Ireland went to war twice this week. One of these conflicts – the one that dominated public discussion – was a running joke. The idea that diplomatic tensions with Scotland over fishing rights near a remote clump of rock in the Atlantic might escalate into all-out conflict was a fittingly preposterous response to that daft little standoff. But the other, much less talked-about, conflict is all too real. After Tuesday's Cabinet meeting, the Government quietly announced that it plans to send about a dozen members of the Army Ranger Wing – the State's special forces – to Mali to join a counter-terrorism operation widely regarded as the most dangerous United Nations mission in the world. I use quietly advisedly: oddly, given the stakes involved, no Government Minister has since said a word in public to explain why it took the decision.
The UN force, known by its acronym Minusma, is made up of more than 15,000 military and police personnel from 50 countries. With an annual budget of $1 billion and covering a vast swathe of largely lawless desert in the Sahel, it is the third biggest ongoing UN peacekeeping operation. It's also the deadliest: in the past five years, 177 peacekeepers have been killed, including 16 so far this year, by gun attacks, homemade car bombs and improvised explosive devices.
The UN mission in Mali has its origins in the turmoil of 2012, when a Tuareg separatist uprising against the state was exploited by Islamist extremists allied to al-Qaeda who took key cities in the desert north and threatened to sweep south towards the capital, Bamako. The prospect of Islamist fighters taking control of a key strategic corridor between sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean spooked the West, prompting France to intervene with a large air and land force that halted the militants' advance. But while they were dispersed, they were not defeated.
An 11,000-strong UN mission arrived in 2013 with the task of protecting a fragile peace deal and training the Malian army. But Islamist factions were regrouping and spreading across the region. Before long their guerrilla war had a new target: the peacekeepers.
For the UN, which found itself hopelessly unprepared for the situation it would face on the ground, Mali has evolved into a new type of mission – one that more closely resembles the counter-insurgency war in Afghanistan than the ceasefire-monitoring missions Irish troops have traditionally joined. For the first time, a big UN peacekeeping mission has been tasked with helping a state retake control over territory controlled by terrorist groups. Minusma's mandate empowers it to engage in "direct operations", including joint operations with the Malian military, and is supported by advanced hardware such as short-range drones and attack helicopters.
To defenders of the Mali mission, this is merely a sign of how modern conflict has changed; an organisation founded in the postwar years must adapt to meet the threat posed by transnational terrorism. Critics baulk at the idea of a more aggressive counter-terrorism mandate, however, arguing that it breaches the peacekeepers’ principle of impartiality and makes it harder for the UN to cast itself as a mediator elsewhere.
Debate rages over whether the mission’s offensive character means the UN is “a party to the conflict” (the International Committee of the Red Cross believes so). The legal implications of UN peacekeepers losing their non-combatant status could be far-reaching. (Ireland already has a small number of troops in Mali on a non-combat training missions.)
None of these questions has received much airing in Ireland this week. Perhaps the Government has weighed them up. Perhaps it has come to the right decision. Granted, more information will emerge when the decision goes to the Dáil for debate and a vote under the triple-lock system.
But the Government seems remarkably reticent about explaining the thinking behind a decision it has already taken. The news was announced this week at an off-record media briefing. No press release issued from the Government Information Service, the Department of Defence or the Defence Forces, and the only official comments have come via unattributed background briefings for which nobody can be held accountable.
Minister for Defence – and Taoiseach – Leo Varadkar referred to the decision in passing in the Dáil this week, but only to observe aloud, in the context of persistent criticism of Government neglect of the Defence Forces, that it "very much welcomed" the Cabinet's decision.
The move also suits the Government politically: France, a key player in the Brexit process, specifically appealed to European governments this week to send special forces to Mali to help contain a recent rise in attacks. And at a time when Ireland is intensifying its campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021-2022, the deployment provides a useful sign of solidarity not only with Mali but with the whole of francophone west Africa, which supplies the largest contingents of troops to Minusma – and where Ireland, without a single embassy, has a shallow diplomatic footprint.