Tough Times Ahead for New Mali Peacekeeping Mission

The Security Council yesterday approved a 12,600 strong peacekeeping force in Mali, to deploy starting July 1.

The mission has one big thing going for it: French military backing. Peacekeeping missions that have the backing of western military powers tend to be more successful than those made up exclusively of troops from the developing world. Having a powerful western backing force, which could provide things as simple-sounding as helicopters that can fly at night, can boost the military effectiveness of this mission. Most peacekeeping missions don’t have that kind of capacity. This mission will.

Still, I have grave doubts about the prospects for success of the mission. This will be the first time that UN Peacekeepers will come in direct confrontation with an insurgency in which the peacekeepers themselves are the main targets. Peacekeeping is always dangerous, but rarely are peacekeepers themselves the main targets of violence.

This will not be the case in Mali, where there is an active, Islamist inspired insurgency that views the UN as an enemy.  I would expect the Mali mission to be among the deadliest in UN history because unlike any other mission in the world today, these peacekeepers will be considered legitimate targets by insurgents. A key question, therefore, is how much are troop contributing countries willing to accept casualties? If the tolerance is low, the mission will collapse.

Another thing mitigating against success is the ongoing lack of a political peace process. Peacekeepers are essentially deploying to strengthen the Malian government’s ability to control its territory. So far, the underlying political grievances that sparked this rebellion have yet to be addressed; and politics in Bamako remains unstable.  This political process needs to be prioritized and emphasized by the international community in order for the mission to succeed.

I desperately want the mission to succeed. I just don’t see the pieces lining up in that direction. At least not yet.