Why is the UK going to Mali?

In one of her last acts as British Defence Secretary, Penny Mordaunt announced 250 troops will be deployed to support the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, but for this to be effective it needs a more coherent strategy for engagement in the Sahel and Africa with clear objectives and resources.

Amidst the flurry of a new British Prime Minister and Cabinet, it was easy to miss the Government’s announcement that they are deploying a long-range reconnaissance task group of 250 personnel to Mali in 2020. But it is important. Not only does it represent the most significant contribution of British forces to the frontline of a UN peacekeeping mission since Bosnia, it could also potentially be the most dangerous mission for British forces since Afghanistan – the French military has lost over 24 soldiers since it commenced Operation Barkhane in Mali in 2013.

It also follows a continued commitment from the UK to tackle instability in the Sahel. As Mordaunt notes: “[t]he UK is committed to supporting the international community in combating instability in Mali, as well as strengthening our wider military engagement across the Sahel region.” In September 2018, the UK announced its support to Operation Barkhane with the much-lauded deployment of Royal Air Force Chinook helicopters. This is on top of the £49.5 million of funding it has already provided to the UN mission as part of an increased presence in the region. With “new embassies in Niger and Chad and … a much larger presence in Mali”, including around 90 troops already embedded in the various international peace operations and a new Defence Attaché position.

This support is part of the UK’s new approach to Africa. In a speech in Cape Town in September 2018, Theresa May announced that as part of five shifts in the UK’s approach, it “will invest more in countries like Mali, Chad and Niger that are waging a battle against terrorism in the Sahel.” The reason for this renewed focus is likely to be threefold. It’s good for its bilateral relations with France (a priority in recent years, especially since the vote to leave the EU) who already has around 3,500 troops deployed to the country; it demonstrates its commitment to UN peacekeeping missions (strengthening the UK’s identity as ‘Global Britain’); and builds the British armed forces’ reputation as a willing and able partner in the fight against international terrorism. However, it remains unclear how well the UK’s broader strategy on the continent can adapt to this shift towards the Sahel.

In her evidence session with the Foreign Affairs Committee in March this year, Harriet Baldwin – the then-Africa Minister – was criticised for her description of the UK’s commitments in Africa as a ‘strategy’. Instead, Bob Seely suggested it amounted to “effectively a bunch of bullet points.” This reflected our own conversations with soldiers on the ground in Kenya and Mali (and those rotating out of Nigeria) in September 2018 last year, who had their own concerns about the strategic direction being provided to soldiers operating on the continent.

One soldier, echoing the views of others, described the UK approach as “throwing some men here and some men there” and felt that “political vacillation” remained a major threat to the effectiveness of the UK’s approach. Although there is evidence that efforts are underway to start improving the integration of these strategies, our research found that coordination remained personality-driven rather than institutionalised.

Moreover, it was argued that these activities remained largely “dictated by funding” rather than careful analysis of partners’ wants and needs. Many soldiers delivering training courses arguedthat they did not address the institutional problems which were causing instability in the countries in which they were engaged. One, reflecting the feelings of many more, said: “We just end up training people, sending them out, and never hearing anything again.” In Kenya, a number of soldiers argued that UK operations were not “actually [going to] achieve anything.” Instead, they suggested that the UK is doing just enough to stop things getting worse or to look like it is doing something.

If not carefully thought through, the UK deployment to the Sahel risks the same, a point British troops are painfully aware of. For example, one soldier in Mali told us that there was a need for “an adult conversation about what [our partners] needs and what we can deliver.” He explained that current training missions resembled a builder that “just turned up at your house and started fixing things you hadn’t asked for.” In some interviews it also appeared that the UK’s shift towards the Sahel had not been combined with a more detailed analysis of what among the many and complex problems facing the region was of most importance to the UK. For instance, soldiers complained that they have not been given clear priorities to cover in their situation reports; leading to a situation where they report on everything – despite feeling it is not that useful and may not even be read by personnel based in London.

No doubt the French Government will be pleased that, as part of its efforts to try and rally regional, local and international actors to support its operations in Mali, the UK is committing further resources. But serious questions need to be asked about how to make this contribution effective. For instance, in our conversations with senior officers we were informed that the UK was still trying to work out what the UK “ask” would be in return for these deployments. And, beyond this, while an extra 250 troops is a significant uplift on what the UK has already committed, it remains small in comparison to larger international and regional efforts – meaning careful consideration is essential to make it effective. 

Nor is the Sahel an easy region for the UK to provide automatic added value with this modest commitment. The Sahel is already a complicated space of disparate efforts by international and regional efforts, many of which are facing serious difficulties. Nor is the UK’s job made any easier, according to a number of British soldiers already deployed in Mali, owing to the fact the British Army is seriously lacking in proficient French language speakers and has limited operational experience in the Sahel region. Taken together, this could undermine the effectiveness and added value of the British contribution.

Faced with these potential challenges, the UK’s deployment must form part of a coherent regional and continent-wide strategy. Indeed, success will be determined by how far the British government is willing to prioritise the activities required to meet its aspirations. Only when bold rhetoric is matched by resources and sustained planning will the UK be able to improve its contribution to peace and stability in the places it intervenes.

Image credit: MINUSMA/Flickr. 

About the authors

Liam Walpole is a Senior Policy Officer at the Remote Warfare Programme.

Abigail Watson is Senior Research Officer at the Remote Warfare Programme.

Originally published on Oxford Research Group

Mali: ‘Terrorists’ killed in French airstrike near Niger border

Aircraft attached to the France-led Operation Barkhane in the Sahel struck “terrorists” in Mali near the border with Niger killing nine, the Ministry of the Armed Forces said on Friday.

The operation was launched on Wednesday, July 17 after a Malian soldier was killed and two others wounded in an ambush on their convoy.

The soldiers had been part of a “logistical escort mission” from the border post of Labbézanga to Gao and were ambushed between Fafa and Bentia, a Armed Forces of Mali (FAMa) statement said, adding that a provisional assessment from sweeps on the ground was that five “terrorists” had been killed.

The Barkhane operations center was notified of an attack on a convoy of 10 vehicles between Asongo and the border near the village of Fafa at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, the French Ministry release said.

It said that the convoy was split in two during the attack, and FAMa reinforcements were dispatched from Asongo to the north and Labbézanga to the south, and a drone was redirected to the area.

In Wednesday release, the French military said a light aircraft was also involved in intelligence-gathering during the operation.

The gunfight ended at 1 p.m. and the reinforcements reported the FAMa casualties, while motorcycles were seen leaving the area.

At 1:50 p.m., the “intelligence resources deployed made it possible to detect a suspicious individual on a motorcycle” that led to a group of men, estimated to be around 15-strong, around 30 km (19 miles) southeast of the attack area. The men were “hidden under trees, probably with resources under cover, in accordance with the practices of terrorist groups.”

The release said weapons were detected and an operation was launched to “neutralize” the group.

An airstrike was carried out at 4:50 p.m. in which two bombs were dropped on the “assembly points.” The aircraft was not specified, but French Mirage 2000 jets are frequently used in strike missions in the Sahel.

Tigre attack helicopters then moved in, firing their guns to fix the enemy, and then, 20 minutes after the initial strikes, a detachment of parachute commandos was deployed to control and search the area.

Nine “enemies” were killed and two captured and a range of resources were discovered including weapons, motorcycles and communications equipment.

The commandos were recovered from the area at 9 p.m.

The Barkhane force has been active in the Mali-Niger border region in recent weeks. In June, the 13-day Operation Aconit involved a joint Mali-France commando operation that killed 20 ‘terrorists’ in Mali’s Menaka area, and 18 Islamic State militants were killed by French and Nigerien troops near Tongo Tongo, around 120 km east of the Labbézanga border crossing.

In 2012 a Tuareg separatist uprising against the state was exploited by Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda who took key cities in the desert north of Mali.

France began its Operation Serval military intervention in its former colony early the next year, driving the jihadists from the towns, and the U.N. MINUSMA peacekeeping force was then established.

But the militant groups morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, and the insurgency has gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali and across the borders into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. Large swathes of Mali remain outside government control.

The French mission evolved in August 2014 into the current 4,500-strong Operation Barkhane, which has a mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the Sahel.

Three U.K. Royal Air Force Chinook heavy lift helicopters are based in Gao in eastern Mali, and have supported Operation Barkhane since becoming operational last August. On July 8, outgoing U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said the British military deployment to the Sahel will be extended, with the Ministry of Defence later confirming that the extension will be for at least six months.

In addition to the RAF Chinooks, 50 Estonian soldiers are deployed in Gao in a force-protection capacity.

In February, the Danish government said that it plans to send two transport helicopters to support Operation Barkhane. The government’s plans must be approved by parliament, and the deployment would see around 70 soldiers deployed for a one-year period starting at the end of 2019.

Troops deployed to Barkhane work alongside other international operations, including the roughly 14,000-strong MINUSMA mission in Mali, and the regional G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force that aims to train and deploy up to 5,000 personnel from the five members – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

Originally published on The Defense Post