Mission impossible in Mali

23 October 2014

Mission impossible in Mali

Fleeing Chinese guards, broken toilets, the UN as 'black-box'. The Mali military mission is no bed of roses. SP Member of Parliament Jasper van Dijk paid a working visit to Dutch soldiers. Below are his impressions.

The Netherlands’ Camp Castor is located in Gao in Mali’s centre. This is where around 450 Dutch soldiers and around 10,000 others must implement the UN’s MINUSMA operation - the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali. This mission consists of stabilising Mali, protecting the population, restoring the authority of the state and promoting reconciliation amongst different population groups.

Why the troops are there

Mali has around 16 million inhabitants and a surface area some thirty times greater than the Netherlands, which has about the same population. Tensions mainly affect the north, where various population groups, in particular the Tuareg, want to secede from Mali. In addition, terrorist groups are active throughout the Sahel region, some of them affiliated to Al Qaida.

The UN operation began last year, following the hunting down of jihadist fighters by the French army. The jihadists came in most cases from Libya, taking the road to Mali after the fall of Colonel Gadhafi. Originally it was principally the Tuareg who were fighting for the independence of northern Mali. They were overrun by jihadist fighters. Following the French intervention a section of the Tuareg retook power in the north, where battles continue between ‘pro-Malian’ forces and those who are fighting for independence.


The UN mandate contains a major contradiction. On the one hand there is the aim of reconciling the groups fighting each other, while on the other is the goal of restoring the state authority of the Malian government. A section of the fighters wants independence from Mali and sees the UN mission as an extension of the Malian government, however. Because of this the UN is losing its neutrality. Furthermore, negotiations are now occurring amongst the various groups. A central issue is to what extent groups in the north will be given independence. As long as no agreement has been reached, the UN mission can scarcely operate effectively. After all, the question arises as to which ‘state’ is to be restored.

Disturbances in the north have been caused by poverty and neglect. The Tuareg have for decades been ignored by the Malian government, keeping body and soul together by trading in drugs and weapons. Armed groups are active in the whole of the Sahel region, taking no notice of the artificial colonial boundaries of Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad and Mauritania. The UN operation is limited, however, to Mali. Fighters in neighbouring countries can simply wait until the UN has left Mali.

The Dutch mission

Dutch forces in Mali are tasked with intelligence gathering, for which they are equipped with advanced resources such as drones, and Apache- and Chinook helicopters. Commandoes track the various groups in the gigantic area and chart them. This leads to an enormous amount of information which is then transmitted to the UN HQ. The UN has been labelled a ‘black box’ because it is totally unclear what is done with this information. We were told many times that this is frustrating. The lack of a UN campaign plan leads one to conclude that this gathering of intelligence has no follow-up.

Conditions in the camp

According to the military leaders, complaints over the conditions in the camp are greatly exaggerated. It’s just a small group that has had problems with broken toilets, faulty cooling systems, shortage of water and the lack of security. ‘It’s just not a five-star hotel.’ Nevertheless soldiers are annoyed by the inadequate services and it is widely recognised that security could be improved. Secure containers will only be available next year, though they should have been there already. The tents are a few metres from the fence separating the soldiers from the outside world. Committing an attack would be easy.

Guarding the camp should be undertaken by the Chinese, but little is done correctly. They are only present on working days from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. For the rest of the day and during the weekend the camp is guarded by the Dutch themselves. The Chinese guards achieve little, moreover. It is alleged that should anyone approach the camp, they run away.

From high and low, complaints are heard about the work conducted under the UN flag. The UN functions in a manner bureaucratic, cumbersome and slow. If flying hours are requested, getting permission takes weeks. At the weekend the UN isn’t reachable. Digging an additional well has not been authorised, despite the inadequate water supply.


In Bamako, the capital, is Camp Bifrost, built by the Norwegians. Conditions there are visibly better. Soldiers sleep in separate cabins (rather than nine to a tent), the air-conditioning is better and there is a wider range of things to do in your spare time.

Also in the capital is the police operation UNPOL, which includes around twenty Dutch officers. Their function is to train the Malian police. As a result of enormous corruption, however, few Malians want to join the police. They simply detest them. In practice it is mostly existing police officers who are being trained. There is, however, a huge shortage of people able to give such training.

In Bamako we spoke with the temporary replacement for Dutch Development Minister Bert Koenders, David Gressly, Koenders having recently been appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs. Gressly said that he hoped for a positive outcome to the ‘dialogue’ in Algeria, including a certain recognition for the population in the north. As a result of the longstanding tensions between northern and southern Mali, Gressly believes that the mission would have to last at least fifteen-to-twenty years. He promised to address the UN’s bureaucracy.


There is a huge difference between what’s on paper and what really happens. On paper MINUSMA seems important in restoring peace to Mali, and this is how it is presented in information sent by the Dutch government to Parliament and to the media in communiqués. In reality the only question is whether the UN is capable of establishing stability in this gigantic country with its countless population groups who take little heed of borders.

In practice also the UN is much more bureaucratic than is realised. Quite a lot of things need to be dealt with regarding cooperation between the participating countries, such as between the Chinese and the Dutch. In addition reports have been received of human rights abuses by UN soldiers and the African countries involved in the UN mission have to contend with visibly worse materiel.

The UN, moreover, has to struggle with a contradictory mandate. On the one hand is the desire to restore state authority, on the other hand parties to the conflict must be reconciled, yet not all of the groups recognise Mali’s authority. They see the UN force as an extension of the Malian government and want nothing to do with it. Already, more than thirty UN soldiers have died.

The UN operation could even prove counterproductive should it give Mali and its neighbours an excuse to sit back (‘The UN will solve this’). It’s crucial that subordinated groups such as the Tuareg gain recognition from the Malian authorities. As long as the UN retains the leadership on military, diplomatic and humanitarian terrain, the countries involved will have less reason to act for themselves. Support amongst the people for the Malian government is already minimal as a result of enormous corruption. Also, loans and development aid mean there is less cause to take the people seriously. Indignation was rife recently when the President of Mali purchased a new aeroplane as a cost of €30 million.

Then there remains the double agenda of various countries involved. France is fighting its own war against terrorists from the region. A number of Malians indicate in relation to this that what the French principally want is to secure the country’s raw materials. For this reason the French would have no problem should the Tuareg gain control of an independent northern Mali ("the so-called Republic of Azawad"). It is a classic divide and rule policy, by means of which both northern and southern Mali would be weakened, to France’s advantage. Neighbouring countries as well (Niger, Algeria) would benefit from an unstable Mali. None of this makes the UN’s mission any easier.

Mission impossible

On paper making Mali safe seems a worthy goal. In practice this UN operation looks much like a mission impossible. The presence of UN troops can at best temporarily provide some stability. The conflict between northern and southern Mali has already gone on for decades. Fighters in the north pay little attention to artificial borders, while the UN operation is restricted to Mali.

The mission could even be counterproductive if it provokes fresh violence. The recent attack which resulted in the deaths of nine UN soldiers from Niger demonstrates this. An attack on Dutch soldiers isn’t inconceivable, especially now they are operating deeper in the north where violence is increasing. MINUSMA could then degenerate into a combat mission.

Instead of a military mission, the SP would prefer to see a political solution and an intensification of humanitarian aid. 140,000 people in Mali have been uprooted. At the same time hundreds of thousands of people have problems getting hold of food. Of the €480 million needed for emergency aid, less than 50% has been made available. The UN operation has so far cost €650 million. We should avoid conducting a costly, hopeless operation, by putting the money to use as humanitarian aid.

From 17th to 20th October SP Member of Parliament and spokesman on defence issues Jasper van Dijk travelled to Mali with other MPs from the Dutch Parliament’s Defence Committee. Two days were spent at the Dutch Camp Castor in Gao, and two days in the capital, Bamako, site of the UN operation’s HQ.

This article first appeared on the website of the Dutch national daily newspaper Trouw.

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