The German cabinet has approved the deployment of hundreds of Bundeswehr troops to Mali. The German army is also expanding its training mission for Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq.
There are currently just 10 German soldiers participating in the UN's MINUSMA mission in Mali. They are based at mission headquarters in the capital, Bamako. But as many as 650 German troops are expected to be deployed to the unstable northern part of the West African country.
MINUSMA is considered to be the UN's most dangerous peacekeeping mission. The German soldiers will be stationed in Gao, northeastern Mali, where soldiers from the Netherlands are operating a base camp. In the spring of 2012, Islamist fighters and Tuareg rebels occupied the city on the Niger river, which separates the desert northern region from the rest of the country. They made Gao the capital of their "state," until they were driven out by French and Malian forces in January, 2013. A few weeks later, the UN sent 10,000 armed peacekeepers to Mali to stabilize the country - the beginning of the MINUSMA operation.
Bundeswehr to investigate
The German army's main task will be to investigate and relay an accurate picture of the situation, based on patrols and the use of small drones. Mission command says the goal is to monitor the peace agreement made between the government of Mali and rebel groups last July.
The troops will not be going on the offensive to engage the rebels; that role is being carried out by former colonial power, France.
The German government sees the German participation as a contribution to the widespread effort to fight Islamist terrorists.
The Bundeswehr is also involved in a separate mission in Mali, in the more stable southern region, where 235 soldiers are working as part of an EU mission to train local soldiers. But northern Mali, which has been shaken by frequent attacks, is much more dangerous terrain.
UN peacekeeper camps have repeatedly been subject to attacks; the UN has reported that 64 of its soldiers have been killed since the start of the mission in April 2013.
Last November, 21 people were killed during a hostage crisis at a luxury hotel in Bamako frequented by diplomats and business travelers. The attackers, who targeted non-Muslims, are said to be affiliated with al-Qaeda. The German parliament's commissioner for the armed forces, Hans-Peter Bartels, says that the Mali mission will be just as risky as the Bundeswehr's mission in Afghanistan.
More support for the Peshmerga
The cabinet also decided to strengthen its role in training Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq. The Bundeswehr has been training Kurdish and other local fighters in Erbil to fight the terrorist militia, "Islamic State." It is also supplying the local fighters with weapons. The new mandate will boost the number of German soldiers from 100 to as many as 150 in future. Parliament is slated to discuss both missions in mid-January.