While Mali has stepped into an enormous strategic trap due to regional geopolitics, global geoeconomics, extremism, and political instability; necessity for engagement of the Bangladeshi troops’ will continue to grow, and it will remain as a power base for the international community in delivering peace
Let me start by saying that Mali, at the moment, is considered as the most ominous and dangerous country in the world for any UN peacekeepers. It is so dangerous that even the Malian citizens are sceptical about the term ‘peace’ as the humanitarian crisis has become chronic, with an unprecedented level of violence and insecurity continues to escalate.
The country and Western Africa are now plagued with weapons, and conflicting groups popped up after the Muammar Gaddafi of Libya in 2011, enabling various groups to pursue different perilous agendas. Hence, Mali has been in political turmoil and security crisis since a coup in 2012, which paved the way for Tuareg separatists to seize the town of Kidal in Northern Mali.
Affiliates of Al-Qaeda retained control of northern Mali for almost a year until a French-led military offensive dismantled them. While on paper, the French army, France being the former colonial power in Mali, asserted their mission as ‘counter-terrorism’ on the ground, economic and geostrategic interests involving the gold and uranium mines dictate the power game.
The French media supported the National Movement for Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) as ‘the men in blue’. MNLA formed an alliance with al-Qaeda-linked militants to seize northern Mali in 2012. The alliance quickly crumbled with the Islamists taking control of the MNLA’s strongholds. Since then, counter alliances such as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam al Muslimin (JNIM) and extremist groups such as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara emerged as critical actors in Malian security. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb joined JNIM along with other extremist groups.
What made the situation more complicated is the sustained violence by the ISIS affiliates, spanning their reach in the tri-border region of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, with a staggering capacity to exploit the perennial poverty of marginalised communities and the youth and by infuriating tensions among the ethnic groups. As a result, Mali continues to see catastrophic violence leading to a cataclysmal humanitarian crisis.
In 2014, the French government initiated a peace deal between the Malian government and a coalition called Coordination Mouvement de l’Azawad (CMA). In 2015, a peace deal was signed which handed over greater autonomy to the meagre population of northern Mali. However, the peace deal resulted in the emergence of the Signatory Armed Group (SAG), Compliant Armed Group (CAG), and Self Defence Militia (SDM) that are willing to comply with the peace deal. The Terrorist Armed Groups (TAG), refuting the peace deal, surfaced as counter entities.
Thus, the mosaic of multiple armed groups created a complicated security ecosystem that is delicate and fragile.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council commissioned the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), replacing African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) by ECOWAS nations, under the resolution 2100 of 25 April 2013 to support political processes in Mali and carry out a number of security-related tasks.
More than 190 peacekeepers have died in the country, including nearly 120 killed by hostile action. But one must note that although most UN casualties have occurred among African or non-European forces in exposed garrisons or frontline roles, we rarely hear of reports of injuries or fatalities in the high-tech or rear-end European troops.
In this unstable and fragile political and security structure, Bangladesh became a vital party to deliver the UN peacekeeping tasks.
Peacekeeping comes with a grey area for Bangladesh. While the Bangladesh troops are engaged in mission tasks, de-escalation of tensions and threats, and build community confidence in favour of peacekeeping troops, the counter-terrorism campaigns led by other forces often became counter-productive. While the French-led counter-terrorism campaign, Operation Berkhane, continues causing social and political resentment, the Bangladesh mission is mandated to follow Chapters VI and VII of the UN Charter that seeks to settle disputes by peaceful means.
While counter-terrorism campaigns are often essential, but this varying approach keeps the peace process convoluted.
However, what is unique is the resilience and professionalism of the Bangladesh troops. Bangladesh contingents deployed in MINUSMA has a strong and proven track record of successful missions that have earned respect from the international community and unconditional love from the Malian population.
This is because many global powers have rarely operated militarily in West Africa, leaving the lead role to France, the former colonial power. In such tactical and strategic deployments, Bangladesh forces have been actively conducting peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations for the past seven years in Mali. Moreover, despite being a tropical country military, the Bangladesh forces have acquired experiences of serving in the harsh and hostile conditions prevailing in Northern and Central Mali, where temperatures swings between 35-52 degree Celcius.
This is a valuable capability that can be used in any peacekeeping and humanitarian process.
Impressive enough, the Bangladesh Army engineering contingent (BANENGR) is currently constructing an airport at Kidal, situated in the Sahara desert, and constantly facing Improvised Explosive Device (IED) threats that can turn lethal at any time. Unfortunately, twelve brave Bangladeshi soldiers laid their lives in Mali.
Bangladesh Signals contingent acts as the backbone of communication for multimodal movements and operational campaigns for the UN peacekeepers, European troops, and other agencies throughout the operational Areas of Responsibility (AOR) of MINUSMA. Bangladesh Air Force contingent is the vital source for communication in the most hostile places in Northern Mali. The Bangladesh Battalion (BANBAT) female engagement team continues its efforts to build a trustful relationship between the UN troops and the local communities in the conflict zones such as Gao.
It was pretty intriguing to see the success of Operation Mongoose in October 2020 in Central Mali, led by BANBAT. The operation was a nerve-wracking effort in which MINUSMA operationalised the Mobile Task Force concept, based on integrated use of air and land units, special forces, and a helicopter unit, to protect civilians who are out of reach of the UN deployments.
The Operation Mongoose has delivered a new phase of rapid deployment on short notice to respond to quickly escalating tensions and threats to the local populations. The operation was conducted beyond AOR for BANBAT. The operation was challenging due to a prolonged timing with interrupted logistics support. The troops had to live on Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) and stay in the small tents. These effectively project their survivability in tough terrain and harsh weather.
As latest as of May 2021, the BANBAT foiled terrorist attacks on a UN logistics convoy headed to Menaka, 230 km away from Gao. The contingent tackled the situation without any casualty recorded.
Another critical success for BANBAT is in its ability to pull socio-political resources to create deterrence against violence and extremism. The Bangladesh contingent undertakes an all-encompassing kinetic and social approach to the Malian crisis that includes civil engagement with the local communities. It requires a deep understanding of conservative social ecosystems.
While Mali has stepped into an enormous strategic trap due to regional geopolitics, global geoeconomics, extremism, and political instability; necessity for engagement of the Bangladeshi troops’ will continue to grow, and it will remain as a power base for the international community in delivering peace.
However, I believe the Malian solution would require a radical approach to transit from donor-driven emergency assistance phase to long-term and sustainable peace, stability, and reconciliation activities. Given the operational excellence and public support for Bangladeshi peacekeepers, the Bangladesh troops and the civilian entities can efficaciously scale up this much-required transition. Hence, this would require an expanded engagement of Bangladeshi armed forces in Mali and senior leadership roles in the peacekeeping mission.
One must remember that peacekeeping is not an end in itself; the end lies in political stability. Unfortunately, Mali continues to see political coups despite international presence – the latest coup happened in May 2021 as the fifth coup since Mali’s independence in 1960. Without a comprehensive radical solution and political engagement, devolved Mali will remain an epicentre of lawlessness and violence.
Most certainly, if the root causes of the conflicts remain unaddressed, Malian insecurity can potentially go beyond the reach of MINUSMA, and of course, the Malian state.
Shahab Enam Khan is a Professor in International Relations at Jahangirnagar University. This article was written during his visit to MINUSMA’s operational areas in Mali