Ulf Laessing was shocked when he arrived in Gao in north-east Mali. The head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation's Sahel regional program is crisis-tested and used to work as a Reuters journalist in conflict regions. But how quickly the number of internally displaced persons in the city on the edge of the Sahara has recently increased surprised even him.
"There are now well over 100,000, some observers assume 200,000 living in camps on the outskirts of the city," says Laessing. "Many new ones are added every day." After the French pulled out of the West African country a year ago, terrorist organizations with ties to the Islamic State were on the rise. "Whole parts of the country have recently been depopulated, villages burned down and people chased away," says the Mali expert. "The only port of call is Gao, which is considered reasonably safe."
This has a lot to do with the UN mission Minusma, in the context of which almost 1,200 Bundeswehr soldiers are stationed in Gao. Yet. In November, the federal government decided to withdraw the German soldiers in an orderly manner by May 2024. It was a compromise: Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock had advocated a permanent continuation of the mission. Without Minusma, the Greens argued, Mali would slide into chaos in the foreseeable future.
Former Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD), on the other hand, feared for the safety of her troops. She wanted to get out of the operation as quickly as possible - and pointed out that Mali's military junta was no longer interested in German involvement and had decided to cooperate with Russian Wagner mercenaries. The Bundeswehr's order to support Minusma with reconnaissance and logistical capabilities can no longer be fulfilled.
Developments to date prove both are right. The zones in which Mali's army operates in conjunction with the estimated 800 to 1,000 Wagner mercenaries may not be entered or flown over by the Minusma troops. Permissions from Mali's generals are required even for simple patrols, and flights with the medical evacuation aircraft "MedEvac" have recently been banned within Mali.
And the drones, which are central to the Bundeswehr's reconnaissance work and self-protection, have not been allowed to take off since October. There are still no flight permits for the use of the Heron 1, Luna, Aladin and Mikado systems, according to a confidential briefing by the federal government for the Bundestag on January 25. "Despite intensive efforts by Minusma and German authorities, a normalization of operations is still not foreseeable," says the letter available to WELT with encapsulated frustration.
The new Defense Minister Boris Pistorius (SPD) therefore wants to withdraw from Mali faster than by May 2024. After a visit to the Operations Command in Potsdam, he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that under the current conditions, continuing the mission made “no sense at all”. Without the use of drones, the mission is a "waste of money and time".
Nothing will change in the foreseeable future. The Malian Ministry of Foreign Affairs made it clear in a January 25 statement that permits to fly would only be granted if “the information and data collected by the mission’s drones were shared with the Malian authorities.” That's an unacceptable condition for the federal government because it meant the Bundeswehr would act as henchmen for the Russian Wagner mercenaries -- a force accused by UN Human Rights Council advisers of executions, torture, rape and other atrocities.
The Malian junta is constantly expanding its cooperation with Russia, which began in 2021. It was not until mid-January that the Kremlin delivered eight more planes and helicopters for troop transport and close air support. The footage is outdated, which hasn't stopped Mali's air force chief Alou Boi Diarra from hailing the modernization of its air force as "unprecedented." However, the operational successes are not forthcoming. The number of Islamist terrorist attacks is increasing, and recently there have also been an increasing number of smaller attacks in the previously safer south of the country, not far from the capital Bamako. The Wagner Group is far from generating the success that Mali's generals are publicly propagating.
Meanwhile, Moscow is expanding its influence not only in Mali, but also in neighboring Burkina Faso. On January 18, the regime there asked the French troops to leave the country within a month - and then to rely on Russia. Burkina Faso is more populous than Mali and is closer to the Atlantic coast. For the terrorists it is a possible gateway to the center of the Sahel - and for expansion into the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Togo.
There is no apparent strategy by the Federal Government and the UN to react to this. You play for time. The Minusma task force hopes that Germany, with its largest western contingent of troops from the UN mission, will not withdraw before May 2024. "There is concern that without the Bundeswehr, the Minusma mission will be fundamentally weakened," says Ulf Laessing. “Gao would probably not be safe anymore. And many internally displaced people will then be more likely to seek refuge in neighboring countries such as Algeria or Niger.”
1200 German soldiers who can hardly leave their camp will hardly change anything. In May, the federal government will have to show its colors before the decision to extend the mandate by one year will be made. In its compromise in November, the traffic light coalition made its willingness to do so subject to the condition that the safety of its own soldiers had to be guaranteed.
Without drone flights, Pistorius apparently does not see this condition as fulfilled. Baerbock's foreign office left a corresponding WELT request unanswered. Leading traffic light MPs such as Agnieszka Brugger (Greens) and Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (FDP) recently made it clear that they see no reason to change the May 2024 withdrawal date. The problems described in Parliament's regular briefings over the past four months are therefore being ignored. It is possible that on-site appointments by German politicians will change that. Eva Högl (SPD), the Bundestag Commissioner for the Armed Forces, Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) and the new Bundeswehr Chief Pistorius have announced visits.