MISSIONS; COMMENT Series: 1/5

By Power, Samantha | The New Yorker, November 28, 2005 | Go to article overview

MISSIONS; COMMENT Series: 1/5


Power, Samantha, The New Yorker


For the past two and a half years, the Arab-dominated government of Sudan has teamed up with sword-wielding marauders on horses and camels, known as janjaweed, to butcher, rape, and expel non-Arabs living in the western region of Darfur. In May of 2004, the United States, Europe, and Africa settled on an imperfect solution for stabilizing the region: send in the African Union. The A.U. accordingly dispatched sixty unarmed observers and three hundred "green helmet" soldiers to monitor a ceasefire between the government and the non-Arab rebels who were fighting it.

What followed was a textbook example of "mission creep." The ceasefire collapsed, the Sudanese Air Force and the janjaweed continued their deadly raids, thousands more non-Arabs were killed, and the rebels began to splinter into rivalrous groups. In response, in October of 2004, the A.U. sent in an additional three thousand observers and soldiers. When that didn't stem the violence, it sent more troops. By this month, more than two hundred thousand people had died and two million had been displaced, and the operation had come to include almost seven thousand people: some forty international staff; seven hundred military observers; twelve hundred civilian police; and nearly five thousand soldiers, mainly from Nigeria and Rwanda.

Initially, the African Union, the Western powers, the government of Sudan, and the United Nations all seemed to benefit from the arrangement. The A.U., which had been launched in 2002 to provide "African solutions to African problems," capitalized on the West's guilt over the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and received nearly half a billion dollars for the Darfur mission. (Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's President, later said, with typical bravado, that Darfur is "an African responsibility, and we can do it.") The Western powers could claim that something noble was being done in Sudan without having to risk their own troops. The U.S., in particular, could appease noisy Darfur advocates at home--students, Christian activists, members of Congress--while forging closer counter-terrorism ties with Sudan. And the U.N., which is struggling to manage sixteen peacekeeping operations around the world, could avoid being handed yet another doomed mission.

The presence of A.U. forces undoubtedly made Darfur more stable. But that is no more consoling than Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's claims that America treats its detainees better than Saddam Hussein treated his. Darfur remains overrun with violence and banditry. On October 8th, four Nigerian A.U. soldiers and two contractors were killed by the janjaweed. The next day, eighteen A.U. peacekeepers were kidnapped by rebels, and, when a rescue mission of twenty A.U. soldiers was dispatched, it, too, was abducted--by a rival rebel faction. (They were all later released.) Just before Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick made his fourth trip to Darfur, earlier this month, fifteen hundred men allegedly torched six villages. West Darfur is so dangerous that the U.N. has withdrawn its nonessential staff. Antonio Guterres, the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Refugees, has warned of "a very serious degeneration" in Darfur, saying, "People are dying, and dying in large numbers."

The A.U. mission is clearly overwhelmed. Its teams, spread out across an area the size of France, manage at most three patrols per day in various sectors of the region, and African countries are hardly eager to send more soldiers. …

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