To Save Peacekeeping From Trump’s Budget Ax, Will the U.N. Embrace Fighting Terrorism?
The U.N. mission in Mali is Turtle Bay’s most controversial. But will its counterterrorism remit be just what saves it from the chopping block?
Even if the Trump administration is “forward-leaning” on missions like Mali’s, it seems unlikely to nudge the world body toward a broader embrace of counterterrorism. The U.N. has for years resisted taking over for African Union peacekeepers in Somalia, for instance, mainly because they are engaged in a bloody fight against al Qaeda-linked militants there. It’s difficult to sustain political support for missions that take high numbers of casualties, which is part of the reason the AU doesn’t say how many of its troops have been killed. By contrast, U.N. missions must account for every peacekeeper who comes home in a coffin.
The U.N. did adopt a counterterrorism strategy in 2006, but it is mainly focused on addressing the root causes of terrorism and strengthening national governments to combat it. According to a panel of experts convened by former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2015, blue helmets are “not suited to engage in military counter-terrorism operations” because they “lack the specific equipment, intelligence, logistics, capabilities and specialized military preparation required.”
But France, which has a large financial and security stake in the mission’s success, has defended it as a critical force for stability, and a possible model for future peacekeeping missions elsewhere.
“This is new for the U.N., and it’s really a test for the organization to be able to operate in today’s challenging security environment, which includes threats such as terrorism,” France’s U.N. ambassador, François Delattre, said. The U.N. mission in Mali, he added, is a “dam against the spread of terrorism in Mali and the whole region. To weaken it would risk making Mali and the region a new safe haven for terrorists across the globe.”
But the Mali mission, which is the only one of 69 U.N. missions authorized since 1948 to deploy as part of a counterterrorism operation, has been hamstrung by many of the problems highlighted by the U.N. panel of experts. When the Security Council “clarified” the mission’s mandate last year, authorizing it to take a “more proactive and robust posture” to “anticipate, deter and counter threats,” many expected it to begin dismantling terrorist networks. There was even talk of forming an elite African unit within the mission modeled on the Force Intervention Brigade in Congo, the only U.N. mission to undertake sustained offensive operations.
It never happened. Peacekeepers in the Mali mission, known as MINUSMA, continued to be battered by bombs and improvised explosive devices, but they never took the fight directly to the jihadis.
“Most of the time, we know where they are and we know what they do, because we have all the modern techniques to find them,” Col. Wilco Roepers, the commander of Dutch contingent in Mali, said of terrorist groups. “But we are not allowed to attack them. Like targeting, what we did in Afghanistan, we are not allowed to do here. Because we are here just to keep the peace, not to kill terrorists. That’s not our job.”
To make it their job, however, U.N. officials say they would need more manpower and equipment — precisely the kinds of costly expenditures the Trump administration is trying to rein in.
“This country is twice the size of France, and the number of uniformed people is less than the New York [City] Police Department,” said Koen Davidse, the deputy special representative of the U.N. secretary-general in Mali. “We still have gaps in terms of the armored vehicles that we need, helicopter units, special forces units, reconnaissance units — those are all sorts of things that we need to implement the mandate.”
MINUSMA was already the U.N.’s fourth-most expensive mission at $933 million in 2016, and it has more highly trained European troops than any other mission in Africa. It also has a sophisticated intelligence arm, the first for a U.N. mission, that puts intel gathered on long-range patrols, by helicopters and C-130 transport planes, and by a fleet of Heron 1 surveillance drones at the fingertips of the force commander.
But U.N. missions are awkward coalitions of the willing, and even good intelligence can be difficult to act upon when troop contingents struggle to work effectively together.
Among MINUSMA’s 13,000 military personnel are Dutch air assault troops that patrol in open-top Mercedes jeeps. But there are also Bangladeshi peacekeepers who lack armored vehicles. Some contingents have experience in NATO missions like Afghanistan; others are deploying overseas for the first time.
“There are still troops coming in with no guns and no tents. Some people are not trained. So we have partners in this mission who are not ready to go,” Col. Roepers said. “In the last few months of 2016, we did some integrated action with five or more countries, and sometimes it didn’t go well because we were not able to work together.”
Peacekeeping in counterterrorism theaters also means the U.N. get less bang for its buck. Blue helmets must focus first and foremost on protecting themselves, which means that more time and energy is spent on things like securing bases and protecting convoys than in traditional peacekeeping operations.
“Of course, we’re here to secure the population, but we can only do that if we take care of our own security, so it’s a constant point of tension,” Davidse said.
Meanwhile, the terrorist threat is spreading. While MINUSMA was focused on preventing al Qaeda and like-minded groups from re-establishing the caliphate they declared in the north of the country in 2012, Mali’s volatile middle belt was quickly imploding. New groups have taken up arms against the government in recent months, and a staggering number of local authorities have been assassinated.
Marc Spurling, the acting head of MINUSMA in Gao, an ancient caravan city on the banks of the Niger River, says the mission’s primary focus on stabilization complements more aggressive counterterrorism efforts being headed up by French “Barkhane” forces operating throughout the wider Sahel region. The U.N. shares intelligence with the French if it thinks lives can be saved as a result.
But others within the mission see its junior partner relationship to Barkhane as a dangerous half-measure. It marks MINUSMA as a clear party to the conflict but means the mission does not act to neutralize threats before it’s too late. And because the French are better equipped and have a lighter footprint, MINUSMA is often the easiest target for the terrorists to hit.
And hit it they have. The MOC explosion may not even have been the biggest to wrack Gao in the last six months. In November, a truck bomb obliterated a bloc of U.N. offices next to the airport and nearly collapsed the terminal. A second truck that failed to detonate was carrying more than 1,000 pounds of explosives.
“MINUSMA is getting hit, the national armed forces are getting hit, Barkhane is getting hit, and civilians are getting hit,” Spurling said. “And what we all have in common is that we’re getting hit by those who are quite clearly enemies of the peace.”