By Staff Reporter
t is a cold statistic that speaks of the increasing instability of one of the hottest regions of the world, the semi-desert Sahel region stretching south of the Sahara.
One UN peacekeeper has been killed or wounded in Mali every four days on average since the organisation’s “blue helmets” operation was launched there 18 months ago.
Diplomats say with 31 deaths and almost 100 injuries so far, it is probably the highest casualty rate of any recent peacekeeping operation. In his last report on Mali to the UN Security Council, Hervé Ladsous, UN undersecretary for peacekeeping, openly admitted: “The situation right now is worrying.”
Elsewhere in the Sahel, the situation is no better: violence is increasing in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries. It is the same in southern Libya and northern Chad. Burkina Faso, long a pillar of stability in the region, has witnessed two coups d’état in short succession, even if civilians have taken back control.
The growing insecurity is testing France. Earlier this year it turned its Mali operation, launched in December 2012 to drive out Islamist fighters from the north of the country, into a regional counter-jihadi task force spanning five nations in the Sahel. Under the new Operation Barkhane, Paris has deployed 3,000 troops to cover 5m square kilometres, an area almost 10 times the size of France.
Once dotted among the Barkhane dunes typical of the Sahara, locally formed militias have in recent years morphed into jihadi insurgencies spanning the Sahel, often pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda. The collapse in 2011 of the regime of Muammer Gaddafi in Libya released a flood of weapons into the region, strengthening the militant groups that France is today confronting.
The jihadis’ tactics are beginning to change, mirroring those used in the past in Iraq and Afghanistan, say diplomats.
In Mali, some groups are making heavier use of rudimentary improvised explosive devices, for example.
Rinaldo Depagne, a Dakar-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, said jihadi militants are moving freely across thousands of kilometres of semi-desert territory between Mauritania to Niger and beyond. “Southwest Libya is the shelter . . . It is very difficult for the French army to monitor all the territory.”
The jihadis’ tactics are beginning to change, mirroring those used in the past in Iraq and Afghanistan
France has notched up some successes, as in a recent operation in northern Niger. The US military is also helping. But the military effort is, at best, a short-term fix providing breathing space for a political solution. To achieve lasting stability, regional governments will need to work with moderate Islamist and Tuareg groups.
Mali is the test of whether that is possible.
The Malian government and northern separatist groups returned this week to a negotiating table sponsored by Algeria, which brokered peace agreements in the 1990s and 2000s. But the two sides remain far apart and the last ceasefire deal reached in July looks increasingly tenuous.
Hannah Armstrong, a Sahel expert at the New America Foundation, said the government and the rebels are “fighting for territory in the vacuum of a viable political road map”.
“The northern rebels are threatening to leave the dialogue if the next round of talks . . . does not speak more to their demands of autonomy.”
Mounting casualties in Mali and the need to protect their own borders from jihadi incursions could prompt regional governments to reconsider their peacekeeping commitments in the country.
France, which is already pulling back some of its regional force to shore up its operations in Mali, could be forced to send further reinforcements. So could Washington, which is already beefing up its unmanned drone and special forces presence in the Sahel area.
If the political process in Mali fails, as many predict, the country could become a horrible quagmire for the international community, sucking in militants and further destabilising the Sahel region.