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Diplomatic Fallout: Is Mali The Next Darfur For UN Peacekeeping?

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Diplomatic Fallout: Is Mali The Next Darfur For UN Peacekeeping?

Post by Mazy on Mon Jul 01, 2013 9:11 pm

This is another article that says Mali is the next Darfur
Diplomatic Fallout: Is Mali the Next Darfur for U.N. Peacekeeping?
By Richard Gowan, on 01 Jul 2013, Column

Who cares about Darfur these days? The conflict in the western Sudanese region, which galvanized public opinion in the middle of the last decade, is now rarely in the headlines. This is not because the area is calm. Renewed violence has displaced 300,000 of its inhabitants this year alone. The United Nations and African Union still have 19,000 troops and police officers trying to keep the peace there. But fresher crises, such as those in Mali and Syria, have long replaced Darfur at the top of the international agenda.

Yet policymakers grappling with these newer conflicts should keep Darfur in mind. There is a risk that some of the mistakes made there are now being repeated elsewhere. In particular, there are notable and unnerving parallels between the rollout of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali and the ill-fated mission in Darfur.

In 2006 and 2007, the Security Council debated at great length whether and how to deploy U.N. troops to Darfur. Although the AU had peacekeepers in the area from 2004, they were poorly equipped and had little impact on the conflict around them. The Sudanese government opposed proposals for a more effective force of blue helmets. Khartoum eventually agreed to accept a new force under joint U.N. and AU command, but insisted that the bulk of its personnel should come from Africa.

The expanded mission was a mess from the beginning of its deployment in 2008. It initially struggled to get new personnel on the ground, and those who made it lacked the resources to protect themselves. The mission has remained prey to ambushes and hostage-taking, coming under attack from pro-government militias, rebels and bandits. It has often had to rely on the Sudanese military to guarantee its security, limiting its freedom of movement and reducing its credibility with the local population.

The U.N. mission in Mali (MINUSMA), which takes over from an interim African force today, should have better prospects. It has a far stronger mandate than the Darfur operation and will be backed up by a residual force of French troops. Yet there are doubts about the mission’s capabilities. Although projected to grow to more than 12,000 personnel, it currently fields just 6,000. Many of the African units involved do not meet U.N. operating standards, and, repeating a problem familiar from Darfur, MINUSMA is short on helicopters.

The parallels do not end there. Like Darfur, northern Mali is a vast area that will badly stretch the U.N.’s logistics. A senior peacekeeping official recently told the Security Council that MINUSMA cannot set up specialized communications equipment in the summer heat of northern Mali “because sensitive components will melt.”

MINUSMA could also face security threats similar to those that have plagued the U.N. in Darfur. While the Malian government and a nationalist faction of Tuareg rebels holding the northern town of Kidal signed a peace agreement in mid-June, it is not certain that this will hold. Even if it does, the peacekeepers are likely to come under attack from Islamist fighters. In a worst-case scenario, as I have previously noted, a large-scale terrorist strike could throw MINUSMA off balance, raising doubts about the future of the operation. In a less dramatic but as depressing scenario, the operation may end up bumping along rather like the one in Darfur: short on essential equipment and unable to maneuver effectively in difficult terrain, making it a tempting target for small-scale attacks. If this sounds like an unsatisfactory outcome, it may be enough to satisfy the Security Council for some years to come.

After all, the Darfur case shows that the council is willing to keep peace operations in the field even when it is clear that they lack the military and political clout to make a strategic difference. It can be argued that while a mission may not be very effective, withdrawing it could precipitate an upsurge in violence. This logic has underpinned the U.N.’s willingness not only to maintain the mission in Darfur but also to keep peacekeepers for almost a decade in countries including Haiti and Liberia, and even longer in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There may well still be peacekeepers in Mali in 10 years time. Nonetheless, MINUSMA does not have to be a stagnant mess. In retrospect, the U.N. mission in Darfur was almost bound to fail: It arrived too late in the conflict and was placed under too many constraints by the Sudanese government to function effectively. Almost as soon as the Security Council had mandated the mission, its attention wandered—the challenge of facilitating South Sudan’s independence took priority over Darfur in dealings with Khartoum. By contrast, MINUSMA is deploying while there is still both a window of opportunity to build on the French intervention in Mali and an international focus on the security of the Sahel.

The key to exploiting this opportunity is political: The U.N. and major powers, especially France, will need to use all the influence they have over the Malian government to promote postconflict reconciliation. Presidential elections slated for July 28 will be a major test of the authorities’ willingness to cooperate.

Many experts argue that the polls should be delayed—the International Crisis Group has warned that they will be “shambolic.” In any case, the operational difficulties facing MINUSMA will ultimately be of secondary importance to the political process. Yet if the mission is seen to be impotent, and U.N. officials have to spend more time pleading for helicopters and nonmelting communication equipment than talking about politics, it will be harder to get Mali’s leaders—especially the powerful military—to take talk of reconciliation seriously. To date, too few countries have offered personnel and equipment to reinforce MINUSMA. (Honorable exceptions include China, Bangladesh and the Nordic countries.) Unless a wider range of capable military contributors step forward, the U.N. may find that Mali will be its next Darfur.

Richard Gowan is the associate director for Crisis Management and Peace Operations at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His weekly column for World Politics Review, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.

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