MINUSMA and military operations in the Sahel

Published March 15th, 2021 - written by: Christoph Marischka

Christoph Marischka is engaged in the Informationsstelle Militarisierung

Senegalese police forces serving with the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), patrolling the streets of the city of Gao, in Mali. Photo: UN, 2013


MINUSMA is a stabilization mission under the responsibility of the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (UN DPKO) in Mali. It began in 2013 against a backdrop of widespread collapse of the Malian state and grew out of a French military intervention and a short military mission (AFISMA) led by the West African Economic Community (ECOWAS). According to its most recent mandate, the UN Security Council Resolution 2531 of June 29, 2020, MINUSMA includes up to 13,289 military and 1,920 police forces. Primary objectives of the mission are stabilization of the country and implementation of a "peace agreement."

MINUSMA is currently considered the most dangerous and highest-casualty UN mission in the world. According to official statistics, 240 members of the UN mission have died as of March 2021, 140 of them due to enemy action. In terms of the mission's objectives, it has so far been a failure, as the security situation in the country has deteriorated further since it began and insecurity has spread to other parts of the country and neighboring states, especially Niger and Burkina Faso.



Once Mali gained its independence from France, various population groups and lifestyles were integrated into a common state, which remained, however, largely fictitious outside the capital city of Bamako. With the low tax revenues, it was not possible, for example, to guarantee a nationwide presence of police forces or to monitor the extensive border regions. The Tuareg living in northern Mali and neighboring states in particular – but also other population groups – insisted on their independence and on maintaining their cross-border identities. They evaded control by Bamako through several rebellions, most of which were settled by awarding largely fictitious positions (privileges and salaries) to their leaders. Some of the southern population still has reservations about the northern population groups because generations ago they participated in the enslavement of darker-skinned people.

Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. in particular identified the Sahel region as being characterized by weak or failing statehood, and thus as a potential refuge for terrorism. However, their increasing military and intelligence activities in the region – which found expression in 2007 in the establishment of a separate U.S. high command for the African continent, Africom – were also repeatedly justified by an increased Chinese presence. In fact, in the following years, kidnappings of Western foreigners increased, which led to a decline in tourism. In addition, the smuggling of cocaine from Latin America via West Africa to Europe and the shifting of EU border protection increasingly brought the region into the focus of Western security policy. Accordingly, pressure was put on local governments to replace their previous practice of intermediary rule with a stronger military-police presence in the area and improved border surveillance. The Malian government tried to implement this with its "Programme spécial pour la paix et le développement dans le nord du Mali" (partly financed by the EU), which parts of the population in the north perceived as a threat to their independence and which the local elites saw as a threat to their privileges.

What also contributed to the escalation in Mali in 2011 were the NATO intervention and the civil war in Libya, which destabilized the large-scale order as a whole. Libya had previously acted as a kind of protective power for the Tuareg, and many members of this group had served in the Libyan army. After the fall of Gaddafi, they returned to Mali with extensive army assets and formed a movement for independence of the North (Azawad), which, however, did not initially show any overtly secessionist aspirations. The expulsion of the official Malian army from the north, which was also accompanied by massacres, intensified already existing reservations between the population groups and led to a coup by young officers in the capital Bamako in March 2012, which further contributed to the state's inability to act. Subsequently, parts of the independence movement declared the north independent, but de facto jihadist groups took control of larger cities in the north and introduced a strict order there, supposedly based on Sharia law.

The almost complete collapse of state order in Mali and, in particular, the destruction of cultural assets, which received a great deal of media attention, led to discussions about international military intervention in the course of 2012. ECOWAS offered itself as a regional organization for this purpose, and a corresponding deployment was mandated by the UN Security Council in December 2012 with Resolution 2085.

The actual starting signal for the deployment of ECOWAS troops, however, was the French military intervention Serval, which began on January 11, 2013. To this day, this is usually portrayed as a spontaneous response to the request of the Malian transitional government, after Islamists had captured the small town of Konna the day before and allegedly threatened an advance on Bamako. However, the complex French military intervention, which used several states in the region as staging areas, appeared well prepared, and there is considerable doubt whether the Islamists would have been able or had any interest in advancing further south.

The French intervention forces were supported by the Malian army and troops from neighboring Niger as well as Chad, from where France operated. Together, they quickly managed to push back the Islamists, allowing the permanent deployment of ECOWAS troops under the AFISMA mandate. The deployment of several thousand soldiers from Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin and Chad, among others, was supported by Germany and the USA and it was largely financed through EU funds. The original target of 3,000 troops was quickly reached and exceeded, although it was not always clear whether the troops from Chad and Burkina Faso were under the control of ECOWAS, French troops or their national commanders. This ambiguity persists in the follow-up mission MINUSMA, which replaced AFISMA in July 2013. De facto, a large part of the contingent remained in Mali, was transferred to the UN mission, and was considerably increased. However, the transfer to a UN mission made it possible for third countries to participate to a greater extent (in some cases with significantly better equipment). The largest troop contributors beyond ECOWAS include Bangladesh, Egypt, China and Germany, in addition to Chad, which has been involved from the beginning.


MINUSMA's original mandate of July 1, 2013, already lists seven areas of responsibility, which in turn have up to five sub-items. First mentioned is the "stabilization of key population centers and support to restore state authority throughout the country." Accordingly, this includes "active steps [...]" to prevent "the return of armed elements," but also measures "to rebuild the Malian security sector, in particular the police and gendarmerie [...] as well as the rule of law and justice sectors," and "programs for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants and the disbanding of militias."

The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is providing training in crowd control for the Malian police force. Malian police officers taking part in the training. Photo: UN, 2013

A similarly detailed breakdown is provided for the second area of responsibility, which involves "implementing the roadmap for transition" and returning to a "constitutional order." This involves "confidence building" and an "inclusive national dialogue and reconciliation process." Other areas of responsibility include the protection of civilians, the promotion of human rights, the preservation of cultural assets and "support for national and international justice". The mission is thus formulated so comprehensively that, although it implies all kinds of powers, failure is at least foreseeable in a large part of the tasks set. Ultimately, the claim was formulated to build a completely new state within the framework of a military mission and at the same time to overcome numerous social conflicts. At the time, however, there were only vague ideas about how this state should be shaped and how the population should at least be involved in the process.

The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is providing training in crowd control for the Malian police force. Malian police officers taking part in the training. Photo: UN, 2013

The breadth of the mission remained intact in the aftermath. Since mid-2015, however, public discourse has focused on the implementation of an agreement often referred to as a "peace treaty." Parties to this so-called Algiers Agreement are the government, pro-government militias (Plateforme) and a Tuareg-dominated alliance of rebel groups (CMA). Among other things, the agreement provided for the return of the Malian army to the north and the disarmament or integration of the armed parties into the official army. In addition, the agreement also provided for administrative decentralization, which in theory was intended to strengthen the autonomy of the regions within a state-constituted framework, but in practice interfered with existing power relations and endangered privileges of local elites.

The linking of a cease-fire between some of the armed groups with the vague definition of a future order harbors numerous pitfalls. For example, civilian forces in all parts of the country, and thus women in particular, have been very largely excluded from the negotiation processes over the future order of power, in which the targeted destabilization, uncertainty and delay of reforms by force of arms become the most important means of politics. Accordingly, the number of armed actors has ultimately grown in the wake of the agreement, while their disarmament and integration into the army has been hesitant and reversible. In addition, the agreement created an apparent binary division between the armed groups that were party to the peace process, on the one hand, and its enemies on the other. The latter are predominantly equated with terrorist actors, which means that MINUSMA's mandate to implement the peace agreement has tended to shift in the direction of combating terrorism. Thus, in subsequent UN Security Council mandates, corresponding wording was also found with regard to MINUSMA itself, calling for "asymmetric[r] threats [...] to be deterred and countered and robust and active steps to be taken to protect civilians." For years, there was international discussion about making the MINUSMA mandate much more offensive and also restructuring and equipping the units involved accordingly. However, a UN mission to combat terrorism would have been a novelty and a daring experiment. Although these plans were not implemented in this way, MINUSMA has developed into a platform on which numerous other military actors cooperate with each other, whose doctrines are essentially oriented toward counterinsurgency and/or the war on terror (see chapter 5 of this article).

The relevant UN Security Council resolutions, which essentially mandate MINUSMA, call on various of these actors, including the French Barkhane mission, the G5 Sahel, and the Malian armed forces, and ultimately encourage all parties to the "peace agreement" to participate in the fight against terrorism. This ultimately gives them carte blanche to act against suspected terrorist groups, and thus against civilians, and to fight their conflicts among themselves under the guise of fighting terrorism. In addition, the seemingly binary division between parties to the peace agreement, on the one hand, and terrorist actors, on the other, does not exist in this way in practice, and attacks by terrorist groups may well serve the interests of one or more parties to the agreement. Overall, therefore, the question arises as to which of the actors involved in the current constellation actually has an interest in sustainable stabilization or pacification.

Other military operations

In addition to the Malian army and MINUSMA, other international actors are militarily active in the region.


Very soon after the French military intervention Serval, and during the build-up of AFISMA, the EU training mission EUTM Mali (European Union Training Mission in Mali) was decided by the European Council on 17 January 2013. Corresponding plans had been in preparation for years and were quickly adapted to the new situation. The first advance teams were already dispatched in January. The EU's plans called for 550 forces, 150 of which were to provide security and a good 200 to train initially one battalion of the Malian armed forces (about 670 forces). Officially, the mission began in March 2013, with actual training starting as early as April 2013. The mission headquarters were located in a hotel in Bamako, with training initially taking place at a Malian army base about 60 kilometers north of the capital, near Koulikoro.

According to the EU's foreign affairs representative Josep Borrell, after the renewed military coup in August 2020, about 90% of the Malian army had been trained and advanced at that time within the framework of the EUTM mission, with the size of the Malian armed forces usually estimated at just under 20,000. The training content ranged from mine defusing and mission planning to mechanized infantry and urban terrain combat. Since its inception, the mission has been steadily expanded. Initially, training courses were increasingly held outside the Koulikoro training camp, and later at Malian army bases in other parts of the country. In addition, training has been extended to other member states of the G5 Sahel states and, since 2020, is also to take place "close to operations," i.e., in spatial and temporal proximity to the operations and battles of the Malian army.

Serval and Barkhane

The Serval mission is today regarded as a prime example of a rapid, robust and effective military intervention. The fact that France was able to draw on various units that were already in the region contributed significantly to the "success" of the mission. It began with attack helicopters and special forces that France had already stationed in Burkina Faso, supported by combat aircrafts that the former colonial power permanently maintains in Chad. Almost immediately after the intervention began, French infantry was also deployed from Côte d'Ivoire toward Mali. Many NATO and EU allies, as well as the United Arab Emirates, provided logistical support, such as troop transport and air refueling. Obviously, from a military perspective, the cooperation between the various units – from the air force to the ground forces – worked in an exemplary manner. This also applies to the cooperation between the French special forces and the local forces (especially from Chad), which were very quickly integrated. This, too, was certainly aided by the fact that France has permanently stationed forces in the region to conduct joint exercises and also operations with the local forces. The fact that, in the colloquial sense, "no prisoners were taken" probably also contributed to the rapid advance and "success" of Serval. On a linguistic level, too, the French government issued the motto to "destroy" the "enemy”. The information about how many of them were killed and how many civilians were among them is correspondingly vague. The Malian army in particular is said to have committed serious human rights violations in the course of the French advance.

Thus, by the end of April 2013, Serval had managed to recapture the areas previously controlled by alleged terrorist forces, with the exception of parts of the Ifoghas Mountains in the far north. This led them to revert to guerrilla tactics and increasingly demonstrate their ability to carry out attacks in northern cities. After the massive and concentrated combat operations ended, France renamed Operation Serval Operation Barkhane in mid-2013 and expanded it to include those states that were also later politically subsumed under the term G5 Sahel: Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad, in addition to Mali. Ultimately, this expanded France's already existing permanent presence and placed it under an operational mandate, namely the cross-border fight against terrorism. Officially, Barkhane comprises between 4,000 and 5,000 forces.

Overall, little is known about Barkhane's operational approach, as it mostly involves small, bilateral exercises and deployments with the armies of the G5 countries – although the transitions are fluid. When, for example, individual villages are searched by French and Chadian soldiers supported by combat helicopters, the forces involved often refer to this as an exercise, even if they are involved in larger operations intended, for example, to restrict the freedom of movement of terrorist groups in a particular area.

In addition to special forces, an important role in Barkhane is played by unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), which are deployed from several airfields in the region to reconnoiter and apparently observe individuals and groups for longer periods of time. France has also been deploying armed drones from Niamey Airport since December 2019. A few days after an initial test flight, a Reaper drone in conjunction with a Mirage fighter jet "neutralized 30 jihadists," according to French President Emmanuel Macron. Shortly before that, 13 French soldiers had died in a collision between two combat helicopters while "chasing jihadists." Reportedly, "[o]ver 40% of all airstrikes [...] are now carried out with the help of drones." How often such attacks occur, however, is not publicly known. In early November, the French government announced that "over 50 jihadists were neutralized" and 30 motorcycles were destroyed in an attack in Mali, after a drone detected a "very large number" of people on motorcycles in the border area with Niger and Burkina Faso. Again, the attack was carried out from both the drone and Mirage aircraft. In the weeks that followed, the number of French soldiers killed in Mali rose to over 50, which included, for the first time, a female member of Barkhane. A few days later, on January 2, 2021, Mirage fighter jets again attacked a group of people after a drone tracked two men on motorcycles who met with other men near Bounti. According to local people and international media, the group was a wedding party.

On an official visit to France, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attended with French President François Hollande and other dignitaries a military parade celebrating the French national holiday, Bastille Day. UN Blue Berets serving with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) took part in the parade. Photo: UN, 2013

Force Conjointe G5 Sahel

Those states that jointly define the operational area of Operation Barkhane (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad) agreed on a political cooperation under the name G5 Sahel in February 2014. Officially, the initiative came from the participating governments, but the French government was involved from the beginning and throughout the process – for example, the French president was either present or virtually connected at the central conferences of the G5. Substantial support also came from the EU. Together with France, Germany, the World Bank and the African Development Bank, it founded the "Sahel Alliance," which aims to strengthen "development cooperation" with the G5 countries, particularly by promoting investment.

Although the G5 Sahel, as an association of former French colonies, is also concerned with economic development, its most important project to date is the Force Conjointe G5 Sahel (FCG5S), a joint intervention force composed of the armies of the participating countries that is active across borders and is to comprise 5,000 forces in the future. Its formation was already decided at a G5 Sahel summit in November 2015, but did not take shape until later in 2017. France and Germany subsequently mobilized international pledges of €414 million to fund the force at a donor conference in February 2018, and France had previously sought international recognition from the United Nations.

Conceptually, the FCG5S differs from other regional response forces in that it is not primarily intended for short-term deployment in the event of major crises, but for continuous counterterrorism operations. "Fully operational, it is to have a 5000-strong force (seven battalions spread across three sectors, east, central and west). Its area of operations extends over 50 km on both sides of the common borders. In a second step, the deployment of a joint Sahel anti-terror brigade in northern Mali is envisaged." Its operational headquarters are in Mali, with regional commands in eastern Mauritania (west), Niamey (south), and N'djamena (east). In addition, a training facility, the "Collège de défense G5 Sahel," has been established in western Mauritania.The operational focus of FCG5S is on the border areas between Mauritania and Mali, Burkina Faso and Mali or Niger, and between Niger and Mali. Since, in addition to terrorism, its tasks include combating drug trafficking and human trafficking, and France, Germany and the EU exert a massive influence on the G5, the suspicion is entirely justified that the FCG5S also serves primarily to combat illegalized migration and restrict the freedom of movement of the local population. In any case, the development of corresponding infrastructure leads to increased surveillance and militarization of the borders in the region.

FCG5S operations mostly take place in cooperation with Barkhane and thus de facto under French command, as France has superior capabilities especially in the areas of command and control, reconnaissance, and air power. At the same time, it is often unclear among the contingents involved whether they are operating under joint or national command.

U.S. Forces

In addition to MINUSMA, EUTM, Barkhane and FCG5S, the U.S. also has troops stationed in the region, particularly in Niger. Officially, this is a training mission. However, after four U.S. soldiers were killed alongside five Nigerien soldiers in an hours-long battle near the Malian border on October 4, 2017, it is clear that U.S. forces are also conducting joint capture-or-kill missions with Nigerien forces there. The case caused quite a stir in the U.S. because the U.S. presence is not mandated as a combat mission, which led, among other things, to the publication of a detailed, but certainly redacted, final report. According to the report, the U.S. soldiers – mostly special forces – were traveling in civilian vehicles together with Nigerian soldiers and private security forces from the United States when they were ambushed. The objective was apparently to arrest or neutralize senior IS commanders. French attack helicopters and aircraft and U.S. drones were also used during the hours-long battle.

However, the estimated 800 U.S. soldiers stationed in Niger are not only on the ground for training, but also apparently for joint operations with local forces. The U.S. Army has established two drone bases in Niger in recent years, and another reportedly exists that is operated by the CIA. Although the drones on the ground are typically maintained by civilian (U.S.) forces and could also be flown from the United States or from U.S. Africom in Stuttgart, Germany, they also require a presence of military forces on the ground-among other things, to protect the properties and for recovery in the event of a crash.

Takuba and bilateral operations

Within the EU, France has long exerted pressure to receive greater support from other states in the fight against terror. However, France's rather idiosyncratic and non-transparent approach has not been without controversy within the EU. Since 2020, the temporary solution has been Task Force Takuba, a unit composed of the special forces of several European states and integrated into Barkhane. In addition to Barkhane, however, Takuba is intended to support other intervention forces in the region with rapid and robust interventions. It includes, among others, 150 Swedish special forces stationed on the ground with three attack helicopters, which can be reinforced with another 100 forces.

Germany and other EU states support Takuba politically, but do not participate directly militarily. Nevertheless, Germany has also permanently stationed special forces in the region (even) beyond the EUTM and MINUSMA missions since at least fall 2018. The official reason for the non-mandated secret operation "EL Border" of the Special Forces Command (KSK) is the abduction of a German citizen in April 2018. In January 2021, this operation experienced limited public resonance in Germany for a short time because 1,700 rounds of ammunition were missing from the stockpiles without a conclusive explanation. Special forces from the German Navy are also in Niger as part of Operation Gazelle, also to train special forces there. This operation, for which there was no mandate for a long time, was integrated into the EUTM mandate in 2020. It is safe to assume that, in addition to France, the U.S. and the countries participating in Takuba and MINUSMA, special forces from other countries, including the Gulf states, are active on the ground.

Moreover, G5 Sahel forces are also conducting bilateral operations beyond Force Conjointe. For example,in September 2017, Human Rights Watch reported how torture and summary executions were already occurring during joint operations between Mali and Burkina Faso forces – some supported by Barkhane – before the FCG5S was established. The airstrikes at Bounti discussed earlier occurred in conjunction with Operation Éclipse in the same region, in which the FCG5S was not officially involved, but in which troops from Niger and Burkina Faso were involved in addition to Barkhane and the Malian army.

Bi- and multilateral operations with and without French leadership have been a continuity in the region for years – are, so to speak, everyday life – with troops from Chad in particular playing a prominent role, often working very closely with Barkhane – even though Chad has no border with Mali. Involved are states and also formations that are simultaneously involved in MINUSMA and the FCG5S, as well as special forces from Europe operating under broad secrecy and mandates that impose few territorial or operational restrictions.

MINUSMA as a platform

Without the offensive French mission Serval, the deployment of AFISMA and later MINUSMA would have been difficult to realize, at least in the area of the Malian state. Serval has, so to speak, fought to clear the space in which MINUSMA operates today and, in doing so, has determined fundamental coordinates of its scope of action. These include the fact that (formerly) secessionist Tuareg forces are now party to the peace treaty and allies in the fight against terrorism, and that this ultimately represents the primary perceptual foil of international "engagement" in the Sahel region.

In the meantime, however, it is difficult to imagine Operation Barkhane operating without MINUSMA's presence. This is already true at the level of international law, since the UN Security Council resolutions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter mandate MINUSMA, but above all legitimize the involvement of France (Barkhane) and the FCG5S beyond Chapter VII. Indeed, support for the FCG5S and Barkhane has also increasingly been incorporated into the mandates of MINUSMA and EUTM. The European Training Mission, for example, is now called upon to train forces from other G5 Sahel states as well, and in doing so, to become active and establish a presence beyond the territory of Mali. MINUSMA is also called upon to support this process, which is being driven forward by Barkhane and France in particular.

Even beyond the mandate and thus legitimacy, the UN mission and counterterrorism operations are closely intertwined. Without MINUSMA's nationwide military presence and infrastructure, neither Barkhane nor FCG5S would be able to secure and supply their units on the ground, which are focused on offensive operations. MINUSMA is involved in setting up field camps and supplying the FCG5S. The German MINUSMA contingent and Barkhane maintain a joint airlift base in Niamey from which both operations are supplied. Members of MINUSMA and Barkhane are supplied here by the same (French) field kitchen. The so-called "rescue chains," i.e., the emergency medical care and evacuation of both contingents, also rely on shared facilities. In Mali itself, field camps and airports are also often shared between MINUSMA and Barkhane. In addition to the "operational and logistical support" provided to Barkhane and FCG5S in MINUSMA's more recent mandates, they also provide for "coordination" and "information sharing." Accordingly, it can be assumed that intelligence gathered by the German MINUSMA contingent, for example through the Heron drones deployed by the Bundeswehr, will also be shared with the French forces. Thus, while counterterrorism is not part of MINUSMA's mandate in the strict sense, and the mission is not shaped by it, it does form the infrastructural and intelligence backbone of several missions primarily aimed at this end.

Balance sheet and outlook

A good overview of MINUSMA's track record is provided by the UN Secretary-General's quarterly reports on the situation in Mali. For years, the section on the development of the security situation here has begun with the same or similar wording as in the most recent report of December 28, 2020: "The security situation continued to deteriorate during the reporting period." Although these reports also repeatedly highlight progress in the political process or in administrative decentralization, the military's renewed coup against the incumbent government on August 18, 2020, very largely calls even these small successes into question. Violence between population groups is steadily increasing, as is the territorial expansion of the war on terror, the reach of terrorist groups and the insecurity this creates for the population.

There is increasing perplexity among the intervening states as to what a political solution and peaceful future in Mali should look like and how it can be achieved with current approaches. Assessments such as that of political scientist Marc-Antoine Pérouse are increasingly gaining the upper hand: "At the moment, the international community is artificially keeping corrupt and often authoritarian regimes in power. Military and financial aid does not encourage reform; it is a kind of life insurance for these regimes." Against the backdrop of a similar analysis, French conflict researcher Bruno Charbonneau speaks of counterterrorism as a "form of government" in which violence and repression have replaced the need for political legitimacy and structure all social relations.

In circles close to the military, the chances of military stabilization – at least according to existing approaches – have long been viewed skeptically. As early as spring 2017, the magazine of the German reservist association "loyal" titled a detailed article on German participation in MINUSMA "Mission Impossible?" and quoted a soldier with unusually clear words: "[...] I cannot explain to my relatives at home why I am in Mali and what we want to achieve here." Although skepticism about MINUSMA's potential successes now generally prevails, a rethink is unlikely-partly because this would be tantamount to admitting failure and, in this case, making the situation worse. Rather, in the case of Mali, symptoms of "mission creep" could already be identified, as Dan Krause, research associate and lecturer at the University of the German Armed Forces in Hamburg, notes: "The gradual, unintended, but at some point hardly reversible, continuous and almost inevitable expansion of one's own involvement." He adds, "Why should work in Mali what has failed in past major U.S. and Western stabilization operations in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq? If not, what is the alternative?"

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