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The Implications of Stabilisation Logic in UN Peacekeeping: The Context of MINUSMA

“There was no negotiation. There was no warning  […] and bombing our positions was also a very serious political error,” asserted Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, spokesman for Tuareg separatist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), as he recounted fatal air strikes that targeted the faction in January 2015 (Lewis and Farge, 2015, no pagination). The air strikes were carried out by the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali’s (MINUSMA’s) Dutch AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to quell a rebellion in northern Mali. They elicited violent demonstrations in MNLA strongholds of Kidal and Ber, exacerbating already acute tensions between rebel factions and government forces at a critical juncture immediately preceding the final round of peace talks (Kjeksrud and Vermeij, 2017). Lieutenant-General Babacar Gaye, former Military Advisor for peacekeeping operations, stresses, “It may look like war […] but it is peacekeeping […] we are impartial” (quoted in Rhoads, 2016, p. 1).

The confrontation was no anomaly. It epitomises a ‘new era’ (Peter, 2015, p. 351) of unprecedentedly ‘proactive and robust’ (Boutellis & Zahar, 2017, p. 38) United Nations (UN) ‘stabilisation’ peacekeeping operations (PKOs). These operations are deployed in the midst of intractable asymmetric conflicts, equipped with increasingly sophisticated military apparatus, and authorised to practise offensive force against specified armed elements over an indefinite period of time. Stabilisation operations are increasingly prolific. The titles of four PKOs deployed since the turn of the Century included ‘stabilisation’, and the phrase was cited in almost half of all UNSC meetings by 2014 (Gilder, 2019a).

‘Stabilisation’, however, remains an elusive term in the UN context. Branded by Karlsrud a ‘cognitive slippage’ (2019c, p. 494), in which a broad range of ‘unrelated’ (p. 505), heterogenous activities are amalgamated under one concept, the strategy has attracted radically different interpretations. A unanimous recognition that stabilisation doctrine is far removed from the tenets of traditional peacekeeping, however, fuels a persisting, largely normative debate over its long-term repercussions. Perhaps as a result, less attention has been paid to the pragmatic, operational utility of these increasingly proactive stabilisation logics.

This article therefore employs a micro-level approach to analyse the immediate and pragmatic implications of stabilisation peacekeeping. It explores, in the context of MINUSMA, implications for coordination-based operational efficacy on three tiers: intra-operational, inter-operational, and international coordination. The PKO in Mali was selected as an apt case study for its position at the forefront of increasingly robust stabilisation logics; MINUSMA is explicitly authorised to ‘stabilise’, ‘deter’ and ‘prevent the return’ (UNSC, 2013a, p.7) of armed elements, and to ‘impede, impair and isolate the terrorist threat’ (UNSC, 2016, pp. 2-3).

The article finds that stabilisation’s assimilation of counterterrorism rhetoric has incentivised self-interested European military contributions to MINUSMA. This has resulted in a range of operational caveats that have, in turn, manufactured structural inequalities between African and European troops on the ground, yielding a poorly-coordinated, ‘two-tiered’ mission (Cold-Ravnkilde et al., 2017, p. 40). On an inter-operational basis, the doctrinal divergence from the non-use of force has necessitated an intimate relationship between MINUSMA and the parallel French counterterrorism operation. This has sculpted MINUSMA’s activity around French counterterrorism priorities, and simultaneously hampered MINUSMA’s ability to work alongside humanitarian actors in the region. While the foundations of stabilisation doctrine have, it is argued, paved a smooth avenue for international cooperation vis-à-vis MINUSMA, this is foremostly governed by the aligning international consensus on who constitutes the enemy in Mali, to the detriment of MINUSMA.

Conceptualising ‘Stabilisation’ Peacekeeping

Stabilisation policies, in any context, have been largely influenced by a consensus that counterinsurgency is necessarily a political process (Kilcullen, 2010; Cornish, 2009), and that development and security are mutually reinforcing (Duffield, 2001). As such, stabilisation interventions entail a multidimensional fusion of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ approaches, crafted through a combination of the traditionally discrete realms of military, humanitarian, economic, political, and civilian intervention (Collinson et al., 2010). Contemporary notions of stabilisation, furthermore, cannot be divorced from the Western project to build and bolster liberal state institutions and governance structures in ‘failed states’ as the preeminent path to security and development (Ghani and Lockhart, 2009; Rotberg, 2004). Put differently, stabilisation embraces the expansion of state authority as a fundamental priority (Day and Hunt, 2020; Zimmerman, 2020).

Despite these broadly converging tendencies, however, the specific means and methods entailed by stabilisation remain contentious. At one end of the spectrum, a military-led, ‘hot’ form of stabilisation – embodied by the United States (US)-led engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq of the early 2000s, for example – prioritises security imperatives and direct action to neutralise insurgents (Curran and Holtom, 2015, p. 4; Lindley-French, 2009). Conversely, ‘cooler’ forms of stabilisation give more precedence to ‘soft’ forms of intervention, for example, the reconstruction of governance institutions (Collinson et al., 2010). Stabilisation is therefore perhaps best understood to embody different guises in different contexts, rather than a distinct form of intervention ‘separate from both counterinsurgency and peacekeeping’ (Aoi and de Coning, 2017, p. 6). Its broad scope has prompted the United Kingdom (UK), US, and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to delimit comprehensive and distinct stabilisation doctrines (de Coning, 2015). Despite its growing prevalence in the peacekeeping context, however, the term lacks so much as a formal UN-wide definition, prompting diverging accounts of the strategy.

On one hand, stabilisation is touted as a transition from the robust peacekeeping of the 2000s towards a more development-orientated approach, underpinned by ‘projects to reduce state fragility’ (Gorur, 2016, p. 7). Day and Hunt (2020) nod to contemporary non-stabilisation yet still robust PKOs, such as those in South Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire, to substantiate the premise that the UN has adopted a cooler form of stabilisation, not necessarily correlated with or characterised by a military-heavy approach. Granted, a key bedrock of UN stabilisation strategy is the long-term strengthening of state security sectors (Bellamy and Hunt, 2015; Rudolf, 2017). Nevertheless, grassroots development projects intended to prevent violence remain both scarce and subordinate to proactive and reactive military priorities (Autesserre, 2016; Attree et al., 2018).

In fact, peacekeeping mandates increasingly suggest stabilisation as a means to counter asymmetric threats (UNSC, 2016; Boutellis, 2015), and the most robust peacekeeping operations are those that subscribe to stabilisation logics (Karlsrud, 2019a; Rhoads, 2016). Accordingly, other scholars cast stabilisation PKOs as a direct extrapolation of the robust turn in peacekeeping (Mac Ginty, 2012; Karlsrud, 2017b). This force-driven formulation is corroborated by the increasingly sophisticated military capabilities stabilisation operations embrace; attack helicopters, transport planes, unmanned aerial vehicles, and, in the DRC, the first dedicated offensive combat force in a UN mission (the Force Intervention Brigade) supply stabilisation operations with an unmistakably combative stance (Tull, 2018; Harig, 2020). The authorisation of assertive force ‘at the strategic level’ to ‘deter’, ‘pre-empt’, ‘prevent the expansion of all armed groups, [and] neutralise these groups’ (UNSC, 2013b, pp. 6-7), furthermore, quite clearly sanctions an unprecedented grade of military force.

Likewise, though the seminal High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) Report explicitly directed UN troops to abstain from military counterterrorism operations (UN, 2015), the UN Office of Rule of Law and Security Institutions (OROLSI), amongst other bodies, has keenly developed ever-expanding counterterrorism competencies in headquarters. Capabilities include specific operational ‘tools, modules and guidance’ on counterterrorism (Karlsrud, 2017a, p. 1221), warranted through the OROLSI’s contention that: “Rule of Law is a peace and security, development, peace sustainment and counter-terrorism issue. These elements cannot be divorced from one another” (UN, 2016, p. 3). A similar sentiment integrating targeted counterterrorism efforts into an all-encompassing approach manifested in the 2016 amendment to MINUSMA’s mandate, which sanctioned a scope of activities that fall under numerous pillars of the 2006 UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (Karlsrud, 2017a, p. 1220). Some, such as the cantonment, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of armed groups, are ‘specific’ counterterrorism targeted interventions (Boutellis and Fink, 2016, p. 7).

As such, MINUSMA has been increasingly understood to reflect a realignment of peacekeeping that shares key features with counterterrorism operations (Karlsrud, 2017a; 2019b; van Oppen Ardanaz, 2019), while the DRC operation’s Force Intervention Brigade in particular is equated to a counterinsurgency intervention (Karlsrud, 2019b; Larsdotter, 2019; Tull, 2018).

In fact, while peacekeepers in all stabilisation PKOs are formally authorised to use force against both non-state actors and host-state forces under the protection of civilians norm, anecdotal evidence advises that the use of force against government forces is ‘widely unrealistic’ (Rudolf, 2017, p. 165). By working alongside host state forces, and operating under a ‘de facto dual line of command’, wherein their own ‘national caveats’ are designed to make the use of force against the host state ‘as unlikely as possible’ (UNSC, 2014, pp. 13-15), the use of force is, in reality, targeted almost exclusively at insurgents. Aoi and de Coning’s (2017) argument that a guiding principle of impartiality distinguishes stabilisation PKOs from counterinsurgency interventions is, as such, fragile at best.

Stabilisation in a peacekeeping environment has been characterised, then, by a predominant focus on militarised intervention, subsidised by secondary development objectives; an overarching ambition to extend host-state authority mid-conflict; and an assimilation of components of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism doctrine. These operations thus directly confront key peacekeeping paradigms: combatant consent for the presence of peacekeepers, peacekeeping impartiality, and the non-use of force. Operations deployed in such stark contrast with the conventional ‘essence of peacekeeping’ (Tsagourias, 2006, p. 466) inevitably entail distinctive implications for peacekeepers, host populations, and the wider values of UN peacekeeping as an intervening tool.

Much of the academic work that investigates these implications has been positioned at the macro-level, examining the long-term trajectory of the shift towards stabilisation. It has been argued, for example, that stabilisation engenders detrimental long-term repercussions for the legitimacy of the UN as an institution (Aoi and de Coning, 2017; Karlsrud, 2015; Peter, 2015); that the shift paves way for a necessary UN counterterrorism body (Sieff, 2017; Rosand, 2007); that the UN is simply conceptually and normatively ill-suited for ‘quasi-enforcement’ actions (Sloan, 2011, p. 295); and that stabilisation will entail legal implications for the UN under international humanitarian law (Gilder, 2019b). While these long-term, normative and institutional consequences are undoubtedly noteworthy, the emphasis placed on them has yielded a common, sometimes implicit perception that stabilisation peacekeeping necessarily entails ‘increased effectiveness on the ground’ (Aoi and de Coning, 2017, p. 239), as well as ‘good practical as well as short-term political [implications]’ (Karlsrud, 2017a, p. 1215). This perhaps clouds our understanding of the pragmatic value of stabilisation, regardless of its normative baggage or institutional implications.

This article therefore considers the immediate, on-the-ground implications of stabilisation logics for peacekeeping operational efficacy, in order to contribute to a broader understanding of the utility and upshots of stabilisation in the UN context. By limiting its scope to the context of a single case study of MINUSMA, the article engages with in depth and specific operational implications. To do so, it employs a micro-level approach that analyses the coordination-based effects of the doctrinal shift towards stabilisation on an intra-operational, inter-operational, and international basis.

Operational Implications of Stabilisation Peacekeeping

Indeed, coordination constitutes a critical variable with respect to operational materialisation, progression and efficiency (Lipson, 2005; Bellamy and Lupel, 2015; Junk, 2017). With PKOs deployed to increasingly precarious asymmetric settings, moreover, their success is more than ever contingent upon an ability to function as a unified entity. MINUSMA, for example, requires intricate ‘joint planning and undertaking of cross-sector operations’ (Cold-Ravnkilde et al., 2017 p. 6) that was simply not demanded by smaller and less militarily complex PKOs. Coherence on an internal and external basis is particularly imperative for stabilisation PKOs, since, as a ramification of being deployed mid-conflict, they must often also navigate their activity alongside offensive operations acting in the same spatial and temporal environment (EPON, 2019). Implications for coordination on an intra-operational, inter-operational and international scale thus directly affect the competence of a PKO.

Intra-operational Coordination

With the War On Terror (WOT) enduring as a dominant discursive frame since the 9/11 attacks, counterterrorism efforts remain central to foreign policy agendas of the US and its allies (Karlsrud, 2017a). The integration of explicitly counterterrorist rhetoric into stabilisation peacekeeping therefore makes the latter a cost-effective, burden-sharing medium through which the US and its European allies can implement their own foreign policy agendas (Karlsrud, 2017a; Collier and Hoeffler, 2004).

As such, while traditional, predominantly African, troop contributing countries (TCCs) remain the leading suppliers of MINUSMA’s 13,000 troops – with Burkina Faso alone contributing over 1,071 of these as of December 2019 (IISS, 2020) – it is perhaps unsurprising that MINUSMA is cited to spearhead a European ‘return to peacekeeping’ (Karlsrud and Smith, 2015, p. 1). Comprised of more than 1,000 military personnel, MINUSMA’s European presence is more extensive than that of any African peacekeeping mission since 1996 (Karlsrud and Smith, 2015, p. 4).

Contributions from the Global North offer the mission niche operational capabilities and sophisticated military apparatus, not least the ‘two intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance units; unmanned aerial systems; transport and attack helicopters; and fixed-wing transport aircraft’ contributed by Western TCCs (Karlsrud and Smith, 2015, p. 3). Yet, Europeans have resisted painting aviation assets and military vehicles in the traditional UN white, instead positioning a UN logo on top of the green camouflage archetypally associated with offensive operations (Karlsrud, 2019a, p. 72). This is arguably a visual microcosm of a broader, selective and transactional commitment to the PKO.

Motivated by narrow counterterrorism agendas that partially align with stabilisation ambitions, European TCCs are demonstrably indisposed to fully operationally integrate into the UN mission. They favour exclusively ‘high-end but low-risk capabilities’ such as intelligence, special forces, and air assets (Boutellis and Beary, 2020, p. 4), and remain almost exclusively positioned in secure bases in Bamako, Gao or Timbuktu (Karlsrud and Smith, 2015, p. 12). Since troops rely on their own equipment, African TCCs are therefore also required to operate within the most volatile geographical and security environments without support from the sophisticated surveillance drones or air support afforded by European troops (Lyammouri, 2018; Karlsrud and Smith, 2015). These meaningful intra-operational discrepancies are tangibly reflected in MINUSMA’s death toll. As of June 2020, European fatalities constitute 9 of MINUSMA’s 219 mission casualties, whereas 67 of these are from Chadian personnel alone (UN, 2020).

Similarly, while European TCCs supply an unprecedentedly sophisticated intelligence system, the All Sources Information Fusion Unit (ASIFU), intelligence-sharing caveats create critical operational frictions. ASIFU is a NATO-based system modelled from intelligence structures used in the kinetic operations of Iraq and Afghanistan (Peter, 2015, p. 352; Albrecht et al., 2017). Intelligence is, perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, exclusively shared amongst NATO-member European TCCs, with ‘no access’ for African officers creating a ‘serious issue in MIINUSMA’ (Albrecht and Cold-Ravnkilde, 2017, p.60). The lack of integration of African TCCs into ASIFU fails to capitalise upon the advantages they hold by operating in almost entirely different areas to European TCCs. That there is no ASIFU unit based in Kidal, an area in which peacekeepers are most frequently attacked, and are almost exclusively African (Albrecht et al., 2017), makes clear the European disregard for a comprehensive integration into the PKO. One frustrated UN official summarises, “the Europeans try to NATO-nize the UN as much as possible […] they are not coming to operate in Afghanistan” (quoted in Karlsrud, 2019a, p. 80).

Structural inequalities such as these have become so engrained in the operational logistics of MINUSMA that African and European TCCs operate as two almost entirely ‘separate entities’, so much so that MINUSMA risks becoming a ‘two-tiered mission’ (Cold-Ravnkilde et al., 2017, p. 9). This is fuelled by a ‘qualitative’ lack of military capacity  that cannot be relieved simply by increasing the volume of personnel without addressing coordinative issues (Sanders, 2015, p. 28). The combined effect of a narrow European commitment to explicitly counterterrorism-orientated stabilisation tasks firstly destabilises MINUSMA’s operational efficiency, making it one of ‘the deadliest UN PKOs ever deployed’ (Albrecht et al., 2017, p. 7). Secondly, it overlooks the reality, explored later in this article, that the terrorist threat cannot be isolated from Mali’s larger security problems. Attempts to treat terrorism as a discrete issue by initiating a European ‘mission within the mission’ (Karlsrud, 2019a, p. 66), and focusing on developing specific counterterrorism proficiencies are therefore also unlikely to be of substantial pragmatic value (Shurkin et al., 2017, p. iii).

Inter-operational Coordination

While the insufficient dissemination of intelligence between TCCs has created intra-operational fractures, an informal intelligence-sharing agreement with the French counterterrorism operation, Barkhane, contrastingly feeds into an inter-operational porosity. This, in turn, yields precarious implications for MINUSMA.

Barkhane is composed of 4,500 troops mandated to promote security across the Sahel (IISS, 2020; Vilmer, 2017). The French troops proactively locate and ‘neutralise’ insurgents using ‘targeting packs’ offered by MINUSMA’s ASIFU that identify individuals or groups considered to be a threat (Gilder, 2019a, p. 61; Karlsrud, 2019c). Similarly, several European TCCs have held bilateral agreements to support inter-sector transportation of French troops while deployed to MINUSMA (Charbonneau, 2017b), blurring the division of labour between the parallel operations. This permeability is borne from necessity. MINUSMA’s offensive posture, coupled with its intra-operational fragilities, dictates that the PKO’s very survival is dependent on militarised support from the French (Charbonneau, 2017b). The UN operation, meanwhile, provides Barkhane with actionable intelligence and an endorsement that entails global recognition as a lawful and legitimate intervention (Tallberg and Zürn, 2019).

Crucially, however, this relationship contravenes the 2015 HIPPO Report’s explicit recommendation that a peace operation should heed to clear and distinct divisions of labour between itself and parallel offensive operations (UN, 2015), so as not to become a direct party to the conflict. This is not simply a matter of semantics; it is also a legal issue. In becoming de jure parties to conflict, peacekeepers would in fact become permissible targets under international humanitarian law (Khalil, 2014). Indeed, at present, the intimate inter-operational relationship generates a comparable self-fulfilling effect (Karlsrud, 2017b). MINUSMA’s militarised posture and its accompanying affiliation with Barkhane paradoxically marks the PKO as a prime target for violent reprisal attack.

In fact, one study found that 54.5% of jihadist mobilisation strategies were directly connected to themes of ‘resistance’ and ‘group purpose’, including ‘enemy accusation’ and an appeal to Mali’s French ‘colonial past/present’ (Anbar, 2019, p. 32). Extremist discourse overtly identifies the ‘enemies’ as ‘MINUSMA, the Malian army, [and] the coalition forces against Mali’ (quoted in Benjaminsen and Ba, 2019, p. 9), clearly drawing upon the PKO’s impartiality and affiliation with the Barkhane as justification for violent attack. The French operation’s cumulative death toll of 43, however, is comparable to that of MINUSMA’s fatality count since 2019 alone, standing at 42 as of August 2020 (Lewis-Stempel, 2020; UN, 2020). This indicates that, while both operations are targeted, the PKO is far less disposed to deal with the collateral of its deviance from impartiality.

The cycle of violence also leads to complications with MINUSMA’s ability to coordinate with humanitarian actors operating in the region. Within the mission itself, the nature of stabilisation as an all-encompassing, integrated operation fails to adequately distinguish humanitarian efforts from its military pursuits. In fact, MINUSMA actively instrumentalises its humanitarian division to showcase its altruistic intentions through direct military participation in the aid sector. For instance, ‘Quick Impact Projects’ see military forces deliver humanitarian aid or engage in short-term development projects, such as sanitation work or improving electricity distribution networks, in an attempt to reduce external hostility towards the PKO’s uniformed personnel (Marín, 2017; Peter, 2015). This clouds distinctions between military, political, and humanitarian efforts, effectively reducing humanitarian imperatives to political agendas (Tronc et al., 2019; Vermeij, 2015). Moreover, it debilitates the prospects for aid efforts by necessarily pushing humanitarian actors into militarised bases distanced from civilian recipients (Duffield, 2010; Smirl, 2008).

The recurrent use of armed escorts by the humanitarian sector, in vehicles not clearly identified as military apparatus (Marín, 2017), further prompts a growing affiliation between the two sectors. Though escort operations occur precisely because humanitarian actors are increasingly targeted, they also fuel this self-fulfilling cycle of militarisation. As a repercussion, humanitarian workers report that it was in fact easier to operate in northern Mali prior to the deployment of MINUSMA (Tesfaghiorghis, 2016), and attacks on humanitarian workers in Mali in fact doubled during 2019 alone (GCR2P, 2020).

A further repercussion of the perpetual emphasis on military solutions to the conflict, amplified by MINUSMA’s relationship with Barkhane, is that this subsists at the expense of a primacy of political solutions to lasting issues concerning the Malian regime and peace prospects (Michailof 2015; Richmond and Tellidis 2012). MINUSMA’s failure to distinguish itself from the steadily increasing array of military actors in Mali (Okeowo 2017; Schmitt 2017) means it too serves to preserve an interventionalist strategy of primarily the management and containment, as opposed to transformation, of violence (Charbonneau, 2017b). This undermines efforts for political change. In fact, the permanent external military management of armed violence actively diminishes the incentives for the Malian state to engage in comprehensive processes of the conflict’s resolution. There is perhaps more of a partiality from those in power for the ongoing ‘peace process’ and for the large amounts of global cash flows it brings, than for peace itself (Charbonneau, 2017a, p. 427).

Indeed, though already a donor-dependent state prior to 2012, Mali has attracted increasing foreign aid since the onset of the crisis, averaging US$1.45 billion annually between 2013 and 2016 (Craven-Matthews and Englebert, 2018, p. 21). Since donors “don’t act consistently” and “do not manage to uphold […] demands”, however, many of these funds go unaccounted for (Tull, 2019, p. 409), providing opportunity for the political class to illicitly channel funds into buying and maintaining loyalties (Boutton, 2016, p. 21). The combination of unconditional external economic and military support therefore feeds into consistently high levels of corruption and lack of state reform, both of which remain major drivers of insecurity (IISS, 2020).

Inter-operationally, then, MINUSMA’s affiliation with Barkhane – borne out of necessity as well as shared counterterrorist ambitions – paradoxically leaves the PKO vulnerable to attack within a self-fulfilling cycle of militarisation. This has implications for MINUSMA’s coordination with humanitarian actors in the region, and effectively disincentivises crucial state reforms.

International Coordination

Directly linked to these issues concerning the Malian state are the interactions between stabilisation logics, international coordination, and MINUSMA’s operational efficacy. Since international delineations of the conceptual frame ‘terrorist’ converge in Mali, in the context of the WOT, stabilisation’s counterterrorist ambitions in fact synthesise global cooperation with respect to MINUSMA (Charbonneau, 2017b). The significance of this international cooperation is salient when contrasted with its absence in, for example, the Syrian crisis, wherein a reel of continually vetoed resolutions precluded UN action (Mahapatra, 2017).

However, MINUSMA’s ability to endorse a strategy for long-term peace is fettered by the constraints of a global cohesion manufactured, effectively, upon a consensus that there exists a rigid taxonomy of legitimate and illegitimate actors in Mali. Stabilisation, in its inherent support of the state, presupposes a binary of legitimate actors (state-affiliated groups) and illegitimate actors (‘terrorists’ and non-state armed groups). While this complements a popular discourse in the international community – that the conflict consists predominantly of innately illegitimate terrorists, and an innately legitimate state – it fails to adequately acknowledge or respond to what are, in reality, complex and fluid relations between jihadists, civilians, armed groups and the state (Day and Hunt, 2020; Walther and Christopoulos, 2015; Sandor, 2017).

For instance, the al-Qaeda linked coalition Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM) has constituted the primary target for counterterrorist efforts since 2017 (Joscelyn, 2017). ‘Legitimate’ actors, including sections of the formal political elite, however, readily engage with the jihadist group in a ‘mutualistic’ (Day and Hunt, 2020, p. 9) relationship to gain profits from organised criminal networks in the North (Kfir, 2016). This collusive, ‘unholy alliance’ is illustrated in action by Day and Hunt (2020, p. 9):

… those with influence over state institutions allow for a certain degree of illicit activity; armed groups acquiesce safe passage through territory they control; and transnational criminal groups provide access to established smuggling routes and distribution networks.

As exemplified, ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ actors alike not only engage in illicit activity, but in doing so explicitly overlap and collude with one other for mutual benefit. Similarly, after years of conflict and the absence of state presence, allegiances between rural civilian populations and transnational jihadist groups are widespread and exceptionally fluid. This is the case to the extent that, particularly for rural populations, participation in jihadist groups is often even a seasonal endeavour, driven by a lack of economic alternatives (UN, 2016; Ba and Bøås, 2017).

MINUSMA’s mandated objective to ‘isolate’ (UNSC, 2016, p. 3) the terrorist threat is, as such, empirically idealistic and impractical. Its attempts to do so have also arguably reaped disastrous consequences. In positioning its efforts almost exclusively in line with the terrorist threat that both originated in and was, until recently, most profuse in the North, MINUSMA turned a blind eye, from 2014-2018, to increasingly violent localised conflict in the Centre. This, in turn, paradoxically provided a valuable resource for extremist groups to exploit (Sandor, 2017; EPON, 2019),

Jihadists have indeed capitalised upon an institutional vacuum in the Centre to increasingly mobilise support along ethnic cleavages. The recruitment draws upon tensions predominantly between Tuareg agriculturalists and Fulani nomadic pastoralists, fuelled by the social ostracisation and long-term political and economic marginalisation of rural communities at the hand of the state (Sangaré & McSparren, 2018; Sandor, 2017, p. 11). Escalating radicalisation in the Centre has, in turn, fuelled a proliferation of informal pro-government and self-defence militias, triggering a vicious, spiralling cycle of inter-communal violence (EPON, 2019, p. 5). This has deteriorated to the extent that the Centre now constitutes the ‘epicentre of violence’ in Mali (HRW, 2020, no pagination).

As such, the aligning, rigid consensus on who constitutes the enemy in Mali that for years gave an exclusive precedence to the terrorist threat in the North effectively undermines this very operation. It falls victim to a rudimentary ‘good and bad, terrorists and others’ (Charbonneau, 2017b, p. 13) simplification of a complex conflict, that complements too a narrative espoused by the state to undermine local grievances. One civilian (quoted in Olsen, 2018, p. 52) describes:

For the Malian army, all ‘fair-skinned’ people are the same. Arabs, Tuaregs, Bellas […] the military believe that they are at the heart of the uprising and therefore the problem. They want to get rid of them once and for all.

Simultaneously, the regime repeatedly demands the UN to ‘combat the terrorists’ (Nougayrède and Châtelot 2012, no pagination), and ‘do its job and break these terrorists’ (quoted in Charbonneau, 2017a, p. 421). In conflating all anti-government groups, while consistently appealing to terrorism in its rhetoric, the Malian regime is able to capitalise on the global WOT frame as a discursive tool to delegitimise local grievances, and conflate these with jihadism. Military solutions to address the symptoms of long-term grievances, in turn, alleviate pressure on state to address its own inadequacies as a necessary precursor to a political trajectory away from armed violence.


This article has posited that stabilisation in the UN context entails a militarised form of intervention, encompassing elements of both counterinsurgency and counterterrorism doctrine. It prioritises short-term security imperatives and the expansion of state authority, while integrating secondary humanitarian, civilian and political intervention in a multidimensional approach. The encroachment on counterterrorism rhetoric has aligned peacekeeping with the foreign policy agendas of European states, prompting significant European troop contributions. This involvement, though, prioritises peacekeeping tasks that are overtly lower-risk and explicitly relevant to foreign policy agendas, fuelling a lack of mission coherence. In turn, this has initiated an informal but necessary reliance on Operation Barkhane, encumbering humanitarian work, further pressing a counterterrorism-focussed agenda, and disincentivising crucial state reforms. Lastly, stabilisation’s deviation from impartiality has stirred international support for MINUSMA. That the WOT agenda acts as the primary unifying force behind this support, however, dictates that this cooperation has fuelled the PKO’s neglect of conflict drivers that lie exterior to the terrorist threat, paradoxically undermining its very counterterrorist ambitions.

While the article established a range of operational implications, in analysing a single case study, contextual factors inevitably contributed to the conclusions drawn. The paper does, however, offer a framework for the analysis of the implications of stabilisation logics in the context of other PKOs, in for instance the DRC, as well as for cross-case comparisons. Such research would shed light onto the generalisability of the key findings of this paper, and contribute to a bigger picture revealing the complex and indirect implications of UN stabilisation peacekeeping. The utility of this broader picture remains paramount while peacekeeping prevails as not only the international community’s preferred method of intervention (Aoi and de Coning, 2017), but also an important prism for understanding broader shifts in international security politics and power configurations (Karlsrud, 2019a; Anderson, 2018).


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Written at: University of Leeds
Written for: Dr Alex Waterman
Date written: May 2020

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