Foreign ministers from the European Union’s member states will be asked on Monday to clarify their plans to support an African-led international force that is to be sent into Mali early next year.
When the European Council met in mid-October, government leaders gave the EU’s diplomatic service a deadline of 19 November to set out specific ideas for a European contribution to international efforts to restore order. Northern Mali has been controlled by Islamist groups since April. In the intervening month, there have been several international meetings, culminating on Saturday (10 November) with a meeting of west African leaders that agreed on a plan drawn up with input from Europe and the US. The African Union endorsed the plan yesterday (14 November). Their proposal will be presented to the UN Security Council later this month. UN backing would in effect start a countdown to military operations.
The foreign ministers’ focus on a military mission is likely to push aside discussion about the country’s other crises. The EU’s development funding to Mali has been suspended since a coup in March, and an internationally agreed political transition remains so shaky that a resumption of funding is not yet on the cards. A humanitarian crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of people, principally in the rebel-held north, remains “critical”, the European Commission says, though there is “cautious hope” for a reasonably good harvest.
Training and support
Under the blueprint agreed by African leaders, the EU and the US would provide training, equipment and logistical support to the Malian army, which has 6,000-7,000 soldiers. The weakness of the Malian army was at the root of both the political and security crises, as military reverses prompted the coup in March. Islamists swiftly took control of the north, gaining the upper hand over secessionists. In turn, the food and refugee crises worsened.
The plan envisages that an international force of up to 3,300 troops would be deployed, led by Nigeria. Some of those international troops would engage in military operations with the Malian army.
The EEAS has said that the EU does not expect to provide direct military support for operations by the Malian army. France, which is taking a leading role in forging the EU response, has ruled out the use of combat troops or of air power.
The EU’s principal contribution is therefore expected to be training, though France has indicated that it would support intelligence work in Mali, possibly by providing unarmed surveillance drones.
Quality of troops
Europe’s determination to remain in the background may be severely tested by events on the ground, as there are growing concerns about the quality of the troops sent by Ecowas, the regional grouping.
Defence ministers will also meet on Monday. They will discuss the pooling and sharing of military equipment, as well as missions in the Horn of Africa and the western Balkans. The meeting follows a twice-yearly meeting of the EU’s Military Committee on 31 October, when these topics were also discussed. A senior official there said that pooling and sharing was “going in the right direction, but it has to be taken to a completely new level”. Defence issues will be discussed at a summit of EU leaders in late 2013, for the first time since 2008.
The UK’s Guardian newspaper recently quoted a senior source as saying that “there is no way [Nigerian troops] are capable of forward operations in Mali”. The problems are said to have already delayed the planning process.
The EU already also has a mission in neighbouring Niger, where the concern is terrorism. The two-year, 50-member mission began operating in August. Its focus is on training the country’s police services, and strengthening their management.