A ‘plug-and-play' approach to peacekeeping lacks the glamour of a full-scale military intervention but it could be a cheaper and a more strategic approach for the EU to deal with the situation in Mali.
The French army has reported victories in Mali almost daily in the past fortnight. It has advanced rapidly, capturing cities in the north that had been in rebel hands for almost a year. It is too early to talk of victory, and a long guerrilla intervention almost certainly lies ahead. Nonetheless, the short, sharp campaign has been a success so far.
Yet for some who would like to see the European Union be a more cohesive military player, it feels rather like a defeat.
In theory, the EU has exactly the military assets needed for this sort of campaign, including a multi-national battle-group deployable within weeks. But Paris never considered this option, turning instead to African nations for reinforcements.
Some European countries are helping. The UK, Belgium, Denmark and Germany have sent transport planes. The UK has also provided surveillance aircraft. EU military advisers will train the Malian army. These are useful contributions, and whipping the Malian forces into shape will be difficult. But, overall, the EU has not seized this crisis with vigour.
Members of the European Parliament have been apoplectic, asking why the EU was unprepared and why it has not authorised a full-scale military response. MEPs might be more circumspect if they had direct responsibility for military deployments. But they should continue to ask two hard strategic questions.
Firstly, does the EU have any real interest in African wars?
For much of the past decade, the answer appeared to be ‘Yes'. The EU deployed two military missions to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2003 and 2006, and a larger operation in Chad and the Central African Republic in 2008. EU military advisers have backed up the African Union in Darfur and Somalia, and the bloc has run a series of small civilian security missions across the continent. The EU also has a small naval force off the coast of Somalia that has done a decent job of suppressing piracy.
For previous EU foreign policy leaders, such as Javier Solana and Chris Patten, it seemed clear that the EU had a special strategic investment in Africa. But there have been increasing challenges to this vision. France pushed too hard to involve the EU in some of its earlier African adventures, alienating significant providers of troops, notably including Germany.
The logic for sending troops to Africa was never clear. Were EU missions humanitarian enterprises? Or trial-runs for more important operations in other regions, like the Middle East? Or merely tools to prop up weak African leaders whom France happened to support?
There is broad consensus that the war in Mali is necessary, but most EU leaders feel that they have already experimented enough militarily in Africa. They also question the results. The EU interventions in the DRC were short-term successes, for example, but the country remains unstable. In 2008, when a rebel offensive threatened to spark chaos, the United Nations asked the EU for military help. But European leaders could not agree a response. Last November, rebels made major advances in the same region. This time, the UN did not bother to ask the EU to send a battle-group.
This leads to the second strategic question: If the EU will not send infantry to Africa in future, does it have good alternatives?
The situation in Mali points to one answer. African countries are offering frontline troops, but they are short of assets such as helicopters, field hospitals, surveillance drones and engineering units. Once the worst of the fighting is over, the UN will probably take over peacekeeping duties. But the UN has similar asset gaps.
EU countries could plug some of those gaps with a relatively light-weight package of military support units. This could be deployed independently, under an EU flag, or as a component of a future UN mission. EU and UN officials have been working on mechanisms for just this sort of ‘plug-and-play' approach to peacekeeping over the past year. This lacks the glamour of a full-scale military intervention. But it could be a cheaper and more strategically suitable approach to the situation in Mali. It is not too late for the EU to show greater military ambition there.