In late November, I was hustled onto a CH-147F Chinook sitting in a dusty airfield in northeastern Mali. The helicopter, provided by Canada’s military and carrying a Canadian medical-evacuation team of fifteen people, waited on the tarmac as its rotors spun for ten minutes, building from a steady roar to a wall of sound. We lifted off at a stately pace, tracking the runway, then banked sharply into the desert.

Flying alongside were two CH-146 Griffons, smaller gunships armed with .70- and .50-caliber machine guns, the latter of which can fire over 1,000 rounds a minute. Our Chinook — a double-rotor chopper that resembled a vast armour-plated dachshund—was retrofitted to serve as an airborne ambulance, its floor covered with plastic sheeting designed to slough off the gore of the wounded. On board, the medical crew immediately began unpacking equipment and stringing up bags of blood in preparation for the patients to be picked up, while the gunners shot at targets in the scrubland, spitting shells into the cabin.

As everyone scrabbled on knee pads, their activity increasing the closer we came to the site, it was easy to forget that what I was watching was, in fact, a training exercise concerning the rescue of three pretend casualties. The professional warriors, pilots, and medics on the Chinook had accumulated thousands of hours of expertise in their respective fields; these drills were meant to keep them battle ready. When we hit the ground in a cyclone of sand, the team exited quickly, jogging over a dry creek bed into a clearing. The Griffons circled while a team of German soldiers formed an armed perimeter. Two of their number were already on gurneys, faking an array of injuries, alongside a water-bottle doll pretzelled into a configuration of pain. They were rushed back on board, where the medical procedures began in earnest.

It’s the third mock evacuation today to leave Camp Castor, the military base located in the city of Gao. These regular exercises have been a fact of life here since shortly after the Canadians arrived, in June 2018, joining the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), a peacekeeping operation consisting of fifty-six nations and over 16,000 personnel. Deployed in 2013 to help stabilize a country partly engulfed by Islamist extremism, MINUSMA is the UN’s deadliest ongoing mission, with 195 peacekeepers killed as of this writing.

The present troubles in Mali can be traced back to 2012, when a rebel coalition called National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) initiated a conflict with government forces in the north that triggered a military coup. Taking advantage of the confusion, the MNLA seized three cities in the north and proclaimed an independent state. Several armed Islamist groups previously allied with the MNLA overwhelmed the rebels to assume control over the top half of the country and impose strict sharia. Advancing south, they threatened to place the entire country under the Islamist banner. Enter the French military, which, at the request of Mali’s government, worked with the local forces in 2013 to push back the advance. (France has intervened in its former colonies more than thirty times since 1960.) MINUSMA was established soon after and assumed responsibility for patrolling the country’s north. The MNLA had, by then, broken from the terror groups and, in 2015, signed a peace deal with the Malian government—a deal MINUSMA is expected to shepherd.

The peace agreement, however, has done little to stop Islamist militants from continuing to stoke tensions. (It also doesn’t help that this is the fifth peace accord with the north since 1991.) Banditry is widespread, as are assaults on UN vehicles, motorcades, and convoys—including, in one case, a rocket and car-bomb attack by extremists reportedly disguised as peacekeepers. Incidents with improvised explosive devices (or IEDs), responsible for the majority of deaths to peacekeepers, are on the rise, jumping from 139 in 2016 to 217 in 2018. And, nearly two weeks before my visit to Gao in November, three civilians in a residential area were killed in a car bombing targeting UN forces. “MINUSMA is here to stabilize the country,” a local journalist, Alpha Mahamane Cissé, told me. “But MINUSMA can’t even secure themselves.”

When security forces muster counterattacks, armed groups exploit the fallout. “Mali is one of the most interesting models for how adaptable Islamist extremist groups are,” said Ryan Cummings, the director of Signal Risk, a risk-management consultancy. If local civilians are inadvertently harmed by the government’s attempts to dislodge militants from an area, the militants offer mafia-style protection against the government. The more antiterror campaigns are initiated, the more civilians are killed at the hands of the Malian forces, the more terrorist groups gain legitimacy. The battle is regional, but it is won at the minutely local level, with terror groups notching enough victories to start crossing the border into Burkina Faso and Niger. The very calamity MINUSMA was meant to forestall—Mali’s dissolution and the spread of insurgencies into nearby countries—was happening under its nose. “The situation in Mali is dire, and it’s not going to be improved overnight,” said Cummings.

Justin Trudea stands in front of a Canadian flag and beside a Christmas tress while soldiers watch, seated.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to Canadian Armed Forces following a turkey dinner in Gao on December 22, 2018.

What has Canada contributed to fixing this situation? A 250-person team, including a flying paramedic crew able to provide state-of-the-art medical attention to UN operatives in the field. All of it on loan for a year.

From the outset, the Canadian deployment, dubbed “Task Force Mali,” faced two main criticisms from Canadian politicians and security experts.First, the mission made no real sense, largely because the west-African country’s end-to-end dysfunction demanded much more than military gestures, however peacefully intended. The second was that the plan had no apparent links to wider foreign-policy convictions, with the added downside of putting Canadian lives at unnecessary risk. The Liberal government never addressed these criticisms except to assure detractors that the troops would be kept as safe as possible and that the mission would be limited in scope and time . But a short mission that flaunted its technical expertise while limiting direct risk only strengthened accusations that the deployment was about appearances; specifically, that it was about generating enough international goodwill to secure a coveted seat on the UN Security Council in 2021/22, for which African states will make up one of the biggest voting blocs.

Before I tagged along on the Chinook, then major Russell Eyestone, an emergency-medicine doctor assigned to the unit, made it clear that he had similar misgivings. “There have been four call-outs since we got here,” Eyestone said, referring to operations that involved real injuries. (Those grew to eight as of January, including a serious incident involving Sri Lankan troops.) “The value and worth of it?” he said. “I don’t know how much this mission costs, but if you were to amortize costs per evacuation, you’d be talking about dozens of millions of dollars per evac. Are we doing good with the money we’re spending?”

I’d come to Mali to try to answer that. The task force’s year-long mandate is set to run out at the end of July, and if anything, the country is in worse shape than when Canadian forces arrived. “It is important that, when we go into engagements internationally, we be clear eyed around what we hope to deliver,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at the very outset of his administration. But what is the point to sending peacekeepers where there might not be any peace to keep?

Gao, one of the cities where MINUSMA is embedded, is located northeast of Bamako, Mali’s capital. The presence of a military camp can often be sensed from miles away—the pull of people, material, and energy toward a central point. This is certainly true of the “Gao bubble,” which encompasses Camp Castor, where Task Force Mali is based, alongside a French antiterror initiative called Opération Barkhane and the Forces Armées Maliennes—the Malian military. Headquartered near the Gao airport, these groups form a roiling, roaring universe of their own.

On my first day in the bubble, I was given an orientation tour of Camp Castor by Lieutenant (Navy) Melanie Aqiqi, who serves as the public-affairs officer. She guided me past rows of portable shelters, which housed the kitchen and mess hall, and a row of containers, each with three bunk beds, where contractors and visitors were billeted. The camp is run by the German military, with which the Canadians had negotiated a “technical agreement”—in exchange for space and support services from the Germans, Canada provides the UN with its choppers and specialized capabilities (along with medical evacuations, Canadian forces have ferried goods and passengers and have participated in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance duties). Aqiqi and I then crossed a graded dirt road and, cleared by a sentry, entered the area that included the airfield and support facilities for Canada’s battalion of eight helicoptors. This part of the camp felt like a set for a CBC drama on Canadian peacekeeping. Tents and offices hadn’t been weathered enough to feel authentic, and there were self-referential touches: the morale tent was called Coach’s Corner, after the hockey-night staple.

While we walked, Aqiqi broke down the composition of the Canadian task force, which included the 250 troops at Camp Castor; sixty in Dakar, Senegal, where an additional airlift detachment was located; and six people in Bamako. I had been warned to brace for acronyms, and I was not disappointed: there was the European Union Training Mission (EUTM Mali) and the EU Capacity Building Mission (EUCAP Sahel Mali). Not to forget the G5 Sahel joint force, a regional peacekeeping group. These organizations worked alongside MINUSMA, and, in principle, the Canadians were responsible for the medical welfare of them all, with the exception of Barkhane, the French special forces, who tended to their own. As Eyestone would later tell me, Task Force Mali’s advanced trauma procedures and equipment—called the Canadian Medical Emergency Response Team, or CMERT—allow the rest of the UN mission to do its work with confidence, knowing that if something does go wrong, an emergency team will be ready to leave camp within minutes. “You’d be better off with us here,” Eyestone observed, “than you would be in rural Canada.”

There is something poignantly miraculous about MINUSMA—dozens of nations, from Norway to Bangladesh, working together in one of the most dangerous places on earth. Twice the size of France, and inhabited by nearly 20 million people, Mali is riven by mind-bending complexities. During the nineteenth century, France split up west Africa in a way that cut through existing tribal relationships. These artificial borders remained when the French left nearly a century later, effectively trapping together ethnic groups that had little history or sympathy for one another and who suddenly had to compete for resources and political power. Landlocked, Mali is surrounded by Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal, and Mauritania: states that have suffered, at various times, their own internal disputes. Due to its location in the middle of these countries, which together make up a vast strip of semiarid grassland and desert called the Sahel, Mali has become a way station, criss-crossed by ancient trade routes now exploited by organized crime syndicates and terror groups, whose interests are often aligned.

MINUSMA’s role in standing against this chaos is hard to overstate: should Mali be allowed to completely dissipate, the resulting vacuum would suck in a significant chunk of western Africa, leaving Ontario-sized swathes of territory without even cursory governance—a terrorist’s wonderland. Then there are other geopolitical implications. In 2018 alone, over 120,000 people were displaced by the violence in northern and central Mali. Many risked their lives along the Mediterranean migrant route, the third-largest contingent of any nation. Those who did make it—and many didn’t—added to a crisis that triggered populist movements across Europe.

MINUSMA was designed to be a cross between an aggregator of and a conduit for the services and protections that the Malian government struggles to provide. UN troops help manage the activities of NGOs, assist with policing, chip in on infrastructure and health care, and generally try to stabilize civilian life through a dizzying variety of good intentions that, at least on paper, invoke a functioning society. As an addendum, they also patrol the vast interior, trying to quell trouble without eliminating the troublemakers—peacekeeping’s classic built-in irony. One day, in Gao, I watched as Senbat—the Senegalese contribution to MINUSMA—helped coordinate a local politician’s town-hall-style meeting in Gao, the basics of democracy that had become all but impossible in central Mali.

Canadian infantry and medical personnel disembark a Chinook helicopter as they take part in a medical-evacuation demonstration on the United Nations base in Gao, December 22, 2018.

That said, the operation always seemed rigged to fail. The UN currently deploys about 90,000 soldiers and 14,000 civilians in fourteen countries. As a recent, widely circulated, essay in Foreign Affairs magazine noted, the organization spends what sounds like an impressive $7 billion (US) a year on peacekeeping, but that amount is spread across a quarter of the world’s war zones.

Although MINUSMA may be one of the UN’s most crucial missions, it is no less overstretched than any other deployment. As many as twenty militant groups—al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants among them—are active in the region. A recent report for the Swedish Ministry of Defence warned that the Security Council’s ambitious mandates for Mali remain severely underresourced: “There are not enough troops to carry out operations and core activities that benefit the population.” The authors also speculate that, because MINUSMA is being targeted by militants, UN military installations might be worsening the country’s security environment by drawing lethal attacks to towns where troops are deployed. The New Humanitarian, a news outlet that covers crisis zones, reported that MINUSMA’s poor coordination with NGOs—a working relationship one aid worker described as “confrontational”—created risks for aid groups caught in the middle of surprise military operations, hampering humanitarian activities and leaving vulnerable families with little or no access to food, shelter, health care, or safe drinking water. Such problems are the hallmark of twenty-first-century peacekeeping: highly professionalized, technologically advanced missions that sate international partners while making nearly no progress on the ground.

Take Gao itself. A network of concrete buildings and sand roads, the city has become one of the focal points of the Malian nightmare. Attacks by armed extremists occur regularly—during my visit, a merchant was gunned down in front of his security detail. To help protect against car bombs, a UN unit was building an “antivehicle trench” around the city—a military neologism for a dry moat. This is to ensure that no illegal vehicles enter the town, I was told. Extremists also riddle the roads with IEDs, rendering them almost impassable not only to MINUSMA forces but everyone else as well. The drive from Bamako to Gao has become especially harrowing: just under 1,000 kilometres as the crow flies, the trip can take several days and requires crossing three borders—Burkina Faso’s, Niger’s, then back across Mali’s. The security situation, in just a year, had declined to such an extent that contract workers could no longer travel safely to the nearby town of Mopti (582 kilometres away). I spoke with a project manager who said his company, ito Logistic, was hired by the German army to transport heavy equipment to Gao. (ito Logistic refused to confirm the existence of such an agreement.) He said that raids had increased along the road, and MINUSMA’s efficiency in dealing with them had picked up. In other words, in an endless cycle of violence, the centre of the country continued to crumble while the mission partners were adapting apace.

Click on the icons in the map below to get a sense of Canadian military activity in the area:

Security experts call this a “multidimensional security crisis,” which effectively means that there is no single villain in Mali, unless one counts a series of governments that have failed to quell the sense of political exclusion and marginalization brewing in the north. Insofar as there was any wealth in the poor country, it accrued in the population-dense southern regions, inhabited largely by people of the Bambara ethnicity. The north has been populated mostly by Tuaregs, who feel their needs and rights have been ignored, along with nationalists desperate to carve out an independent state. The north’s secession attempt in 2012 was, in fact, only the latest in a series of rebellions dating back to 1963. Traditionally, the government had managed the region by forging alliances with warlords or community leaders, a farrago of relationships as incoherent as they were unsustainable.

The obvious solution to the maelstrom in Mali is a government that works for the whole country. But that seems unlikely. For one thing, the discontent of the armed Islamists, unimpressed by the current peace deal, is as much ideological as political. Also, as many observers have argued, poor governance has been such a persistent problem—corruption is entrenched—that political institutions in Bamako may not, as yet, be trusted enough to resolve the rift with the north. “The only possibility that I see for improvement is that there’s a peace agreement put in place that includes the Islamists,” says risk-management consultant Ryan Cummings. “But France”—which has long held a zero-tolerance policy regarding Islamist insurgencies in its areas of influence—“is never going to let that happen.”

Cummings believes there is no future without the Islamists—the sooner they are brought into peace negotiations, the sooner the violence will abate. In this, Mali is reminiscent of Afghanistan, where, for over a decade and a half, coalition forces backed deficient regimes in Kabul and refused to negotiate with the Taliban—until they eventually began negotiating with the very organization they had been fighting for seventeen years.

Task Force Mali is Canada’s first large-scale UN mission in nearly fifteen years. In contrast to Stephen Harper’s studied ambivalence toward peacekeeping—often described as anti-UN, he sought to refashion Canada’s image into one of a ‘‘courageous warrior’’—Trudeau has been more eager to tap into nostalgia for the blue-helmeted era that saw perhaps its greatest peacekeeping success in Cyprus in 1964, with the reinforcement of the “green line” that kept warring Greek and Turkish factions apart. This is still the peacekeeping Canadians recall: altruistic, dedicated, morally sound. It’s largely why Trudeau has the public on his side—last July, an Angus Reid poll found that 59 percent of Canadians thought the government was right to deploy troops to Mali.

But where Canada once led the world in troop contributions (“we are always there,” said former prime minister Jean Chrétien, “like the Boy Scouts”), Task Force Mali encapsulates the country’s more cost-efficient priorities. Rather than the traditional mass deployments, Canada has opted for a so-called smart-pledge strategy: smaller, measured, targeted missions that respond to specific UN needs. Trudeau defended the decision at a UN summit in Vancouver in 2017, saying the plan is designed to reengage in peacekeeping “in a way that is focused on how we can have maximal impact.”

Yet the deployment to Mali falls significantly short of the Liberal government’s August 2016 pledge of 600 troops for UN peace operations. In 2017, the CBC was already reporting “dismay” among European allies over Canada’s rejection of multiple UN requests, including one asking us to lead vital military- and police-training missions in the Central African Republic. Most recently, the Trudeau government has offered little explanation for its refusal to extend its mission in Mali for nearly three months to help avoid a gap in the delivery of life-saving medical evacuations as Romania readies itself to replace Canada. Trudeau has downplayed the gap, but the UN has warned that, without such support, it could be forced to reduce patrols and services to communities. (On June 14, Canada announced that it will continue to provide UN operations in Mali with medical support until the end of August.)

While Task Force Mali may have given Trudeau the chance to unveil sophisticated medical-evacuation capabilities decades in the making (evidence, as he once put it, that “Canada is back”), it also seems to demonstrate a gamble that, with an election year around the corner, expressions of peacekeeping intent may be enough to score political points—peacekeeping as virtue signalling. Thomas Juneau, a former analyst with Canada’s Department of National Defence, vented his disappointment, in the Globe and Mail, about the Trudeau government’s failure to explain why the Mali mission was in Canada’s interest. “It seems to assume that ‘doing’ UN peace operations is intrinsically good, which is at best simplistic. Peace operations are a means, not an end.”

Between the establishment of the UN, in 1945, and the late 1980s, Canada contributed over 80,000 troops to various peacekeeping missions across the world. A number of these missions were symbolic expressions of Western comity, but they were also a means to make dangerous places safe for people to go about their daily lives. After the Cold War ended, the symbolism did too: a new species of conflict emerged, due in part to the dissolution of the communist bloc and its client states. Canadian troops were still dispatched across the world, but they were now thrust into complex, unpredictable internecine battles that were nearly impossible to freeze in place with a ceasefire. The world had changed. If there was one event that could be said to signal the advent of this bleaker era, it occurred in Croatia in September 1993. Soldiers from the Second Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, engaged in a fifteen-hour firefight with Croatian forces. While there were no Canadian casualties, the battle for Medak Pocket was the worst fighting the country’s troops had experienced since the Korean War.

Peacekeeping no longer meant donning a blue helmet and waving at schoolchildren, if it ever had. The UN’s restrictive rules of engagement—that, as David Krayden of the National Post recently put it, “usually have soldiers consulting their manuals before putting finger to triggers”—soon began to conjure horrific images. In 1994, Roméo Dallaire, major general of the UN assistance mission in the small, mountainous nation of Rwanda, had his hands tied by his superiors as Hutu génocidaires slaughtered at least 800,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsis.

But maybe the best proof that peacekeeping’s traditional approach was broken occurred a year earlier. After Somalia dissolved into vicious fighting between competing warlords in the early 1990s, a 1,400-person Canadian battalion set up camp in a town called Belet Huen. Tasked with distributing relief supplies, troops were frustrated by locals sneaking into the compound for food. On March 16, 1993, a teenager named Shidane Arone crossed the perimeter fencing and was tortured to death by members of the now defunct Canadian Airborne Regiment. The affair, the Washington Post wrote at the time, “dealt a blow to Canada’s image as the postwar era’s preeminent international peacekeeper.” The country reacted by rearing back from UN engagements, a withdrawal that hasn’t abated despite the rhetoric that now drifts down from Parliament Hill. Today, Ireland has almost eight times more peacekeepers on the ground than Canada does.

Walking through Camp Castor, I asked Aqiqi whether she thought it possible a reprise of the Somalia affair could happen in Mali. “I don’t think so,” she said. “This is a very different engagement.” It’s also a different military. Task Force Mali was deployed not only with a specialized technical crew but also with a gender adviser, a legal adviser, a social worker, a communications adviser, a small military-police detachment, and a ground liaison officer. Far more desks have been flown into Mali than have choppers, with a counsellor for every contingency.

As for interactions with the locals, the Canadians existed in a desert purgatory: they were not cleared to enter Gao, and so far as I could tell, few among them had ever visited the city they were ostensibly protecting. Even the short drive from the airport was undertaken in two closed, tiny-windowed armoured vehicles, named Fred and Carl. Canadian forces encountered Mali almost entirely from the sky. That our troops were largely insulated from the country in which they were operating bolstered suspicions that Task Force Mali was never meant to be an element of an overall nation-building initiative. It was a showpiece.

The Canadian embassy in Bamako is a large white two-storey compound. The ambassador, Louis Verret, was serving his first tenure. Since 2010, when he was Canada’s director of development for Mali, he has seen the country decline by nearly every metric. Tourism is near dead. The north is awash in weapons and drug trafficking. Religious fundamentalism is on the rise. Poverty is worsening. Climate change has baked the region into something drier and hotter, reducing grazing ground and destroying subsistence agriculture.

“It’s important to understand the context of MINUSMA,” he told me after we had settled in an air-conditioned conference room. Canada was not a johnny-come-lately to these parts, he wanted me to know. Mali won independence from the French in 1960 and established tentative diplomatic ties with Ottawa about nine years later. Verret wants to ensure that the presence of the fancy choppers doesn’t overshadow the work Canada had been doing in Mali for half a century. “You’re here because of the military story,” he said. “But there is also a development story and a humanitarian story. The full story doesn’t show up very much.”

Years before the current Liberal government came to power, Canada’s engagement in Mali had been premised, Verret said, on a sophisticated view of how twenty-first-century stabilization should function. “First,” he said, “there is a development and poverty-alleviation program.” Mali, in fact, is the fifth-largest recipient of Canada’s international-assistance budget; an amount that, since 2006, has totalled nearly $1.5 billion. Due to successive droughts and conflicts, we have provided humanitarian aid—$60 million since 2012—and have included Mali in a $450 million “Peace and Stability Operations Program,” of which our role in MINUSMA was just one component. Verret pointed to the Malian government’s adoption of a Canadian-style auditor general, an office that, in a country vexed by corruption, has earned credibility as an independent oversight body. Verret also wanted to stress that Canada helps fund dozens of subprograms from local and international NGOs that are designed to add to the well-being of individual Malians in meaningful if unspectacular ways—programs tied to food and nutrition, sanitation assistance, health care, and medical supplies. The question was whether any of these initiatives had led to measurable change or improvement in local circumstances. It was hard to see. According to the UN’s emergency-aid agency, after seven years of conflict, roughly 3.2 million Malians will turn to humanitarian help in 2019.

There was one marker by which Mali was improving: the economy grew by 5.3 percent last year, nearly twice the rate of Africa. Canada played a part in that growth. Canadian investments in Mali—including trading goods that ranged from machinery and equipment to electronics—were $659 million in 2017 alone. But, in a way, such statistics were no real cause for joy. Given the north’s ongoing restiveness, they instead emphasize how the government in Bamako had failed to equitably distribute growth around the country. Unquestionably, if inadvertently, Canada had contributed to this imbalance too. “I’m not sure if we’re the largest investor altogether in Mali, but we’re not too far away from that,” said Verret.

Our mission in Mali has also brought attention to Canada’s substantial mining assets there. With gold mining emerging as one of its fastest-growing sectors—the country is the third-largest producer of gold in Africa —Mali has become home to roughly seventy Canadian companies currently extracting the precious metal. At Bamako’s Modibo Keita International Airport, I saw signs held aloft for Endeavour, a Toronto-listed mining company. On the way out of the airport, a billboard declared, “Welcome to Gold Country,” courtesy of Randgold, the former South African mining giant that recently merged with Canada’s Barrick Gold, creating the largest producer in the world.

With the mining industry in western Africa facing heightened security risks— in January, a Canadian geologist for a mining company in Burkina Faso was kidnapped and killed—questions might be raised about whether the task force’s stabilization mandate can be linked to Canada’s mining investments. Jonathan M. Sears, who teaches international development at the University of Winnipeg, agrees that “stability in Mali would be good for national and international corporations, including Canada-based firms in the mining sector.” But he doubts that Canadian troops can provide anything in the way of help. “Even a more effective UN stabilizing mission, with or without Canadian participation, may not have much impact on the violence now spreading to central Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.”

I asked Verret if a cynic would be wrong to imagine that one of Task Force Mali’s unstated goals was to help stabilize the country so that Canadian-owned or -listed multinationals could continue to operate here without unwelcome visits from insurgents. He dismissed this out of hand. “We want to work on poverty reduction,” he said. “These are our Canadian values.”

On my final evening in Bamako, long after dark, I met with Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, a key player in the MNLA, the group that seceded from Mali in 2012. We spoke under a full moon, on the roof of a three-storey structure. He wore a sky-blue shalwar kameez and spoke soft French with a Parisian accent, a side effect of his political-science studies in the French capital sometime in the 2000s. A Tuareg, he was radicalized after his return from France after meeting some of the leaders of the northern separatist movement. He helped found the MNLA and went to war against the government.

Young and slight, Acharatoumane was once featured in the French periodical Libération in 2018, draped in white robes—the uncompromising militant turned idealist. He and others made the strategic decision to splinter off from the MNLA to create a new organization in 2016 called Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA). Since the signing of the peace accord in 2015, Acharatoumane had come to view the Malian government as a partner rather than an adversary; he is now fighting the very militants the MNLA was once aligned with. He believes the statelet he had tried to create had no hope of survival on its own. Acharatoumane used South Sudan as an example. The east-African country finally won independence from Sudan in 2011, only to descend into nightmarish civil war. “It is better to have one state and to have our rights,” he told me.

While the peace accord addressed long-standing Tuareg marginalization by promising them autonomy, Acharatoumane admitted that it had yet to be properly implemented. “It has not gone even a step forward,” he said. Rather than resulting in a more coherent national picture, the new agreement, by favouring certain tribes, has encouraged further factionalism, enhancing the threat of balkanization and doing nothing to stop the cycle of intercommunal attacks. Last December—a little over a week before Trudeau paid a surprise visit to Camp Castor, taking selfies with the troops and pledging, despite the pressure from UN partners, that the mission would end on schedule—at least forty-two people from Acharatoumane’s MSA were killed by a motorcycle gang of suspected jihadists. (MSA itself has been accused of targeting civilians in reprisal attacks.)

The truth, as Acharatoumane saw it, was that, while he was grateful for MINUSMA’s contributions to his country’s security—such as shoring up weak civil administrations, especially in the north—the stabilization mission, in part because of the unchecked spread of weapons, is struggling. Acharatoumane believes Mali is living out an international crisis, in which, much like in Iraq, the vast desert has become a staging ground for global counterinsurgency efforts. Even the peace accord was the imposition of an “external vision of a solution.” It also hasn’t helped that, after operating for years in the country, UN peacekeepers are regarded suspiciously by a battered citizenry. “Malians don’t understand the presence of the international forces. People think they are here only to protect their own interests,” he says. “MINUSMA has done a bad job of explaining its objectives.”

As my discussion with Acharatoumane wound down, it occurred to me that I was speaking with not only one of Mali’s but perhaps one of west Africa’s primary emissaries. The CEO of a rising cause in a struggling democracy—a united Mali. Peacekeepers have always been a poor proxy for an effective government, and until one appears in Mali, the country risks becoming a ward of initiatives like MINUSMA. As the moonlight glinted off the tea tray and we began our goodbyes, Acharatoumane made it clear that the UN mission, and the international community backing it, existed in a parallel dimension, one that he and his countrymen would need to ignore in order to negotiate their path through the real Mali and its infinite complexities. “We have to find our own solution—find the Malian way,” Acharatoumane said. “But, for some actors, it might not be in their interest to let that happen.”

Updated Monday, June 17, at 11:45 a.m. to reflect a June 14, 2019, announcement from foreign-affairs minister Chrystia Freeland and defence minister Harjit Sajjan that Canada will continue to provide UN operations in Mali with medical support until the end of August.

Richard Poplak
Richard Poplak (richardpoplak.com) is a political reporter currently based in Johannesburg, South Africa.