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?

GAO, Mali — A few minutes before 9 a.m. on Jan. 18, a white Toyota Land Cruiser carrying 50-gallon drums crammed with metal and explosives turned up a wide sandy track toward a military compound guarded by U.N. peacekeepers. Inside the compound, behind a thin concrete wall topped with razor wire, was the ultimate symbol of the country’s troubled peace process: a special unit of Malian forces and former rebels who were due to patrol together in a show of solidarity.

Emblazoned with the insignia of the special unit, known by its French acronym MOC, the Land Cruiser passed the U.N. peacekeepers and the first security perimeter without incident. When a security guard at the main gate asked the driver for identification, he rammed the vehicle through a metal barrier and made a hard left toward a group of soldiers who were assembled to drill. Then he detonated his payload.

“There was a blue light, a big noise, and smoke,” said Lt. Col. Samballa Sidibé, the MOC’s logistics chief. “When it cleared, there was a spectacular scene of desolation.”

The bodies of at least 77 dead and more than 100 wounded lay twisted in the sand, arrayed about a giant, smoking crater. The attack, which was later claimed by an affiliate of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, incapacitated roughly one-third of the MOC’s 600 U.N.-trained troops. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Malian history.

Left: Members of the MOC in a Toyota Land Cruiser similar to the one that was used in the deadly car bombing on Jan. 18. Right: Members of the MOC at their base in Gao in February, less than a month after it was bombed. (Photo credit: ANTHONY FOUCHARD/Foreign Policy)

Since U.N. peacekeepers deployed to Mali in 2013, they have become enmeshed in an increasingly deadly campaign by jihadis who, with the help of Tuareg separatists, had briefly seized the northern half of the country in 2012. Mandated to stabilize the country and support implementation of a 2015 peace agreement, the peacekeepers have instead become piñatas for disgruntled jihadi groups that were excluded from the accord. At least 118 blue helmets have been killed in the past four years, more than in any other active U.N. mission, prompting the Security Council to strengthen their mandate to take “proactive” steps against “asymmetric” terrorist threats.

The mission’s counterterrorism focus has made it the U.N.’s most controversial. Many believe the world body should preserve its impartial status rather than become a party to conflicts. But as the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations stares down potentially debilitating budget cuts proposed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, what made the Mali mission a lightning rod for criticism could be what ends up saving it — at least for now.

The White House has instructed State Department officials to find at least $1 billion in cuts to U.S. funding for the U.N.’s 16 peacekeeping missions, but U.S. planners have so far left Mali off the chopping block. U.N.-based officials say it’s too early to know whether the new administration will embrace the U.N. peacekeeping role in Mali or whether it just hasn’t begun internal deliberations on the mission’s fate. But an official familiar with U.S. thinking said the Trump administration is “most forward-leaning” on the U.N.’s “role in counterterrorism environments.”

“Mali is not in their sights right now,” added a senior U.N.-based official.

Dutch U.N. peacekeepers patrol in Gao in February. (Photo credit: ANTHONY FOUCHARD/Foreign Policy)

The United Nations commands the second-largest expeditionary force in the world, with nearly 100,000 uniformed troops and police officers deployed in 16 missions at a cost of about $8 billion a year. The United States is obliged to pay more than 28 percent of the cost, or some $2 billion each year.

Both the administrations of former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama viewed that outlay as a bargain, relieving the U.S. military and its allies of the pressure to send American soldiers into harm’s way to monitor cease-fires or halt genocide and other mass atrocities.

But the Trump administration is skeptical about the wisdom of pouring billions of dollars into costly missions that never seem to end and sees a ripe target for securing savings.

On April 6, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will host a special session of the U.N. Security Council to try to prod other key powers into cutting costs in U.N. peacekeeping missions including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan and to shutter other troubled missions that show little hope of achieving their goals.

“A significant number of [peacekeeping operations] have mandates conceived years — in some cases decades — ago that are no longer supported by a political environment conducive to achieving the Council’s aims,” Haley’s staff wrote in a confidential “concept paper” distributed last week to prepare the council’s 14 other members.

“[A]re the current missions still ‘fit for purpose?'” the paper asked. “How do we guard against mission creep?”

The United States has developed a hit list of missions, including a trio of U.N. peacekeeping missions in Haiti, Liberia, and Ivory Coast, that were already being wound down before Trump won the presidency. The closure of those missions could “hand Haley some relatively easy victories,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, but they won’t get the United States near the White House target of $1 billion in cuts.

To get there, the U.N. would have to close or at least scale back some of the largest and most costly missions, like those in Congo, which is projected to cost U.S. taxpayers $440 million in 2017; South Sudan ($372 million); Darfur ($324 million); the Central African Republic ($285 million); and Mali (nearly $298 million).

For the time being, the State Department has no immediate plans to close or cut back the U.N. mission in the Central African Republic, which was set up to halt mass atrocities, or in Mali, where jihadis threaten U.S. interests in the region. This could reflect the Trump administration’s priorities, or it could reflect the fact that it has yet to hash out a peacekeeping doctrine and these missions won’t come up for renewal for months.

“They are taking them one by one, more or less in chronological order,” one council diplomat said. “For the moment, I see no big picture, no big plans coming from the administration.”

A Dutch U.N. peacekeeper looks out over the city of Gao. (Photo credit: TY MCCORMICK/Foreign Policy)

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.”

Dutch U.N. peacekeepers patrol in Gao. (Photo credit: ANTHONY FOUCHARD/Foreign Policy)

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.”

Left: Dutch U.N. peacekeepers ready their Mercedes jeeps for a patrol in Gao. Right: Bangladeshi U.N. peacekeepers patrol in Gao. (Photo credit: ANTHONY FOUCHARD/Foreign Policy)

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.”




Ty McCormick

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. (@columlynch)