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Why are British troops in Mali and what are they doing?

Editor’s note: this piece has been written by the current Commanding Officer of the UK Long Range Reconnaissance Group deployed in Mali.

The UK’s three-hundred strong Long Range Reconnaissance Group deployed to Mali on Operation Newcombe in late 2020.  One year on, it is worth revisiting why it is there and what it is doing on the nation’s behalf.

Straight off the bat, Mali is not Afghanistan.  But yes, it shares similarities: troubled neighbours and vast ungoverned spaces; resource scarcity; insufficient national infrastructure and services; a poor and war-weary population; and security actors challenged by low force densities and lack of equipment.

But there are differences too.  The Malian Government lacks democratic legitimacy and coups are commonplace.  Climate change is driving competition for scarce resource and humanitarian agencies are deployed to combat famine.  A population that considers local and tribal fealties pre-eminent, must first survive before it can imagine a world in which it thrives.  The Malian Army (FAMa) is woefully small for such a large country (14,000 compared to some 180,000 members of the Afghan National Army).  Its military-led government is increasingly looking elsewhere for security support.  Eschewing debates on what constitutes failed, fragile, or failing states, Mali is – by any measure – facing acute governance, development, and security crises.  Rather obviously, there are no easy solutions to these crises and certainly not over a two- or three-year deployment as currently envisaged.  A military solution is not possible and a political one unlikely in the short to medium term.

Context of the deployment

Into this febrile situation, the UN deployment of 2013 sought to improve stability following a rebellion in 2012 and a rapid French intervention operation.  Post the 2015 Algiers Peace Accord, it has sought to enforce the terms of the accord among armed groups, including via a Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programme.  UN Security Council Resolution 2100 provides for the deployed force to use ‘all means’ to implement the mandate.  Other complementary UN aims – youth employment, Women Peace and Security, and education – are overlaid.  The UK’s involvement initially consisted of training team support to Malian Defence and Security Forces under a European Union Training Mission that commenced in 2013.

In 2018, the same year that commitment ended, the UK Ministry of Defence responded to a request to deploy support helicopters on a French-led counter-terrorist mission across the Sahel.  And in 2020, following considerable debate about where to place British peacekeepers, Defence deployed an all-arms Task Group – the Long Range Reconnaissance Group.  Notably, this is the first significant investment of British troops into a UN mission since South Sudan (Operation TRENTON) and is in addition to a long-standing commitment to the UN mission in Cyprus (Operation TOSCA).  The deployed UN force operates at the invitation of the Malian Government under a Statement of Forces Agreement and British forces are deployed under a Memoranda of Agreement between the UK and UN.  Objectively, British forces are operating within a United Nations framework that has clear legal legitimacy and international and host nation support.  But legitimacy, important as it is, is not a reason to deploy.


Tending towards the subjective, some policy-makers might argue for peacekeeping action based on moral legitimacy inspired by humanitarian concerns.  That Mali is facing a humanitarian crisis is undeniable.  Almost six million people, nearly a third of the population, need humanitarian assistance.  There are approximately 372,000 internally displaced people and 160,000 children are suffering life threatening malnutrition.  Humanitarian agencies are deployed, including ‘blue UN’ elements; UNICEF, UNHCR and OCHA.  Whilst ‘black UN’ (peacekeepers) work in the same space, humanitarian agencies rarely welcome the presence of troops in such situations.  Likewise, Mali is a former colony of France and officially francophone; British citizens have little kin with Malians despite their obvious need.  If Mali, why not country X?  Policy-makers might broaden the argument to include the potential impact of criminality, drugs, human trafficking, and migration on British citizens.  And whilst there is relevance in the transnational nature of these problems, such an argument takes one towards ‘securitisation’ theories in which armed forces are rarely viewed as appropriate responders.  The benefit of upstream action in preventing downstream disbenefits is notoriously difficult to evidence.  So, whilst morality and transnational issues might be considerations in using Defence as a force for good, there is no direct threat emanating from Mali that necessitates military involvement.

The UK’s international standing

The UK’s relationship with the French has some bearing on policy-making.  The UK’s rolling provision of helicopter support will shortly enter its fifth year.  The French military’s counter-terrorist mission, Operation Barkhane, is conducted across the Sahel but numbers are reducing and the operation is increasingly unpopular with French voters.  The UK’s contribution is a small but important manifestation of our bilateral security relationship.  There is obvious logistic benefit in deploying British troops to a country in which Defence has an existing footprint.  Further, national aviation buys out medical risk by providing assured medical evacuation to British troops.  But the UK’s deployment of the Long Range Reconnaissance Group shares little with the French deployment less geographic proximity.  Bilateral relationship-building is a good outcome (despite current frictions in the relationship post-BREXIT and shaped by cross-channel migration) but it is likely not the dominant policy driver.

“through practical application of an economy of force peacekeeping action the UK seeks to be an exemplar force within an existing UN mission that has international support”

The UK’s international standing matters to its ability to influence other security actors.  A permanent member of the UN Security Council, active NATO member and contributor to many overseas security actions in recent years, the UK’s limited role in the UN as a troop contributing country is notable.  It is noted by others too.  The UN is currently running twelve peacekeeping missions, with 76,000 peacekeepers deployed from 122 countries.  Over fourteen thousand peacekeepers are working in Mali making it the second largest UN peacekeeping operation.  The three largest troop contributors to Mali are Chad, Bangladesh, and Egypt.  Even with the deployment to Mali, the UK sits 35th on a league table of troop contributing countries.  The UK’s longstanding commitment to the UN mission in Cyprus remains its largest troop contribution.  And whilst money matters too – the UK sits 6th in fiscal terms, providing £300 million per annum to UN peacekeeping – it, along with other western nations (especially P5 members) could be accused of paying, but not playing.  Further, by only committing to the least dangerous missions, the UK could stand to lose credibility despite its fiscal commitment.  So, a three hundred strong deployment on what is billed as the UN’s most dangerous mission helps address burden sharing and reinforces sentiment around Global Britain.  The UK’s deployment has a reputational imperative that is hard to ignore.

Practical difficulties

Whilst there is considerable benefit in bringing together many troop contributing countries on peacekeeping missions, not least for reasons of international cooperation and burden sharing, it generates practical difficulties.  Those supplying troops have differing perspectives, horizons, and expectations.  Scalable political will manifests as caveated employment.  A system of UN allowances and payments incentivises the poorest UN members to deploy troops to garner funds for national budgets.  And deployed troops have varying levels of training, experience, and equipment.  Peacekeeping performance is therefore a concern.

Soldiers from the Long Range Reconnaissance Group on Op Newcombe Mali. Photo: MOD

This last issue, seen through the lens of peacekeeping fatalities, was explored in a report by General Santos Cruz in 2017; ‘Improving Security of United Nations Peacekeepers’.  It highlighted that many UN missions were operating at the limits of what could reasonably be defined as peacekeeping.  Many were attacked not just by those on either side of a peace divide but were targeted by transnational terrorist groups.  Peacekeepers employed on these missions had differing will and ability to act to protect civilians, themselves, or the mandate.  Fatalities, both military and civilian, were high. No more so, than in Mali.

Enabling peace

The UK’s approach to its commitment and force design has considered this report.  Making a virtue of its mobility and intelligence-focus, the Long Range Reconnaissance Group can self-sustain its efforts at range and answer information requirements.  In a vast country where some forces struggle to operate far from their patrol base, the UK stands to gain credit if it builds a rich picture of the physical and human environment that informs decision-making.  Striving to be an exemplar force, it hopes to demonstrate the utility of well-trained and resourced peacekeepers patrolling hard-to-reach places for weeks at a time.  By enhancing collaboration and encouraging activity it aims to help improve the effectiveness of peacekeeping and reduce fatalities.

“That’s clearly important because peacekeepers exist to keep peace”

That’s clearly important because peacekeepers exist to keep peace.  And that peace creates space for governance and development – the other crises besetting Mali.  But yes, peace eludes us in absolute terms.  We make practical compromises.  In Mali, that compromise is a peace accord in which signatory armed groups and compliant armed groups can bear arms, in addition to Malian Defence and Security Forces.  Many are not acting peacefully.

Additionally, non-signatory armed groups, terrorist armed groups, and violent extremist organisations pursue their competing aims (secession, religious-control, protection or criminal) through violent means.  On 8th August 2021, violent extremists massacred fifty-one civilians in the village of Ouattagouna (140 kilometres south of the force’s base in Gao).  The Long Range Reconnaissance Group was on scene the next day and remained in the vicinity for several weeks thereafter.  Its presence enabled investigations by UN agencies and bought much needed time for burial and bereavement.  Unable to prove a negative, we will never know how many massacres are prevented by the presence of ‘blue helmets’ in troubled parts of Mali.  Acknowledging that peace is highly unlikely as an outcome in Mali any time soon, actions are local and temporal.  Some peace, for some people, for some time is an appropriate outcome given the level of military resource available.

Civilian development

The Long Range Reconnaissance Group is also helping to enable civilian partners to conduct development activities.  The Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office aims to improve the response to the humanitarian crisis, address drivers of instability, and bolster conflict resolution.  Its horizon is greater than that of the military.  And it has funds allocated to development and governance projects most of which will be conducted proximate to where British troops are based.  The Long Range Reconnaissance Group has a role to play in enabling civilian advisors to conduct local engagement, assess needs and manage projects. That enablement extends to plethora UN actors too, many of whom lack the ability to deploy without assistance.  Projects are not always focused on physical infrastructure. Female peacekeepers and civilians, for example, not only help engage with half the population and raise matters beyond a male-centric purview, they also model representation.  Many tribes are based on strong matriarchies, so female engagement is not only supportive of Women, Peace and Security, it is vital to being effective.  So, a comprehensive approach – or frankly just good coordination – at a local level will provide vignettes of good practice to share with partners whilst making some marginal gains.

Soldiers from the Long Range Reconnaissance Group on Op Newcombe Mali. Photo: MOD

Finally, and worth acknowledging as a useful outcome, the deployment offers significant opportunities for force development.  The environment of Mali is harsh and austere, testing existing equipment and those who operate it, to their limits.  But it is presently not so perilous that capacity and thought cannot be given to future ways of operating and employment of trials equipment.  Members of the Long Range Reconnaissance Group are drawn from twenty-eight units and fourteen formations, so every corner of the Army stands to derive benefit.  Factors such as operating range affect the development of medical, equipment and logistic support concepts and how we communicate beyond line of sight.  Self-sustainment concepts affect not only how we lighten logistics, but for example, how we train drivers to do more than currently prescribed to maintain, repair, and recover their vehicles.  The integration of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets at unit and sub-unit level in Mali is as relevant to the development of the Deep Recce Strike brigade concept as it is to Light Forces in 1st (UK) Division.  And the management of risk, especially medical, is relevant across many other theatres, with direct read across to how Ranger Regiments and early entry forces might wish to operate.  So, Mali is a battle laboratory.  It is also an important theatre in which to demonstrate and build confidence in the efficacy of land tactical actions post Afghanistan.

In sum, through practical application of an economy of force peacekeeping action the UK seeks to be an exemplar force within an existing UN mission that has international support.  As an outcome, the UK hopes to improve the effectiveness of peacekeeping and gain a modicum of credit in the UN, with allies and in the face of adversarial mercenaries.  It also stands to learn much about how it operates and might deploy in the future.  But an economic approach extends to expenditure of blood and treasure.  Accordingly, actions are bounded – small numbers, time constrained, geographically restricted and mission limited – to prevent creep and manage risk appropriately.  Deployed troops are working to improve UN peacekeeping performance for modest outlay and enhance UK reputation as a force for good beyond its borders.

Cover photo: Op Newcombe 3. Provided by author.

Hugo Lloyd

Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Lloyd commands 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards.  With experience of warfighting and counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan he is currently deployed on his first United Nations peacekeeping mission.  He commands the UK’s third rotation of the Long Range Reconnaissance Group to Mali on Operation Newcombe.

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