The United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a resolution on Thursday that will send thousands of African troops into the desert nation of Mali to help oust Islamist extremists who have turned its northern half into a vast Qaeda enclave and training ground, menacing the stability of neighboring states and posing a potent new international terrorism threat.
But the resolution also makes it clear that such a military intervention will not happen until Mali's own dysfunctional army is adequately trained and a framework for political stability and elections is restored in the country, which has been in turmoil since a military coup in March.
The resolution, which was sponsored by France, the former colonial power in Mali, does not specify a time frame for the first deployment of foreign troops, to be supplied by a group of West African nations that are eager to see calm restored in Mali. United Nations officials and diplomats who worked on the resolution said that a 3,300-soldier force would be sent, and that any attempt to drive the Islamists from northern Mali would not happen before September or October at the earliest.
The resolution does not explain precisely how the military expedition, which is to last for an initial period of one year, will be financed, although diplomats said they expected the cost to exceed $200 million. The resolution calls for voluntary contributions from member states into a trust fund to be created by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Despite the caveats, the Security Council's vote authorizing military force, which it is empowered to do by the United Nations Charter, represented a rare moment of decisive unanimity among its 15 member states and in particular its 5 permanent members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- in a year punctuated by bitter disagreements, mostly over the Syrian conflict.
"Following the vote, Timan Hubert Coulibaly, Mali's Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, described the resolution as an "historic step that affirmed the international community's commitment to fighting terrorism and organized crime," reported Al Arabiya. UN Security Council President Mohammed Loulichki of Morocco also described as "historic" the adoption of the resolution.
Everyone knows the complexity of the task facing the international community to restore the territorial integrity of Mali and to put an end to terrorist activities in the north of the country," Gérard Araud, France's ambassador, told reporters after the vote. The resolution, he said, "provides a reasonable answer."
Ideally, Mr. Araud said, the mere threat of military intervention would persuade Islamist militia leaders to negotiate a peaceful restoration of control by Mali's central government. "It is premature to indicate when the military operation will take place," he said. "In fact, the question is even whether the military operation will take place. Our goal would be to have a real political process which will allow the Malian Army to go back to its barracks in the northern part of the country without fighting."
The final version of the resolution reflected what diplomats called some compromises between France and the United States, which had been skeptical that the Malian Army could be made capable of participating in a potentially long and violent struggle to retake the country's northern area, roughly twice the size of Germany.
The resolution specifies that the European Union will be responsible for training the Malian forces, described as "vital to ensure Mali's long-term security and stability." It also specifies that the secretary general must regularly inform the Council on political and military-training progress, and "confirm in advance the Council's satisfaction with the planned military offensive operation."
Language was also included specifically intended to guard against human rights abuses by the Malian military in any operation in the north, where ethnic tensions linked to the occupation by Islamist militants are known to be on the rise. A report released Thursday by Human Rights Watch enumerated instances of abuses in Mali committed by security forces and others since the military coup.
Tens of thousands of Malians have fled the north since Islamist militias seized control there after the coup, which left a power vacuum that has yet to be resolved. Just last week, military generals forced the resignation of Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, in office since April.
The principal Islamist militia, known as Ansar Dine, or Defenders of the Faith, has imposed harsh Shariah law based on strict Islamic tenets and enforced it with public killings, stonings and amputations. The group has also welcomed Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the affiliate of Al Qaeda in northern Africa, which has recruited child soldiers, established training camps and reached out to other militant Islamist organizations, including Boko Haram, a particularly violent group in northern Nigeria.
Rights activists monitoring the Mali crisis had a mixed reaction to the Security Council resolution. While they welcomed action against abuses by the Islamists, some expressed concern that the Malian Army, humiliated by the loss of half the country, would be bent on revenge.
Michael Quinn, country director of the aid group Oxfam in Mali, said the Security Council "must make sure that any military planning includes humanitarian consideration to minimize harm to civilians at all stages."