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German Mali mission: A crisis far from over

Martina Schwikowski
June 30, 2022

Germany will be the largest provider of troops in Mali following the UN's decision to extend its peacekeeping mission. But one important security measure will be missing after France's troop withdrawal in the autumn.

 A Bundeswehr soldier is standing next to his machine gun and a German flag at the airport near the base in Gao, northern Mali
The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali began in 2013 after France led a military intervention to oust extremist rebelsImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

The UN Security Council extended the 9-year-old United Natioans Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) peacekeeping operation for another 12 months on Wednesday.

But MINUSMA will continue without the French air support it has had, compounding the risk for one of the UN's deadliest peacekeeping operations.

For a long time, the decision to extend the mission hung in balance.

In May, following a visit to Mali by Germany's foreign minister, Berlin extended the Bundeswehr's deployment.

The number of German soldiers deployed in the West African country could even increase through May 2023.

More German soldiers, fewer helicopters

Germany's decision is conditional: If the deployment becomes too dangerous for troops because of insufficient air cover, Berlin plans to abort its mission, which raises the question of what exactly the mission will be capable of after the autumn.

It is expected that by then France's anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane will have fully withdrawn and no longer provide air cover for ground operations.

The MINUSMA operation is dangerous, with extremists frequently targeting civilians, international security forces and people affiliated with such missions.

Infographic showing an increase of violence in Mali
The number of violent incidents is expected to increase in Mali.

Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel program at the Konrad Adenauer foundation in Mali, told DW that falling back on a purely defensive mandate would weaken MINUSMA.

MINUSMA will become 'less active'

The French soldiers, with their combat helicopters, used to handle the fighting, Laessing said.

He expects that it is going to be difficult to replace them. "All of the nations that have combat helicopters and could go to Mali are currently occupied securing NATO's eastern flank in Europe," he said.

Malian soldiers in a truck during patrol with French soldiers in Gourma tri-border region
MINUSMA is one of the UN's deadliest peacekeeping operationsImage: Hans Lucas/IMAGO

Consequently, MINUSMA will become less active outside its main footholds in the region.

In addition, it is said that Russian troops are active in the northern part of Mail.

According to reports, Assimi Goita's military government has been employing mercenaries from the infamous Russian Wagner group.

"In the north, Mali put limits on the freedom of movement for UN aircrafts," Laessing said.

Mali has been hit by extreme violence and great poverty. MINUSMA has supported the state for nine years.

Despite the ongoing uncertainty, the German government has increased the upper limit of German soldiers in Mali from 1,100 to 1,400. Partly, they will replace the French security forces in the medical service. Moreover, they will work in protecting the military airport in Gao.

German soldier watches security forces march at EU Koulikoro Training Center in Mali
MINUSMA will become less active outside its main footholds in the regionImage: Thomas Wiegold/photothek/picture alliance

More prospects for civilians through troops

According to Laessing, the greatest uncertainty surrounds the future management of the Gao airport.

It was built by the French. And up to now, it was the French who made sure that UN soldiers could use it anytime they needed to, whether they had to evacuate casualties or provide intelligence on terrorist activity.

"When the Russian troops continue to spread in that region, the UN can expect further limitations by the Malian government," Laessing said.

MINUSMA still contributes to stabilizing Northern Mali through its sheer presence and the regular patrols, Laessing said.

Laessing added that MINUSMA's presence allows courts to resume their work. "Judges give rulings," he said, "which allows aid workers to take up projects there. Apart from fighting terror, this is an important task: giving people prospects so that hopeless adolescents are not driven into the hands of jihadis."

Map of Mali

Peace agreement in danger

Anna Schmauder, who works for the Dutch Clingendael Institute in Den Haag, told DW that Germany would now assume a prominent role in Mali.

"Ever since the extension of the mandate, the Bundeswehr provides the largest contingent of troops," Schmauder said.

Countries such as Sweden and Britain are dependent on the German military presence. However, if Germany decides to withdraw its soldiers, other Western countries are expected to fall into line.

A German soldier next to a UN vehicle
Berlin has increased the upper limit of German soldiers in Mali from 1,100 to 1,400Image: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Schmauder said the UN mission had so far proved disillusioning. Mali is still at war, there is hardly any progress when it comes to the disarmament of the militia. "More and more parts of the country fall under jihadist control," Schmauder said.

The interim government, with its Russian partners, now increasingly targets civilians.

"The populist government in its anti-Western, anti-French course places the responsibility for the disastrous situation in the country on external partners," Schmauder said.

Germany had seen itself as one of many players before. However, now that the European Union Training Mission in Mali will also come to an end, Germany is becoming a significant stakeholder.

This article was originally written in German.