Will the Darfur Peacekeeping Force Succeed?

In a recent commentary piece, WPR Contributing Editor Richard Weitz argued that the hybrid AU-U.N peacekeeping that is in the process of standing up in Darfur is likely to fail in its mission:

Although Western governments sought to secure passage of a strong mandate for UNAMID, the Sudanese government succeeded in watering down the text. To take but one example, although the resolution finally approved on July 31, UNSCR 1769, does reference Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, it lacks a provision requiring disarmament of the Janjaweed militia responsible for some of the worst violence. In addition, the text allows UNAMID peacekeepers to protect civilians and humanitarian relief workers, but not arrest their attackers or seize their weapons.

The Security Council also acceded to Sudanese government demands that the hybrid force remain predominantly African. Unfortunately, while African countries can supply large number of regular ground troops, AU militaries lack the specialized firepower and mobility units that are essential for operating in such a challenging physical environment as Darfur. AU and U.N. military experts have warned that UNAMID is experiencing “critical shortfalls” in such capabilities as trucks, engineers, armored vehicles, and attack as well as transport helicopters.

Without the capabilities and authority to enforce the peace, or to create such a state where none previously existed, then, the U.N.-AU peacekeeping force must count on more than a little cooperation from the combatants. But Weitz argues that the “fragmentation of the previously dominant rebel groups into feuding factions” will undermine the ability of the new hybrid force (UNAMID) to operate, and to form a consensus among warring parties.

Unfortunately, Weitz’s pessimism is supported by recent reporting from Darfur. Swiss journalist Kurt Pelda, whose diary from Darfur WPR is currently publishing, recently observed firsthand how the existing AU peacekeeping force cannot, as Weitz put it, “count on widespread support from parties on the ground.” On day 7 of his diary, Pelda writes of observations he gathered at a roadblock manned by the rebel Sudan Liberation Army:

While Mohammed Abakr and his helpers are changing tires and patching tubes, the traffic passing through the roadblock has picked up considerably. All the traffic consists of vehicles of various rebel factions. One camouflage-painted four-by-four appears to be relatively new. Unlike the usual broken-down vehicles of the rebels, this one has a safari snorkel and a roof rack. Intrigued, I take a closer look: one of the occupants is wearing a green helmet with the letters “AU” on it for the African Union. “SLA-Unity” is written on the side in Arabic. This is a rebel faction that is thought to have been responsible, along with a splinter-group of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), for a recent and deadly attack against AU peacekeeping forces in Haskanita in the Southeast of Darfur. These suspicions have not yet been confirmed, however, by a final AU report on the incident.

This would not be the first time that rebels have attacked African peacekeeping forces and stolen their vehicles. Such attacks are considered to be war crimes. I ask the rebels frequently what they think of the AU. The answer is always the same: the AU troops are not neutral, but rather spy on behalf of Khartoum. When I first arrived at commander Abdallah’s base from Chad, he told me the following: “Wherever AU helicopters or vehicles turn up, there are afterwards attacks by the government troops. The African peacekeepers are traitors. We do not trust them at all. On the other hand, we don’t have any problem with the U.N. Once we had a meeting with representatives of the AU troops in the area here. They arrived in eight pickups. There were Cameroonians, Nigerians, Egyptians and a Libyan. Five minutes before the end of the meeting, we were attacked by nineteen army vehicles. The AU people made themselves scarce.”

Pelda reports that the rebels trust the U.N. more than the AU force. But it’s unlikely that the presence of the U.N. troops alone will be able to overcome the profound cynicism of even the rebel parties, who in the common view of the war are supposed to be the “good guys.” This is to say nothing of the cooperation the U.N. force can expect from the combatants on the government side of the conflict.

The following exchange between Pelda and some rebels, recounted in the day 10 entry of Pelda’s diary, shows that even if the rebels’ cause is a righteous one, they don’t see the conflict in the terms that Western observers, in their justified yearning for peace and for swift conformity to the will of the “international community,” might hope they would. If this exchange is any indication, the rebels are less concerned with international legal norms and peacemaking than with doing what they must to defend themselves and to win the war (the rebel end of the conversation is in bold):

“Our movement urgently needs vehicles and it is difficult to procure them. But the African Union peacekeeping troops have lots of good Toyotas. What do you think about our simply taking them from the AU troops?”

“Attacks on peacekeeping troops are considered to be war crimes. You really don’t want to do that to yourselves.”

“What happens to a war criminal when he gets caught? And who is considered to be a war criminal if we attack the African troops?”

“I am not a specialist in law. But I assume that the commander who gave the order to attack could be charged for war crimes.”

“Charged before the International Criminal Court, the ICC?”

“Yes, I assume so.”

“But then it’s quite simple. We sacrifice one of our commanders to the ICC. That’s a small price to pay for the all the vehicles we need to be able to fight the war.”