What Bolton got wrong

Last month national security advisor John Bolton unveiled the Trump administration’s new “Africa Strategy.” It seeks to advance U.S. trade and commercial ties in Africa, counter the threat from radical Islamic terrorism and ensure U.S. taxpayer dollars are used efficiently and effectively.

A strategy targeting violent extremism and boosting commercial links is rather uncontroversial, but some of the details of the plan’s implementation are unrealistic, including Bolton’s ideas about the future of the UN’s presence in Mali.

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As Bolton pointed out, Mali is home to an al Qaeda affiliate responsible for “capturing Westerners and threatening U.S. allies.” The Islamic State-Greater Sahara (ISGS) traversed Mali to neighboring Niger to attack U.S. Special Forces in October 2017 and Mali-based extremist groups have carried out assaults in neighboring Burkina Faso on hotels, cafes and the French Embassy. Northern Mali also provided a safe haven for extremists to execute a complex attack on an Algerian gas plant that killed two American contractors in 2013. Mali, simply put, is a terrorist hub.   

Countering extremism in Mali directly serves U.S. national security interests and is therefore deserving of U.S. support. That is why Ambassador Bolton’s suggestion that the UN’s Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) should be eventually swapped out for a regional force, the G5 Sahel Joint Force, is a bad idea. The “G5 countries must remain in the driver’s seat — this initiative cannot be outsourced to the UN for funding or support,” Bolton said.

Of course, regional governments should play a role in countering the extremist threat. In fact, the governments of Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger have banded together precisely because they understand cooperation and coordination is essential. But there are major problems with the Joint Force concept.

In November, we traveled to Mali to observe MINUSMA and were able to assess first-hand what the G5 and MINUSMA can and cannot do.

The 3,500-strong G5 Joint Force is still in its infancy and constrained by the lack of funding, training and equipment. Nor does it have the command and control structures to act as a unified force. This is because it mainly involves national forces conducting operations on their own territory with elements of cross-border activities: the right to pursue targets within 50km into their national border. So far, the force has launched only a few operations; in addition, it has already had its headquarters overrun by militants in Sevare. When we met the Force Commander, he indicated that selecting a site for the new headquarters in Bamako was at the top of his agenda. The G-5 Sahel is thus years away from being in the “driver’s seat” as Ambassador Bolton would like.  

In the absence of a robust regional or state security presence, it is MINUSMA that has to fill in the gaps. It is MINUSMA, along with French special forces, that  counters extremism in Mali that Bolton’s speech recognized as key components of the U.S. strategy.

MINUSMA is working with the government to rebuild national institutions and extend state authority by training judges and beginning the demobilization and reintegration of the military. This directly aligns with this new  Africa Strategy that seeks to “assist key African governments in building the capacity of partner forces and security institutions to provide effective and sustainable security and law enforcement services to their citizens.” This is also key to MINUSMA’s eventual exit strategy, building capacity for the Malian government to address the ongoing threats in the region.

MINUSMA also enables the U.S. to pursue its national security interests with a minimal military footprint on the ground. Only 49 Americans (out of 100,000 total troops) serve in UN peacekeeping missions and 26 of them are in MINUSMA working alongside 56 other countries including U.S. allies, Canada, Germany, Sweden and Mexico.

MINUSMA also directly supports Ambassador Bolton’s new strategy “to help our African friends fight terrorism and strengthen the rule of law.” In 2012, al Qaeda terrorists supporting an ethnic Tuareg rebellion in the north got less than 100 kms from the capital, Bamako.

These extremists imposed Sharia law in Timbuktu, a historical refuge for artists and musicians, exacting cruel punishment for those daring to play music. After a French-led intervention pushed them out, MINUSMA has continued to hold them back. Ambassador Bolton is correct that “ISIS, al Qaeda repeatedly targeted U.S. citizens and interests” but our visit confirmed it’s MINUSMA, not the G5 Joint Force, that is a key partner to the U.S. in efforts to stabilize Mali and the Sahel.

MINUSMA isn’t perfect and so far it has had more casualties than any other UN peacekeeping mission. It therefore dedicates a disproportionate amount of resources to force protection, which makes it difficult to protect civilians, monitor human rights violations and support the peace process. Nor has it solved insecurity in central Mali where 40 percent of the country’s violence occurs. But belittling and threatening to jettison the mission is the wrong approach.

The G-5 Sahel Joint Force is a not a substitute for MINUSMA. It’s a force that cannot finance itself, provide its own logistics, or coordinate properly to sustain joint operations. Nor does it have the mechanisms in place to ensure accountability in case its personnel commit human rights violations. Ambassador Bolton should moderate his unrealistic expectations accordingly. In reality, the UN and the UN forces in Mali are essential in the country, the region and in advancing U.S. national security interests in Africa.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Chandrima Das serves as the peacekeeping policy director at the Better World Campaign, the advocacy arm of the UN Foundation.