France has the upper hand militarily in Mali following a July 13 agreement between Herve Ladsous, United Nations undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations, and Gen. Didier Castres, deputy chief of operations for the French military. The agreement stipulates that French troops can conduct combat operations at will in the African nation.

The French deployment called Operation Serval and a U.N. force are in Mali to stabilize the government and provide security after Tuareg and Islamist militants seized the northern part of the country last year. Two rounds of presidential elections have been held, the most recent on Aug. 11.

The agreement also establishes that if the 6,200 soldiers of the U.N.'s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (Minusma) are threatened and need assistance, French troops will respond. They will use any weapon, including air strikes, and can call up additional troops, whether from Chad, Cote d'Ivoire or France. In addition, French troops will provide Minusma with logistical support.

The need for the agreement became apparent when Minusma deployed in April, leading to a situation where two international forces were operating in one country.

According to intelligence analyst Stratfor, “with this agreement, the U.N. is . . . circumventing its own mandate and rules of engagement by allowing the French to conduct combat operations without [adhering] to the same limitations and constraints of . . . African forces. This unconventional approach likely stems from the fact that the peacekeepers are facing a more complex militant threat than in most . . . operations, compelling them to employ the French to project firepower that U.N. forces . . . cannot [under their mandate].”

France has withdrawn some of the 4,000 troops it deployed to Mali at the height of Operation Serval in February but is maintaining troop strength at 3,200 until all parties accept results from the presidential elections. U.N. forces are responsible for security during stabilization. However, only half of the 11,200 troops that could be deployed are in country.

Stratfor estimates that “at this level, the troops are capable of continuing to secure population centers.” Moreover, attacks by militants in the cities or against security forces throughout the country have not occurred in recent months, the analyst notes, even though tensions between the Malian military and northern Mali's Arab and Tuareg populations pose security threats and jihadists retain an offensive capability.

Since its establishment, Minusma has been implementing its mandate in terms of political offices, electoral support, human rights and support for the restoration of state authority. On July 1, Minusma attained initial operational capability (IOC). Sector headquarters, in Gao and Timbuktu, should soon be operational, with all headquarters staff built up over the next two months.

Ladsous stated in June that Minusma was suffering from capability shortfalls including medium utility helicopters, armed helicopters, intelligence, information operations and special forces. “We count on the continued support of both our traditional and new troop-contributing countries to help fill these critical gaps,” he said.

Providing logistical support to Minusma troops in northern Mali presents “formidable challenges,” Ladsous said, given the harsh desert climate, the state of infrastructure and the vast area. “We must be realistic and understand that not all of these capabilities will be immediately available.”

Ameerah Haq, U.N. undersecretary general for field support, says the immediate priority is Minusma's IOC. Efforts are focused on providing rations to troops, fuel for vehicles and premises for work and living. “Minusma is one of the most logistically challenging missions the U.N. has launched,” she says.

With no functioning power grid in Gao, generators are necessary. Mobile communication systems cannot be deployed to Kidal because sensitive components would melt, she explains. “Information and communication technology, vehicles and refrigeration would be exposed to climatic conditions that expedite their decay.”

Military helicopters provide most air transport since large aircraft cannot use airfields in northern Mali. Most roads, in fact, are little more than sand.

Haq says security is also a challenge because, despite an agreement with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, there are armed groups sworn to attack U.N. forces.