The United Nations Security Council is expected next week to renew the mandate of its peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA.
Often dubbed the UN's most "dangerous mission", MINUSMA will enter its eighth year at the centre of a multilayered and complicated conflict that has spread across the Sahel, a semi-arid region directly south of the Sahara desert in northwestern and central Africa.
Its challenges are myriad: a volatile environment that often proves deadly for UN forces, restricts peace-building initiatives and keeps the mission on a defensive footing; an inconsistent Malian ruling class; and a shifting and complex crisis that has exploded in the centre of the country that lacks an adequate framework for resolution.
Despite such obstacles, Security Council members have not yet been able to deny that the 15,000-strong mission, which includes 13,000 peacekeepers, is a necessity in a country considered the epicentre of the wider security crisis in the region, said Paul Melly, a consulting fellow at Chatham House's Africa Programme.
"However difficult the track record, however troubling the situation, however slow the pace of progress, where there is any, when the Security Council is confronted with the actual reality of the situation on the ground, they come to the conclusion that there is no alternative," he said.
"MINUSMA needs to be there."
The mission has become "life support" for a Malian state teetering on the edge, providing critical infrastructure, in particular air transportation, for a government that has largely retreated from large swaths of the country, said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"I think that without MINUSMA, for as dire and desperate as the situation in Mali is, it would slide even further down into instability, unrest and un-governability," he said.
"The most generous thing we can say about MINUSMA is that it slows Mali's slide ... But Mali continues to devolve and worsen despite MINUSMA's presence."
Mali's crisis was triggered in 2012 when ethnic Taureg separatists, allied with fighters from an al-Qaeda offshoot, launched a rebellion that took control of Mali's north. But the armed group fighters swiftly pushed over the Tuareg rebels and seized key northern cities until they were driven out in early 2013 by French troops, together with Malian forces and soldiers from other African countries under the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) banner.
On April 25, 2013, the UNSC established MINUSMA, or the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission, which took over operations from AFISMA in July 2013.
MINUSMA's strategic priority first focused on the sprawling north, a flat and unforgiving desert and semi-desert area about the size of Afghanistan. Its mandate included protecting civilians, aiding in implementing a 2015 peace agreement between the government and some separatist groups in the north, helping to re-establish the state authority and building the security sector, which was and continues to be largely absent in some regions.
The mission is also charged with monitoring human rights abuses by armed groups and the array of security forces operating in the country, a tenuous role, at times, since MINUSMA works in cooperation with many of those forces.
In 2018, the mission began to shift focus to Mali's hot semi-arid centre as the situation there began to devolve drastically. A year later, MINUSMA added a second strategic priority that includes helping the Malian government restore stability in central Mali, while also protecting civilians, helping to restore the presence of the state and promoting political peace initiatives.
In this region, various armed groups - including Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), an offshoot of al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State of Greater Sahara, an ISIL (ISIS) affiliate - have been jockeying for control while exploiting poverty and inflaming tensions between ethnic groups, notably Fulani herdsmen and Dogon farmers. Those communities have already been pushed to a breaking point as climate change stifles resources in a land where the dry season is long and rainfall unreliable.
Attacks in Mali have spread into neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso and grew fivefold between 2016 and 2020, with 4,000 people killed in 2019, up from about 770 killed in 2016, according to the UN. This year, the unrest including armed group attacks and intercommunity violence has so far killed 580 civilians just in central Mali.
Meanwhile, the number of people forced to leave their homes due to the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the region has surged from about 600,000 internally displaced people recorded in May 2010 to 1.5 million by April 2020.
The evolving situation, and the increase in violence perpetrated by "jihadist" armed groups in central Mali, as opposed to the northern rebel separatist groups, has created a unique position for the UN mission, said Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, a senior Sahel analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG).
"MINSUMA is not a force that does counterterrorism," he said. "However, it collaborates with other forces that operate on the ground ... So it is not unengaged in the counterterrorism arena, even though it does not engage directly in it."
MINUSMA's expected renewal signifies a temporary truce between the United States and France, both permanent UNSC members and veto-power holders, analysts say.
The US, citing the security deterioration in recent years, has repeatedly called for a "major drawdown" in the mission and that it be repurposed with the sole aim of protecting civilians.
Meanwhile, France, which has taken the most active military role of any foreign power in its former colony since its 2013 intervention, sees MINUSMA as an essential component of a broad coalition of forces currently attempting to root out armed groups.
The forces operating in the Sahel include France's Operation Barkhane, whose roughly 5,000 troops are largely based in the north and east of the country; the internationally supported G5 Sahel Joint Force, which is mostly composed of troops from neighbo