UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is about to unveil his report on the planned military mission to Mali, which the Security Council is expected to approve. The shape or form of any mandate has yet to be decided.
The international community appears to be in agreement that northern Mali should be liberated from the clutches of Islamist rebels. ECOWAS, the West African regional body, intends to send in a force of 3,300 soldiers from Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Togo.
The plan is that they will retake northern Mali together with the Malian army. To assist the Malian army, which is considered to be in poor condition, the European Union (EU) is dispatching 250 military trainers.
European forces will not be engaging in combat. Paul Melly is an Associate Fellow with the Africa Programme at Chatham House in London. He says that, because the recovery of territorial integrity is at stake, the UN is expected to hand down a fairly robust mandate, endorsing the ECOWAS intervention.
"The UN mandate will be more one of providing UN support and political authority for this intervention. So it's not quite like a UN peacekeeping mission with a specific mandate laying down what forces can or cannot do, as you would have, for example, with the MONUSCO force in Congo," he said
This UN mission will break new ground, according to Alexander Stroh from the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg. He said there is a long list of UN missions to Africa, around thirty over the last fifty years.
Stroh believes that Mali cannot be compared to Rwanda, Somalia or the eastern DRC, sites of other UN missions. Mali, as a state, has not collapsed in its entirety, only a part of it constitutes a problem. "In addition, ECOWAS and the Malian government all agree that the situation in the north is unacceptable. There is also unanimous rejection of the Islamist rebels and their al-Qaeda allies," Stroh said.
Importance of troop conduct
Another reason why this mission cannot be compared with past interventions is that the soldiers will all come from Mali or neighboring countries. They speak French and share a common cultural identity with the Malian population. This is quite different to MONUSCO in the DRC where the troops from India or Pakistan are intensely disliked by the local population and face allegations of idleness, corruption and of attacking civilians.
MONUSCO troops did not stop the rebel advance on Goma. Paul Melly says the way the troops conduct themselves in Mali will be of the utmost importance. "Is the ECOWAS force well trained or their troops well disciplined, do they respect civilians, do they operate in a competent and organized professional way?" will be important questions, Melly says, adding that the hope is that the soldiers will be able to gain the confidence of the local population, which would be a very important component of the mission.
One other important question which has yet to be settled is whether, or how, Algeria should support the mission. Algeria has a 1,000 kilometre (620 miles) long common border with northern Mali, the area which is now in rebel hands. Algeria would have to seal that frontier to stop both rebels and weapons from crossing it. So far Algeria has been reluctant to get involved in any intervention and is hoping for a political solution. Whether the rebels can actually be expelled from northern Mali and how long that would take is as yet unknown.