in Mali.
A clash in the north this week between pro-government Gatia militia and the Tuareg separatist Coordination of Azawad Movements highlighted the fragility of a U.N.-backed deal signed last year between the government and northern armed groups meant to end a cycle of uprisings.
UN peacekeepers’ incentives are just as perverse as those of the condottieri, the Italian mercenaries Machiavelli once wrote off as “useless and dangerous.” Like the condottieri of old, UN peacekeepers are paid for an input measure—a fee per soldier—not for an output measure, such as actually keeping the peace. The UN reimburses peacekeeping at a rate of $1,332 per soldier per month, making peacekeeping a lucrative endeavor for major contributors like Bangladesh where soldiers are paid roughly 1/20th that amount. Well-paid, professional militaries like those of the U.S. and the U.K. commit far fewer forces to peacekeeping; for those they do contribute, the UN reimbursement does not come close to covering the cost.
Professional militaries have a difficult time implementing counter-insurgency strategy (COIN) effectively, so it’s no surprise that UN peacekeepers are struggling against the jihadist onslaught. As we’re seeing in South Sudan—where peacekeepers are turning a blind eye to mass rapes and otherwise failing to protect the civilians—the peacekeepers’ main objective is to avoid casualties, not to complete the mission.
Keeping ISIS and Al Qaeda at bay in Mali requires détente between two historically opposed forces: the Malian central government in Bamako and the nomadic Tuareg people, who fiercely defend their independence and cross Mali’s porous Saharan borders with ease. These “blue men of the desert” are known for their indigo turbans and their spirited resistance against central authorities—first the French and then the Malians. Even if the Malian state will never win the love the Tuareg, it must work to placate them and to isolate Islamist Tuareg militias like Ansar Dine, driving a wedge between apolitical Tuaregs and jihadist groups that might otherwise be inclined to join together against the state under the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Here’s the thing about terrorists in Mali: we’ll hear nothing about them and nothing about them and then suddenly everything will be about them. The geography of the Sahara makes it possible for groups to lie in wait, regroup, and plan their next moves. UN peacekeepers are useless against them. Jihadists in Mali don’t just complicate the regional security situation—they threaten European security as well. We ignore Mali’s terror problem at our peril.