The French military today says it is in the midst of a large scale operation in northern Mali against terrorist groups. This offensive comes one day after an Al Qaeda affiliate is claiming responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed two UN Peacekeepers and two civilians.
There have been suicide attacks against UN buildings in the past. And there have been attacks against joint African Union/UN peace keeping missions in Somalia. But a suicide attack against blue helmets deployed in the field is entirely new. This is the first-ever UN Peacekeeping deployment to a conflict in the midst of an Islamist inspired insurgency and I fear this will not be the last time that UN Peacekeeping Mission in Mali (known as MINUSMA) is the target of a suicide attack. The key question is the extent to which troop contributing countries like Chad are willing to absorb these blows.
This is where France comes in. On its own, MINUSMA does not have the capacity to go on the offensive against groups that would mount suicide attacks. But France does have that capacity, and it has kept nearly 3,000 troops in Mali separate from the peacekeeping mission for the expressed purpose of counter-terrorism operations. So long as France is invested in the success of the mission, the African countries that would contribute the bulk of the 12,000 peacekeepers will stay the course.
The challenge is that France is planning to significantly scale back its commitment, potentially to 1,000 troops by February. If France pulls back while UN Peacekeepers are coming under assault from groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb it is hard to see how this mission can succeed.