Analysis: while members of the Irish special forces are more than able for any role they may be assigned, the conflict in Mali is volatile and unstable.
The Government has approved sending around 14 soldiers primarily from the special forces unit, the Army Ranger Wing (ARW), to participate in the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA. While the Defence Forces already contribute to an EU training mission there, this is not a combat role. In Mali, a protracted conflict remains ongoing, aggravated by the intervention of various armed groups and a power vacuum in the north and the centre of the country. With over 200 fatalities to date, this is considered one of the UN's most dangerous missions.
Ireland’s EU partners, especially France, have prioritised the mission in order to help limit large movements of people and terrorist activities in the region. As UN forces in Mali are considered a party to the conflict, this raises the question whether counter terrorism is something the Defence Forces should engage in under the guise of peacekeeping.
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Since 2012, Mali has faced a volatile crisis as armed groups, jihadists and transnational criminal networks, fight for control of trafficking routes in the north. The 2015 peace agreement remains fragile. At the same time, jihadist violence against security forces, including UN peacekeepers, is increasing and ethnic groups have exploited the terrorist threat to pursue local rivalries. The instability in Mali spills over into the whole Sahel region giving credence to the claim by Mali's prime minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga that it is "acting as a dam against the terrorist threat".
To deal with the threat, the UN Security Council has approved MINUSMA to take robust and active steps to counter asymmetric attacks and carry out its mandate. Although not explicitly stated, this amounts to a de facto counter terrorism role, something a UN high level report on peacekeeping recommended the UN should not do.
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Recent mandates adopted in respect of the peacekeeping missions in Mali and elsewhere constitute a doctrinal shift from traditional consent based peacekeeping towards stabilisation and peace-enforcement missions. The concept has not been without its critics. The problems often begins at the adoption of mandate stage. The strategic thinking behind this change is not clear - nor indeed are the implications for all UN peacekeeping operations and how they are perceived.
The term stabilisation entered the lexicon of peace operations with the establishment of the NATO Stabilization Force in Bosnia in 1995. Unlike peacekeeping, which assumes a peace to keep, stabilisation implies military operations to stabilise a situation. The UN adopted the term in Haiti and today considers stabilisation as part of the broader remit of UN multi-dimensional peacekeeping operations.
Moving away from traditional peacekeeping principles and methods threatens the core concept of UN peacekeeping
A recent feature of peace operations is the intervention by multinational forces in pre-existing internal conflicts which usually involves the provision of support to national or government forces. MINUSMA in Mali is an example of what the 2015 High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations described as conflict management operations. These are intended to deter escalation and contain conflict while also protecting civilians and attempting to start a peace process.
The reorientation of UN peacekeeping forces away from their traditional role towards conflict management has met with some resistance. According to the UN Secretary-General, a peacekeeping operation is not an army - nor is it a counter-terrorist force or a humanitarian agency. It is a tool to create the space for a nationally owned political solution. While many Security Council members share this view, the challenges of conflict management in practice are remoulding fundamental elements of contemporary UN peacekeeping.
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MINUSMA's role in addressing terrorism in Mali has proved divisive. While the mission has endured attacks on its bases and numerous roadside bombs, the Security Council has not given it an explicit counterterrorism mandate. This reflects the lack of consensus in respect of the mission. However, the issue on the ground is more nuanced, as MINUSMA is clearly aligned to other forces conducting anti-terror operations. When the mandate is translated into operations on the ground, the de facto task is to limit terrorist action.
In addition to the UN force, there is also a separate ongoing anti-insurgent operation which was established by the so called G5 Sahel leaders. This cross-border joint force is intended to fight terrorism, cross-border organised crime and human trafficking in the region. It involves five former French colonies that span the Sahel, including Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The relationship between the Joint Force and MINUSMA is governed by a Security Council resolution, under which the UN force provides operational and logistical support. A large French force is also deployed as part of Operation Barkhane and works alongside the separate G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force.
The Irish ARW are highly trained and more than able for any role they may be assigned. For example, they could make a significant contribution to force protection with the German contingent or intelligence gathering. However, any intelligence role is potentially problematic. Intelligence gathered will be shared and there will be no control over how it will be used. It may end up being part of an assessment before deciding whether to launch a drone or similar attack by other forces operating in Mali. French forces already have drones in the region and US intelligence is also operating there.
The recent communal violence in Mali is not isolated and it demonstrated that involving non-state ethnic groups in counter-insurgency is a flawed strategy. The circulation of weapons to non-state actors under the pretext of fighting the jihadists facilitated ethnically-based violence on an unprecedented scale in the region.
Moving away from traditional peacekeeping principles and methods threatens the core concept of UN peacekeeping. It is something the US and France would like to see the UN do more of. It also potentially undermines efforts to promote and protect human rights. Limited mandates with realistic aims are preferable to counter terrorism operations under the guise of conflict management. Large scale open-ended deployments with full or quasi combat roles should not be allowed to become the norm and this form of conflict management by UN peacekeepers is not sustainable In the long term.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ