What do you see when you look at the Central African Republic (CAR)? The crisis in the previously largely unknown former French colony is becoming a Rorschach test for international policymakers. Few would deny that the CAR
has endured a hellish breakdown of basic order
that has claimed at least 2,000 lives and forced a quarter of the country’s 4 million citizens from their homes.
But is this simply a humanitarian disaster that needs to be stopped through rapid military action? Or is it a case of a failed state that demands a long-term effort to rebuild the government’s capacity and get economic life going again? Or could it morph into the next Somalia or Yemen, an unexpected front in the war with radical Islamists?
These questions, redolent of undergraduate seminars on international affairs, have been heard quite frequently in debates among diplomats and international officials over the past two months. Almost all admit that the CAR has never been a priority for them before. Even France, deeply invested in crises in other ex-colonies like Mali and Syria, paid the CAR little attention until it slumped into all-out violence late last year. As I have previously noted
, French President Francois Hollande specifically ruled out sending troops to assist the former government when rebel forces advanced on the capital Bangui at the start of 2013.
At that moment, the CAR looked like just one more Francophone African country locked in a cycle of coups and revolts. Look up the country’s post-colonial history on Wikipedia
, which quite a few diplomats have had to do recently, and you’ll find it punctuated by violent transfers of power. There was the Bokassa coup (1966), the Dacko countercoup (1979), the Kolingba coup (1981) and so on, with a brief pause for imperfect elections in 1993, until last year’s occupation of largely Christian Bangui by the Muslim Seleka militia from the north.
Had France sent in troops to stabilize the situation and impose a political deal then, they might have succeeded. Although reports of violence mounted through last year, officials in Paris probably thought that they could quell the crisis quickly if they absolutely had to. Pessimistic analysts had, after all, predicted that the intervention in Mali would be a quagmire, but the French quickly gained the initiative there.
When Hollande announced Operation Sangaris last December, his advisers seemed optimistic that it would be straightforward. “It’s not a war mission like Mali,” a French official told Reuters
. “There may not even be a fight.” This prediction has proved half-right. France and the African countries that have also deployed to the CAR are not fighting a classic war or even an Iraq-style counterinsurgency. Instead they find themselves facing small-scale violence that is endemic, brutally crude and unexpectedly hard to quash.
This Sunday, for example, French and African troops scored an apparently easy success in the town of Sibut to the northeast of Bangui. A “heavily armed” group of Seleka fighters fled the town as the international forces approached. But before the peacekeepers arrived, as Associated Press reported, there was “systematic pillaging” and a bout of violence against Muslim civilians
. This parallels the situation in Bangui, where French and African patrols have repeatedly had to respond to upsurges in violence. In many cases, it seems hard to tell whether the violence is sectarian or simply unconstrained criminality.
These distinctions matter. Since 9/11, international policymakers have tended to divide fragile states into two categories. There are chaotic places like Haiti and Liberia that deserve help on humanitarian grounds. Then there are those like Somalia and Syria that have the potential to be the “next Afghanistan,” shorthand for a potential safe haven for al-Qaida-affiliated groups or others with similar goals. Mali falls squarely into the latter category. It is distinctly harder to place the CAR.
Many Western observers still view the CAR as a larger and less manageable version of Haiti. They see its descent into violence as the inevitable result of prolonged poverty and neglect. But they do not believe it is a future Islamist haven. Many of these skeptics, including American and British officials, were originally opposed to much serious engagement at all. They have since partially relented. American Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power visited the country in December
.* Britain has also taken the situation more seriously. As I discussed last week
, the European Union has rallied behind France over the crisis, promising to send soldiers to help it secure the airport in Bangui.
But while Washington and London may now concur that the CAR deserves attention, this does not mean that officials in either capital want to get involved in rebuilding the country. They question if this is truly possible and would rather concentrate on alleviating the current horror and then seeing what, if anything can be done to prevent its recurrence. South Sudan, Somalia and Syria will also demand more resources over the year ahead. By contrast, French diplomats and U.N. officials believe that the CAR presents a longer-term threat.
It’s known that Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist group, has already looked for footholds
in the CAR. In a worst-case scenario, agents of al-Qaida and Somalia’s al-Shabab could infiltrate the country and exploit the current grass-roots divisions between Christians and Muslims. The CAR could be the next Afghanistan after all. To counter this nightmare, Paris is looking for a long-term stabilization strategy, starting with a U.N. force
of up to 10,000 troops to bring the country under control. On this basis, it might be possible to solidify some sort of viable state and keep the Islamists at arm’s length.
In the months ahead, the minimalist and maximalist camps are likely to battle over plans for the CAR’s future. The likeliest outcome is a mid-sized international presence in the CAR that will be sufficient to prevent its complete collapse but not enough to restore it to full order. Perhaps this is all we can hope for: It’s not clear that even 10,000 U.N. troops could completely halt the sort of pernicious, murderous violence that now infects the country. Equally, a mission of this type might not be equipped to tackle the transnational threats from Boko Haram and al-Shabab that could escalate a broader crisis.
But at the very least, a hefty U.N. military deployment can test how menacing the situation in the CAR actually is. It’s possible that a larger international force could stem the lower-level criminality that fuels the crisis, but the truth is that we won’t know how to deal with the CAR until we really understand what is happening there. Until then, we should start to experiment with the few crisis management options we do have before it’s too late.
* Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Samantha Power visited the Central African Republic in January; her trip was in December.
Richard Gowan is the associate director for Crisis Management and Peace Operations at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His weekly column for World Politics Review, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.