“If you don’t see a bunker, just lay down and wait for the explosion.”
The words flow from the security officer easily, but firmly. This isn’t some overzealous attempt to shock or scare a couple of civilians visiting a military base, but rather, a clear and concerted effort to ensure everyone understands the seriousness of the situation. We’ve just entered a warzone and sometimes in a warzone, bombs explode.
This 45-minute long security briefing is mandatory for anyone who makes the trek to the UN supercamp in Gao, Mali — a remote city in the far northeast of the troubled country, where 3 400 peacekeepers, police officers, and other UN personnel are responsible for protecting 544 120 civilians spread out over 65 000 square miles.
Five years ago, this town was overrun by a coalition of militant Islamists, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar Dine.
The jihadists seized Gao by exploiting gains made by a Tuareg separatist uprising in the north and a power vacuum that was created when Malian soldiers staged a coup d’état in the south.
In early 2013, after only six months of fighting and with the Malian government and army in disarray, jihadists had captured the vast majority of the country and were less than 160km from the capital city of Bamako. They left a trail of death and destruction in their wake, imposing a draconian version of sharia law, destroying ancient manuscripts, and desecrating dozens of Islamic holy sites.
Worst of all, though, the jihadists were on the verge of achieving a much more important goal: turning Mali — a largely peaceful and democratic country straddling a critical geographical nexus — into an isolated nearly and impenetrable safe haven for terrorists and criminals of all kinds.
Today, however, Gao is a much different place, thanks to the United Nations and the French military, which intervened at the last minute to save Mali from completely falling into the hands of radical Islamists.
During our time in Bamako, Gao, and Timbuktu, we heard again and again that Mali was too important to ignore—that if terrorism was allowed a reprieve in the sandy hills of the Sahel, it would inevitably make its way to Europe and most likely the United States, irreparably destabilising the continent in the process.
We have sadly already seen the impact that sort of destabilisation can have. One needs only look southeast to Nigeria, where AQIM helped support Boko Haram’s atrocious school attacks — the most prominent of which turned 200 innocent girls from Chibok into wives, cooks, and sex slaves for the vile terrorist machine. These kinds of extremists continue to operate in southeastern Mali and are a lingering threat in Gao and Timbuktu.
Americans also witnessed this truth much more recently when four US soldiers were killed just 27km from the Mali-Niger border by armed militants from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara — the newest radical jihadist upstart attempting to exploit instability in Mali.
Now, much has already been written about the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (known formally by the French acronym MINUSMA). Many of those stories, though, focus on the fact that MINUSMA has become the world’s deadliest peacekeeping mission, claiming the lives of over 150 peacekeepers since the UN first deployed to the country. It’s an immeasurably sorrowful reality, but one that tends to obscure the real progress that MINUSMA has made in walking Mali back from the brink of disaster.
Having visited six different peacekeeping missions —including operations in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic — we can tell you that MINUSMA is operating in a vastly different sort of environment than “normal” UN peace operations–and that the importance of its success is doubly so.
In Mali, peacekeepers have to contend with roadside improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers – asymmetric threats that are more in line with what the US military encountered in Iraq or Afghanistan than anything a typical peacekeeping mission is equipped to handle.
And yet despite those threats, the UN has helped Mali broker a peace deal between the armed groups that kickstarted the crisis, successfully organised two free and fair presidential elections, and steadily expanded state authority, paving the way for this critical country to govern itself once again.
Perhaps most important of all, however, is the vitally needed social and development infrastructure that the UN provides that helps secure the military gains the French are making as they hunt down the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara — a task which has become France’s primary security goal in the country.
This is work that only the UN, with its irreplaceable ability to marshal international resources and leverage political capital, can do — and it’s imperative to the safety of not only the African continent, but countless American citizens.
Leaving Gao the next afternoon after spending the night on the UN base, there had thankfully been no occasion to seek shelter in a bunker — none of the incoming mortar shelling that had been the hallmark of jihadist attacks in months past.
As we made our way out of the heavily fortified base and to the equally fortified airstrip a minute’s drive away, a comment from one of the US service members we met at the supercamp stuck with us, “You can call it peacekeeping,” he said solemnly, “but it’s actually war.”
It’s a war, despite all the setbacks, dangers, and challenges, that the UN is winning — that the UN, even if it shies away from using the “W” word, must win. There simply is no other option, because, as we have seen time and time again, what happens in the Sahel does not stay in the Sahel.
Micah Spangler is the Director of Advocacy and Chandrima Das is the Director of Peacekeeping Policy at the United Nations Foundation.