France and U.N. plan Mali peacekeeping force

The first phase of France's military offensive against Islamist insurgents in Mali will likely come to an end in the coming weeks or months, giving way to a more open-ended, nation-building exercise. It remains unclear what such a mission would look like, what it would do, and who would formally lead it. Though one thing appears all but certain: France is likely to be at the center.

In Paris and New York, peacekeeping and military planners have been seeking to fashion a plan that could ensure long-term stability in northern towns recently captured from militant Islamists by French and Malian forces, prod Bamako to negotiate a political settlement with the country's restive Tuaregs, and ultimately lay the groundwork for national elections.

So far, the United States, France, and Britain appear to be coalescing around a proposal to send U.N. peacekeepers to Mali to secure newly captured towns and to serve as a facilitator for future political talks. The proposal is likely to face some resistance from African powers, who will provide most of the troops for a peacekeeping mission, and who have demonstrated an increasing appetite for managing regional military and peacekeeping operations.

But the more immediate question is about France's intention. Paris has not decided what military and peacekeeping role it will play in the future, if any. Here's a series of options reportedly under consideration:

1. No French force remains in Mali. On the outer range of French planning, this contingency is probably the easiest option to eliminate. There are some 6,000 French nationals living in and around the capital of Bamako, and it was their fate that prodded French special forces into action in the first place. They're not likely to allow a repeat.

2. France could leave behind a battalion of up to 800 troops or so, kit them out with blue helmets, and have them provide the backbone of a future U.N. peacekeeping mission. The benefit of this strategy is that it would encourage other European powers -- who have advanced military capability and are comfortable serving under U.N. command -- to serve alongside the French and its African partners. France has played a similar role in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon.

3. France could leave behind an independent contingent of  forces under French military command. They would serve as a guarantor for a separate U.N. peacekeeping mission, which would be comprised primarily of African peacekeepers. This is similar to the role it played in Ivory Coast, where French troops played a lead role in the military campaign to force former Ivoirian leader Laurent Gbagbo from power following his election defeat.

4. France could maintain a larger military force in Mali through a bilateral agreement with Bamako along the lines of its military presence in Chad, where French forces intervened in 1986 to protect  then President Hissene Habre, who had come under attack from Libya. The French operation -- dubbed Sparrowhawk -- has never formally ended, and a small force of French troops still maintains a presence.  This scenario, however, seems unlikely. French President Francois Hollande has voiced reluctance to keep boots on the ground and his U.N. envoy, Gerard Araud, has insisted that France is keen to end the military operation as soon as possible, though not sooner than necessary. At the moment, France has begun discussion with other key international and African powers about the prospects of presenting a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a new force.

The U.N. has had mixed feelings about France's approach to Mali. In December, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed serious misgivings about the wisdom of France's initial plan to have African and European officers, and supported by the United Nations, back a campaign by the Malian army to retake the north by force from Islamist insurgents, saying that military force should only be used as a "last resort." Ban's hesitance reflected anxiety about the consequences of direct U.N. participation in a military operation against al Qaeda. While Ban has applauded the French military intervention as a necessary response to a sudden Islamist military advance towards the capital, Ban has resisted appeals for greater direct support for the mission.

"I am obliged to bring to the attention of the Security Council the assessment of the Secretariat that, if the United Nations were to provide logistics support to military forces engaged in an offensive operation, it would place civilian United Nations personnel at grave risk, and undermine their ability to carry out their current tasks," Ban wrote in a January 20 letter to the Security Council.

But the view inside the U.N. has not been monolithic.  The U.N.'s chief peacekeeper, Herve Ladsous, a former French diplomat, has pushed for greater involvement in the French-led military operation, primarily through the provision of logistical support for poorly equipped African troops. In the end, the Security Council will decide what role the U.N. will play in Mali. So far, that remains unclear.

Will, for instance, U.N. peacekeepers play any role in confronting the ongoing threat posed by terrorists? Will they be mandated to crack down on the illicit weapons and narcotics trade that fuels the insurgency in northern Mali? Will they be required to maintain law and order?

In the meantime, the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping has already begun its own contingency planning, focusing on three key options:

1. A full-fledged U.N. peacekeeping mission led by a U.N. special representative.  This is the preferred option for French, American, and British officials, as well as U.N. peacekeeping officials.  It provides the U.N. political leadership with full control over the mission and gives key Western powers, particularly in Europe, greater confidence to participate. But the vast majority of peacekeepers in the mission will come from Africa and leaders there will not want to cede decision-making to the United Nations.

2. A hybrid force. Facing demands by African leaders for a greater say in regional matters, the U.N. established a joint U.N.-African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Sudan. This hybrid force established the notion of joint AU leadership in the mission. The force has been viewed as a model for the future within Africa, but it has been criticized as cumbersome and ineffectual by U.N. peacekeeping officials. France and Britain strongly oppose it.

3. A compromise option would involve splitting the mission into two. The United Nations would command a stabilization force in northern Mali, where most of the fighting has occurred. A second political mission in Bamako would be managed jointly by the AU and the U.N. It would help facilitate political talks between the Malian government and the country's ethnic minorities, particularly the northern Tuaregs, and pave the way for national elections.

As the key players consider the various options, a more strategic question will have to be addressed. What kind of Mali do the French and its African and U.N. partners want to leave behind? And do they have the capacity to make that happen?

"What we are looking for is a strategy that will not return Mali to the status quo ante," said one senior U.N. official. "We need to support the rule of law and transform the institutions so that this will be the last time blue helmets are needed in Mali."

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