Can Attack Helicopters Save U.N. Peacekeeping?


Does U.N. peacekeeping matter? President Barack Obama believes that it does — and he has advocated the cause more forcefully than any of his predecessors since George H. W. Bush, who once looked to the U.N. to help forge a “new world order.”

The catastrophes of Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia purged that dream forever; but from literally his first day in office, when the United States paid off its outstanding arrears at the U.N., Obama has championed peacekeeping as a low-cost and effective means of policing turbulent places. His administration has spent the last year rounding up fresh commitments from troop-contributing countries; at the U.N. General Assembly session this week, Obama will convene a group of more than 50 heads of state who have made such pledges and will announce them like so many swells at an annual philanthropic dinner.

The one odd feature of this otherwise admirable ritual will be that the United States is not, itself, much of a donor. While the United States is by far the largest donor to peacekeeping operations, paying for 28 percent of the budget, it ranks 74th on the list of troop-contributors, with just 82 military and police officers seconded to peacekeeping operations. (Bangladesh places first with 9,432.) In other realms, including nuclear nonproliferation and climate change, Obama has been quick to recognize that the United States must ante up in order to induce others to do their part. In this case, as American officials are quick to note, the United States is an outsized contributor to global security through its contributions to NATO, its large counterterrorism footprint, and the like. Obama, in short, believes that peacekeeping is good for the United States, but not good for the United States to do.

Other countries apparently have accepted the argument that the United States is already doing its part and have therefore agreed to up their own game. American officials I spoke to said that the pledges to be made at the peacekeeping summit, which will include virtually all European countries as well as major non-European troop contributors, will be specific and substantial — including not just infantry battalions but attack helicopters, transport planes, counter-IED units, hospitals, and over a dozen engineering companies. Some will be made available on a rapid-deployment basis, currently a serious gap in peacekeeping capacity. “These new capabilities can prevent mass killing and ensure that peace agreements are more than words on paper,” said Obama at the U.N. today.

If nations make good on their promises — a very large “if” — “it could really be a sea change for us,” a U.N. peacekeeping official said to me. For years, the U.N. has taken whatever troops it was offered and lived with the consequences, whether fecklessness or even sexual abuse. Now the U.N. may for the first time have surplus capacity. In that case, as an American official points out, “the U.N. will have an opportunity to repatriate the worst performing units” — and to warn contributors in advance that they will do so.

Beyond filling gaps in capacity, the Obama administration is hoping to precipitate a series of changes that will make peacekeeping more predictable and more robust. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, pointed out to me that the U.N. has never had the chance to think about force generation in a forward-looking way. Now, owing to the American initiative, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations has assembled a list of future as well as current operational needs, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has supported a proposal to establish a unit devoted to strategic force generation.

In addition, in May, a group of troop-contributing countries meeting in Rwanda issued the so-called “Kigali Principles” vowing, among other things, “to be prepared to use force to protect civilians, as necessary and consistent with the mandate” and “not to stipulate caveats or other restrictions that prevent us from fulfilling our responsibility to protect civilians in accordance with the mandate.” The U.N. has increasingly been prepared to use force to defend civilians; in 2013, the Security Council broke with a tradition of impartial peacekeeping by authorizing an “intervention brigade” to fight rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo who had been massacring villagers. The Kigali Principles formalize that commitment. They have been endorsed by many African and European nations, though not by the South Asians, who provide the largest number of peacekeepers and are notorious for imposing such “caveats,” which often stipulate that lethal force may be used only for self-defense.

The Crisis Of Peacekeeping

U.N. peacekeeping, by its very nature, is always in crisis, but the crisis is even worse now than usual. Peacekeepers are expected to do far more, in far more difficult places, than they were in the past. The U.N. now fields almost 130,000 uniformed and civilian personnel, up from 75,000 only a decade ago. While once the U.N. could hold to the pretense that it does not do peacekeeping where “there is no peace to keep,” peacekeepers have increasingly been placed in anarchic settings where the objective is less monitoring a shaky peace than “conflict management,” as a June report by the High-Level Independent Panel on U.N. Peace Operations (HIPPO) puts it. Two-thirds of peacekeepers now operate in active conflict areas, including Congo, the Central African Republic, and Burundi.

At the same time, the European forces that once formed the backbone of many tough peacekeeping missions have vanished. The highest-ranking Western troop-contributing country is Italy, which ranks 26th with 1,103 soldiers and police officers, almost all of them in Lebanon. The U.N. can call on tens of thousands of lightly armed African or South Asian peacekeepers but is desperately short of “niche capacities,” including engineering, airlift, medevac, intelligence, and surveillance. In short, the U.N. Security Council is sending peacekeepers into ever more perilous settings and asking them to do more without providing the wherewithal to help them succeed. As the HIPPO report puts it, “there is a clear sense of a widening gap between what is being asked of [U.N.] peace operations today and what they are able to deliver.”

Inside the U.N., there is an overwhelming sense of futility surrounding the vast missions in Congo, Darfur, and particularly in South Sudan — where peacekeepers were sent to help a new nation struggle to its feet and have now been thrust into the middle of a civil war between two rival camps of the government. The available remedies, including the useful technical fixes proposed by the high-level panel — improved training for peacekeepers, more carefully limited mandates, more predictable financing, and the establishment of a modest stand-by capacity for rapid deployment — don’t hold out the prospect for fundamental change. Obama’s pledging conference really is the best news for peacekeeping in years.

But it is important to understand what those new engineering brigades and heavy weapons can and can’t do. What they can do is help peacekeepers protect civilians and themselves and prevent host governments from being overrun by insurgent forces. As a U.N. peacekeeping official puts it, “You can’t deploy into a setting like Mali without being able to see over the horizon or over-the-horizon visibility and protect against IEDs. Otherwise, a lot of peacekeepers are going to get killed or injured.” Both American and U.N. officials say that they now have sufficient pledges to meet current and immediately foreseeable needs — not only for infantry and helicopters but for crucial “niche capacities” like engineering, medical care, and airlift. If true, that’s a big deal.

Is Force Alone Enough?

I’ve been reporting from conflict zones and peacekeeping settings for 15 years. I don’t doubt that robust mandates and well-equipped soldiers make a difference. On a visit to Sierra Leone in 2000, I was very impressed with the spit and polish of the Indian contingent I spent time with — until I returned home and read that they had been taken prisoner by rebels with the Revolutionary United Front. The troops had neither the mandate nor the firepower to fight back. The government might well have fallen had the British not sent 700 paratroopers to Freetown, the nation’s capital. The humiliation marked a turning point for the U.N., which fired the Indian force commander, added new troops, and instructed them to fire on rebels who threatened either them or civilians. The rebellion died out, the government stabilized, and the peacekeepers went home.

Force matters — but only under the right circumstances. I’ve also spent time with Pakistani troops in eastern Congo who were spoiling for a fight with local insurgents and Rwandan ex-génocidaires. In Congo, the U.N. has sometimes rolled over, as when they allowed M23 rebels to take the major city of Goma without interference in 2012, and sometimes fought back, as when the “intervention brigade” defeated M23 the following year. Robust peacekeeping saves lives, but it does not change the underlying situation.

The most important book to be written about peacekeeping in recent years is The Fog of Peace, a memoir by Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the head of the U.N.’s Department of Peacekeeping from 2000 to 2008. Guéhenno writes about Congo at great length and with great sadness. He writes that his hope in dispatching troops there was to “change the political dynamics on the ground” by persuading spoilers that “the commitment of the international community was stronger than they had anticipated.” That never happened, in part because diplomats were unwilling to be as forceful with Congo’s political leaders as the peacekeepers were, at least intermittently, with troublemakers. Guéhenno writes that “military operations became a convenient distraction, which allowed the Security Council to neglect the politics of Congo.” At bottom, Guéhenno concludes, “robust peacekeeping is an empty concept if it is not supported by a robust political posture. The United Nations does not have the capacity to enforce peace.”

Peacekeeping, at best, buys diplomats time and space to cajole, threaten, or bribe domestic political actors into behaving in such a way that enhances their legitimacy in the eyes of citizens — and thus drains support from the insurgents. That has happened in some places, including Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d’Ivoire. It has not happened in Congo, or in South Sudan, where political leaders have conscripted their tribal followers in a brutal battle for supremacy. In these and other settings, writes Richard Gowan, a peacekeeping expert affiliated with the Center on International Cooperation (of which I am a fellow), blue helmets “have to try to defend civilians from precisely the governments and security forces they are meant to partner with.” Gowan argues that the U.N. must be prepared to consider “the nuclear option of withdrawing peacekeeping forces more rapidly in those cases where national leaders grow too confrontational or autocratic.”

Guéhenno’s experience leads him to much the same conclusion, though with an important proviso. Congo might have been best served, he writes, by a withdrawal of peacekeepers, but only if it had been accompanied by “a much earlier and more much more strategic engagement in the politics” of the country. The HIPPO panel, staffed by U.N. insiders, does not recommend any nuclear options. It does, however, endorse Guéhenno’s view that the core capacity of peacekeeping is political, not military. The panel used the term “peace operations” to refer to the entire spectrum of diplomatic, economic, and military engagement, arguing that “the primacy of politics should be the hallmark of the approach of the United Nations to the resolution of conflict.” The panel proposed that peacekeeping missions only be dispatched “in support of political solutions” and offers as many suggestions for beefing up the U.N.’s diplomatic and mediation capacity as for improving military readiness. What the panel did not say is that political failure is not a matter of technique but of will. It’s far easier for the Security Council to send peacekeepers to a trouble spot than to agree to apply pressure on political leaders whom some members of the council invariably view as allies.

Necessary, But Not Sufficient

Samantha Power knows all this. Providing more troops and niche capabilities, she said, “is not sufficient, but it is necessary for a lot of the reforms we need.” And since the kinds of political solutions that make effective peacekeeping possible are not in the offing in many of the most dangerous settings, it’s irresponsible to wait. “Peacekeeping fundamentally deals with symptoms,” she acknowledged. “But we have to deal with the fact that people are dying and getting raped right now.” I can’t argue with that proposition.

Peacekeeping can only deal with symptoms; but a secondary question is whether it can even do that in the kinds of settings that most concern the United States and the West. The scale of the killing and mayhem in the nightmare zones of sub-Saharan Africa — where so much peacekeeping has been concentrated — constitute a pressing moral obligation as well as a genuine, but secondary, national security interest. The United States has good reason to try to stop the Central African Republic from descending into complete anarchy. It has, however, a much more compelling interest in preventing al Qaeda from gaining control over northern Mali. Can robust peacekeeping even work in such places?

Mali is the wild frontier of peacekeeping. After a combination of indigenous rebels and Islamists from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb threatened Bamako, the nation’s capital, in early 2013, France dispatched 4,000 troops, along with fighter jets, to defend its former colony. Once the insurgents had been pushed back into the hinterland, the French forces gave way to MINUSMA, the U.N. peacekeeping mission, staffed with 10,000 uniformed personnel. The former colonial master administering a beating and then handing off to the U.N. was a pattern familiar from Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, and other ex-colonies. But because the terrorist presence made Mali a threat in the way that those settings had not been, MINUSMA includes over 1,000 soldiers from 14 European countries, chief among them the Netherlands and Sweden. Mali is thus both a test of whether U.N. peacekeeping can work in a setting that includes Islamic terrorists as well as local insurgents, and whether the new European commitment to peacekeeping that Obama has encouraged can make a significant difference in a place that matters greatly to the West.

For the moment, MINUSMA is teetering between survival and disaster. Peacekeepers have been killed by IEDs and by coordinated suicide bombings. Better equipment and technology would certainly help. Peacekeepers in open-bed pickups are sitting ducks for ambushes; up-armored vehicles and counter-IED technology would save lives and raise morale. However, so long as North Africa remains a breeding ground for al Qaeda, and perhaps the Islamic State, the peacekeepers in Mali will find themselves fighting an enemy far better armed and more dangerous than the M23 rebels — and also willing to die rather than compromise. Mali still may be a bridge too far.

Counterterrorism And Blue Helmets

The HIPPO panel bluntly concluded that U.N. peacekeepers “lack the specific equipment, intelligence, logistics, capabilities and specialized military preparation required” for military counterterrorism operations and should not be asked to undertake them. That may be slightly too categorical a distinction. Any imaginable mission in the Middle Eastern or North African conflict zones that pose the greatest threat to the West will involve, as it has in Mali, confrontation with terrorists as well as with the usual insurgents. In practice, it will prove impossible to limit the U.N. to more conventional peacekeeping efforts while assigning the counterterrorism work to someone else.

The U.N. may have to face the question of what role it can play in the fight against Islamic terrorism, sooner rather than later. What will happen in Libya if the peace agreement forged by U.N. mediator Bernardino León actually holds and both sides look to an outside force to police the agreement? Or Yemen? Or even Syria?

The answer may be that as the ratio of Islamic extremists to indigenous insurgents goes up, the utility of U.N. peacekeeping goes down. When I asked Samantha Power what kind of force she could envision in a setting like Libya, she suggested a multinational coalition or regional force; one possible model would be the African Union force (logistically supported by the U.N.) that now patrols Somalia — another setting in which counterterrorism operations are a priority. The U.N. Security Council would authorize a non-U.N. force — though one wonders who would volunteer to go. The Arab League has announced that it will form a joint military force to intervene in neighboring states wracked by insurgency. Right now, however, a coalition of Arab armies are busy making war in Yemen. Peacemaking may not be their métier.

Like counterinsurgency and other refinements of violence, peacekeeping looks better from far away than it does from close up. It sounds antiseptic and sometimes feels heroic, but it’s mostly a desperate form of coping. We no longer believe in a new world order. We are stuck with the one we have, with its collapsing states, rising extremism, and geopolitical friction. In that terribly fallen world, it is absolutely true, as Samantha Power says, we cannot wait for the light of reason to dawn. President Obama deserves credit for doing what he can to strengthen this frail instrument. But we have to remind ourselves that force rarely solves problems and sometimes makes them worse. We resort to it so often because we lack the will, and the understanding, to cure the diseases that plague nations.

This article was originally published by Foreign Policy on September 28, 2015

James Traub is a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation. “Terms of Engagement,” his column for, runs weekly. | Twitter:  @JamesTraub1

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