As the United Nations looks to extend its most deadly active mission for peacekeepers for another year, those working closely with its venture in Mali say poor local collaboration and funding gaps are costing lives.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked the Security Council to approve 2,500 extra troops and police for the Mali force, known by the acronym MINUSMA, and to keep the mission in place until June 2017.
Increasingly relentless jihadist attacks and growing hostility from locals have soured its presence in the country, with 68 peacekeepers killed since it was established in April 2013, including 12 in the space of two weeks in May.
Islamist organisations such as Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have excelled in a combination of improvised explosive devices and ambushes in the unforgiving desert terrain of the country's north.
Attacks on UN peacekeepers "are increasingly complex and sophisticated", Ban wrote in a report to the council, while banditry was also threatening the livelihoods of the citizens they were sent to protect.
MINUSMA military chief of staff General Herve Gomart laid out several challenges in this respect at a press conference on Thursday in Bamako.
"To combat terrorist groups, we have to know where they are, how many of them there are, and how they work," Gomart said.
"That requires technical capacities that we don't have today. But what is need above all is intelligence -- human intelligence," Gomart admitted.
The mission is supposed to oversee the implementation of a faltering peace deal signed in 2015 by the government, loyalist militias and the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), a coalition of rebel groups.
The UN-mediated accord calls for the creation of elected regional assemblies but stops short of autonomy or federalism for northern Mali, known by locals as Azawad, and was designed to bring stability following a military coup and jihadist takeover in 2012.
Mali's government has since been unable to maintain security with domestic forces alone.
But, according to Malian columnist and security expert Alexi Kalambry, certain armed groups unhappy with how the agreement is being rolled out are turning a blind eye on attacks on MINUSMA they could help prevent.
"Every time there is a stalemate in negotiations the number of attacks goes up. It's linked, and MINUSMA know all about this," Kalambry said. "They should have modified their mandate as soon as they saw they were being targeted."
Ban also called for MINUSMA to be clearly allowed to "take all necessary means" to ensure that its areas of operation are not used for hostile activities of any kind that would prevent it from discharging its duties under its mandate", and to protect itself, following several violent confrontations with locals.
Most recently in April, angry demonstrators protested about day-to-day "harassment" by French forces in the restive city of Kidal, before breaking into a restricted area of an airport runway.
Two protesters were killed and nine injured.
"MINUSMA forces just stay behind their barbed wire and have no idea what's happening outside it," said Fahad Ag Almahmoud, secretary general of a pro-government militia.
"You have to get out there to prevent danger," Almahmoud said, accusing the force of failing to learn about its enemy and therefore opening itself up to vulnerabilities.
Much of the reluctance to get to know the terrain more intimately stems from a lack of equipment, support and even pay in contingents supplied by African countries that make up more than two thirds of the force.
Ban's report said 12 units lacked "major equipment" while pointing to a lack of helicopters and specialists as a cause of concern, without naming any nation specifically.
The Chadian contingent of MINUSMA, a country at the forefront of the French-led military intervention launched to oust Islamist rebels in 2013 and led to the formation of the UN mission, is notably troubled.
Chadian troops have deserted their posts in disputes over pay and conditions, complaining that they hadn't been paid, and have endured heavy losses while serving as well as in "friendly fire" incidents caused by internal disputes.
Bamako, Mali | AFP |