UNITED NATIONS The U.N. Security Council on Thursday approved an African-led military operation to oust al Qaeda-linked extremists from northern Mali, but not before the training of the country's security forces and progress on political reconciliation and elections.
The resolution, passed unanimously, stresses that there must be a two-track plan, political and military, to wrest control of the turbulent north -an area the size of Texas - and successfully reunite the west African nation.
It authorizes an African-led force to support Malian authorities in recovering the north but sets benchmarks before the start of offensive operations, starting with progress on a political roadmap to restore constitutional order. It also emphasizes that further military planning is needed before the African-led force is sent to the north and asks Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to "confirm in advance the council's satisfaction with the planned military offensive operation."
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous has said he does not expect a military operation to begin until September or October of next year.
Mali was plunged into turmoil in March after a coup in the capital of Bamako created a security vacuum. That allowed the secular Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalized by Mali's government, to take half the north as a new homeland. But months later, the rebels were ousted by Islamist groups allied with al Qaeda, which have now imposed strict Shariah law in the north.
The resolution strongly condemns Malian soldiers for their continued interference in the work of the country's transitional government. Soldiers behind the coup arrested the prime minister earlier this month, creating more political upheaval and raising new concerns about the Malian military's ability to take part in the operation to retake the north.
On Nov. 13, the African Union asked the U.N. Security Council to endorse a military intervention to free northern Mali. The plan, agreed to by leaders of the West African bloc known as ECOWAS, calls for 3,300 soldiers to be deployed to Mali for an initial period of one year.
The resolution authorizes an African-led International Support Mission in Mali, to be known as AFISMA, for an initial period of one year but makes no mention of its size. It welcomes troop contributions pledged by ECOWAS and calls on member states, including from the neighboring Sahel region, to contribute troops to AFISMA.
The final draft was a compromise between France and the United States, which questioned the readiness of troops from Mali and ECOWAS to fight in the desert and wanted AFISMA to initially be authorized for training the Malian army and police and then to help recover the north. Council diplomats say the best-trained African troops in desert warfare are from Chad, Mauritania and Niger.
The resolution stresses the importance of reconciliation, urging the transitional authorities to finalize a transitional roadmap to restore constitutional order, including holding elections by April "or as soon as technically possible."
The benchmarks before the start of military operations include progress on the roadmap and negotiations between Malian authorities and all parties in the north who have cut ties to terrorist organizations, training of military and police units from Mali and AFISMA on their international human rights obligations and the operational readiness and efficiency of the chain of command of AFISMA.