UNITED NATIONS — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proposed a U.N. peacekeeping force for Mali with 11,200 troops working alongside a non-U.N. force that would conduct major combat and counter-terrorism operations against Islamic extremists Tuesday as one option to maintain security after French forces leave the crisis-wracked West African nation.
The U.N. chief said in a report to the Security Council that another option would be to strengthen the U.N.'s new political mission in Mali and give the African-led force in Mali known as AFISMA, responsibility for security and offensive combat operations, as a prelude to a U.N. stabilization mission.
The secretary-general rejected a request from many Malians as well as the African Union and West African regional group for a U.N. force to undertake combat operations against terrorist groups saying this falls well outside the U.N. peacekeeping doctrine and peacekeepers aren't trained or equipped for fighting extremists in the deserts and mountains of northern Mali.
Mali was plunged into turmoil after a coup in March 2012 created a security vacuum. That allowed secular rebel Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalized by Mali's government, to take half of the north as a new homeland. But months later, the rebels were kicked out by Islamic jihadists who imposed strict Shariah law in the north, including amputations for theft.
France launched a military operation Jan. 11 against the Islamic extremists after they suddenly started moving south into government-controlled areas and captured key towns. Backed by Chadian soldiers, French troops ousted the radical Islamic fighters from the major towns in northern Mali, though many went into hiding in the desert and continue to carry out attacks.
France – the former colonial ruler of Mali – has said it has no intention of keeping its 4,000 troops in Mali for the long term and plans a gradual pullout starting in April.
The unexpected move south by the extremists and France's intervention are forcing the Security Council to revamp the two-track plan it adopted in December to reunify the country. The council had authorized AFISMA to support Malian authorities in recovering the north alongside a political process promoting reconciliation and leading to elections.
In Tuesday's report, the secretary-general said that in response to a council request he was presenting two options for a possible U.N. peace and security presence in Mali that take into account "the fact that the United Nations is operating in a new geopolitical context and faces threats that have not been encountered before in a peacekeeping context."
"The situation on the ground remains fluid," Ban stressed. "Although the extremists and criminal elements have been dealt a heavy blow, they continue to pose a significant threat to the safety and security of the civilian population and any United Nations personnel deployed in Mali."
Ban said that under the option that would give AFISMA a combat role and expand the U.N. political mission, the United Nations would work with the African Union and others to rapidly build up and improve the operational capabilities of the African force.
This could lead to a U.N. stabilization mission once critical benchmarks have been met and he identified several possibilities including an end to major combat operations, a reduction in threats from armed groups, the ability to safely deploy U.N. civilian staff, AFISMA's capabilities, extension of the Malian government's authority throughout the country, and progress toward presidential and legislative elections.
In the other option, Ban said a U.N. peacekeeping force would operate mainly in the north under robust rules of engagement with a mandate to protect civilians "under imminent threat of physical violence." He said the bulk of AFISMA troops would transfer to the U.N. force, which would also include 1,440 police oficers.
"Given the anticipated level and nature of the residual threat, there would be a fundamental requirement for a parallel force to operate in Mali (and potentially in the sub-region) alongside the United Nations mission in order to conduct major combat and counter-terrorism operations and provide specialist support beyond the scope of the United Nations' mandate and capability," Ban said.
He said "it is critical" that there is a clear distinction between the tasks of the two forces.
"Any blurring of this distinction would place severe constraints on the ability of United Nations humanitarian, development and human rights personnel to safely do their work," Ban warned.
The secretary-general said the political process in Mali is lagging "dangerously behind the military effort" and he called for a national dialogue to be convened without delay. He said the worrying human rights situation also needs immediate action, citing reports in the north of summary executions, illegal arrests, use of children by armed groups, rape, forced marriage and the destruction and looting of property.