Saving Darfur

It hasn’t quite reached the levels of ferocity seen between Alex van der Waal and John Prendergast last year, but there’s been lively debate under way at the Guardian’s Comment is Free site about Darfur and the role of peacekeepers.

It opened with Julie Flint, co-author of Darfur: A New History of a Long War, posting that the attack on Khartoum by rebels of the Justice and Equality Movement showed that there was little for the $2bn UN-AU peacekeeping other than pack its bags and go home.

The uselessness of the peacekeeping force for Darfur, Unamid, had been prefigured a week earlier when a single government plane bombed the North Darfur village of Shigeg Karo, hunting JEM’s men as they set out. But the rebels had already passed through the village and the attack killed civilians, many of them children. It took Unamid four days to reach Shigeg Karo. It called this “rapid”.

Flint’s point is that she told us so. Before its deployment, anyone who knew anything about Darfur was saying that the 26,000-strong force (once it is fully deployed) would do little to bring peace to Darfur. With no peace deal to keep the splintering rebel factions, Janjaweed fighters and government troops from each other’s throats there would be little chance of stability.

Who would want to be General Martin Aqwai, the Nigerian commander of the Unamid force? He manages to make a robust defence of his men, pointing out that they still only have about 10,000 of the 26,000 police and soldiers they need, and none of the 24 attack helicopters. But then he goes on to agree with Flint’s main point:

In the absence of a comprehensive agreement between the Sudanese government and the rebel movements – which we continue to push for – the truth is that there is no peace in Darfur for Unamid to keep.

So how did we get to this point? Flint turns her fire on the advocacy groups – many based in the US – who dominate the debate.

The powerful activist lobbies which demanded troops – first from Nato; then, when Nato demurred, from the UN – should be asking themselves whether their energies were well spent.

Eric Reeves is one of the leading thinkers among Darfur activists, providing reams of analysis and pushing the interventionist agenda. As far as he is concerned the absence of a peace deal does not make peacekeepers redundant. Instead their role is to protect the camps and aid workers to ensure the humanitarian mission to Darfur can continue to operate in difficult circumstances.

We might debate about what prevents UNAMID from becoming more effective, or whether it would be adequate to keep any peace that might be negotiated in the future; I would be dismayed if we could not agree that the international community must provide as much security as possible—even in the face of variable and very considerable risks. This may not be peacekeeping in any historically recognizable form, but with so many lives at risk, I believe we need to broaden the discussion of how the military resources of the international community are used.

As Flint points out though, the Unamid deployment was always tasked with mission impossible. Now it seems the interventionists are having to rethink their justification for sending in a military force. And General Agwai has to wonder how best to protect his men. This week the first of his peacekeepers was killed.