The Beginning of the End
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali – also known as the United Nations Mission for the Stabilisation of Mali (MINUSMA) – is at a crossroads. With the mission’s conclusion seemingly on the horizon, the withdrawal of major international partners has left many to speculate on the failure of the operation. The overarching change in direction and support for the whole mission is linked to the introduction of the Wagner Group, a Russian Private Military Company, who has played an increasingly prominent role in the conflict since their deployment in December 2021 (International Crisis Group, 2022).
MINUSMA peacekeepers began their operations in 2013 following the 2012 Tuareg Rebellion, which ousted the incumbent President Amadou Toumani Toure. The mission is tasked with the stabilisation of the country in the wake of an insurgency led by Jihadist and separatist groups (Centre for Preventive Action, 2022). The United Nations mission is linked with the French-led Operation Barkhane, which shares the objectives of the mission at a wider scale. MINUSMA and Barkhane served as counter-insurgency operations, targeting the rising jihadist movements in the region, as well as utilising special forces alongside conventional support troops to seek out jihadist/separatist movements in Northern Mali (Doxsee, 2022). However, following the rise of the military junta following another Coup in 2020, the government in Bamako (the national capital) has become increasingly favourable towards the Wagner Group (International Crisis Group, 2022).
The Wagner Group is a Russian state-backed private military organisation which has recently increased its responsibilities in Mali, with the continued blessing of the new government in Bamako. Initially serving as a direct support for the Malian government, with operations confined to the scope of personal protection (and with the support of the military junta), the Wagner Group’s operations in the country have since expanded – as seen by a mounting humanitarian toll (France 24, 2022). Following the increased role of the Wagner Group in Ukraine, the support for the kremlin-backed organisation is casting a long shadow over the United Nations in the region (International Crisis Group, 2022).
The Wagner Group
Withdrawal of UN Troop Contributors
In mid-2021, Operation Barkhane crumbled after France began its gradual withdrawal from Mali. One of the main factors which ‘tarnished’, per se, France’s reputation in the country involves the relative indecisiveness of Operation Barkhane (Petrini), as seen by the increase in power of Islamist insurgent groups. Moreover, the reciprocal lack of interest in the operation (notably from the general French population which criticised the nation’s intervention) has led to discontent. This discontent has increased since the Malian military junta publicly criticised the French intervention, urging the country to abandon its mission. Following the expulsion of the French ambassador in Mali, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that his country “cannot remain militarily engaged alongside de facto authorities whose strategy and objectives are not aligned [with the French]” (Durmaz). Macron also stated that France no longer trusted the Malian authorities after their collaboration with the Wagner Group. France subsequently withdrew its troops from Mali, halting its support for the authorities against radical Islamist terrorist groups.
Following the increasing influence of the Wagner Group in Bamako (notably after the French withdrawal), many UN troop contributors have been re-assessing their commitment to the mission (International Crisis Group, 2022). On the 11th of November 2022, Cote d’Ivoire stated to the United Nations that it would be withdrawing 900 troops from the mission. The United Kingdom followed suit, announcing their withdrawal six months earlier than planned, simultaneously highlighting that the Malian government had become “uncooperative”. The UK also further claimed that Bamako’s alliance with Wagner is “counterproductive” to operations (Maillard, 2022). On the 22nd of November, Germany similarly stated they will withdraw from the UN operation but will maintain a portion of their commitment up until 2024. This recent decline in troop contribution, alongside the complete end of Operation Barkhane in mid-2022, suggests that MINUSMA is losing its influence in the country (International Crisis Group, 2022).
It's All Falling Apart
In essence, the political situation in Mali is becoming increasingly restrictive for the UN mission. Firstly, the government in Bamako has hindered operations by suspending troops between July and August, as well as restricting the movement of UN staff in the region (International Crisis Group, 2022). This has negatively impacted relations between the UN and the Sahelian country. Furthermore, the Malian government has detained 46 Ivorian soldiers (whom they labelled as mercenaries), causing support to become significantly strained, particularly with West African partners (International Crisis Group, 2022).
The MINUSMA mission has had mixed success, with many criticising the slow success of the mission (which has been operational for nine years this December). Some of the main criticisms of Operation Barkhane involve the civilian casualties caused by the operation’s air campaigns. French forces, as well as their NATO partners, have relied heavily on their air capabilities to expand operations across Northern Mali. However, when a French airstrike killed 19 at a wedding in 2021, allegations of indiscriminate force arose (International Crisis Group, 2022). The French and Malian government dismissed the claims but welcomed the investigation into the fatalities by the United Nations (International Crisis Group, 2022).
Nonetheless, Mali’s recent partnership with the Wagner Group has resulted in renewed allegations of human rights violations. A joint Wagner/Malian operation in Moura (in March 2022) resulted in 300 casualties, all of which were publicly stated to be militants (Human Rights Watch, 2022). However, eyewitness accounts claim that most were civilians, executed by Wagner operators and Malian soldiers (International Crisis Group, 2022). So far, neither the current government in Bamako nor the Wagner Group are welcoming any investigations into these allegations (International Crisis Group, 2022). All of this follows statements from the Malian government, arguing that the UN’s focus on Human Rights overstates the security aspects of the operation and hence impedes Malian operations against militants (International Crisis Group, 2022).
The relationship between Malian forces and the Wagner Group is getting stronger as the UN member states step back from operations in Mali (France 24, 2022). The impact of the war in Ukraine on interoperability between the UN, NATO, Mali, and the Wagner Group, is the most poignant aspect of current operations. The diplomatic implications of working alongside Russian-backed forces outside of Europe – all whilst the invasion of Ukraine continues – undermines the future of the Mission in Mali (International Crisis Group, 2022). NATO member states are in a moral conundrum over operations in Mali. The looming presence of the Wagner Group is casting doubt on the longevity of the operation (International Crisis Group, 2022). For a long time, Wagner has presented itself as an alternative to Western forces, and their actions in Mali are no different.
Crucially, the withdrawal of UN member states from the mission is favourable to the Wagner Group and other insurgencies alike. MINUSMA has had varying degrees of success during its nine-year span, yet the multilateral commitment of the United Nation exemplified a concentrated effort to combat Jihadist insurgencies in northern Mali. In regards to the war in Ukraine and its potential impact on the Wagner Group and Western nations in Mali, the future is uncertain. Certainly, the future of MINUSMA is now part of a wider diplomatic game, with the UN’s involvement being pressured by war in Europe.
Works Cited (MLA)
Centre for Preventive Action, 2022. Instability in Mali/Global Conflict Tracker. [Online]
Available at: https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/destabilization-mali
Durmaz, Mucahid. “Analysis: Did the French mission in Mali fail?” Al Jazeera, 18 February 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2022/2/18/despite-macrons-denials-did-the-french-mission-in-mali-fail.
Doxsee, C., 2022. Massacres, Executions, and Falsified Graves: The Wagner Group’s Mounting Humanitarian Cost in Mali. [Online] Available at: https://www.csis.org/analysis/massacres-executions-and-falsified-graves-wagner-groups-mounting-humanitarian-cost-mali
Doxsee, C., 2022. The End of Operation Barkhane and the Future of Counter Terrorism in Mali. [Online]
Available at: https://www.csis.org/analysis/end-operation-barkhane-and-future-counterterrorism-mali
France 24, 2022. US accuses Russia's Wagner Group for worsening security in Mali. [Online]
Available at: https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20221027-us-accuses-russia-s-wagner-group-of-worsening-security-situation-in-mali
Human Rights Watch, 2022. Mali: Massacre by Army, Foreign Soldiers. [Online]
Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/04/05/mali-massacre-army-foreign-soldiers
International Crisis Group, 2022. MINUSMA at a Crossroads. [Online]
Available at: https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/sahel/mali/minusma-crossroads
Maillard, M., 2022. Diplomatie Au Mali, les Casques bleus britanniques et ivoiriens plient bagage. [Online]
Available at: https://www.liberation.fr/international/afrique/au-mali-les-casques-bleus-britanniques-et-ivoiriens-plient-bagage-20221115_JZEVGD3YOJF7ZM57IXKWVRSQCY/
Petrini, Benjamin. “Security in the Sahel and the end of Operation Barkhane.” The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 5 September 2022, https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2022/09/security-in-the-sahel-and-the-end-of-operation-barkhane.