- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2000

Events in Sierra Leone show that once again the extreme volatility, difficulty and danger involved in international efforts to bring peace to fractured states.

Such efforts should not be abandoned but should only be pursued with much greater realism: understanding the situation on the ground, establishing achievable objectives and mobilizing resources required to achieve them.

Unfortunately, in Sierra Leone the U.N. secretary general and the U.N. Security Council, including the United States, forgot these lessons they had seemed to learn (the hard way) from past peacekeeping disasters. The Congo may be next.

Too often, in the past decade, we have seen this major mismatch between idealistic ends and inadequate means with results that have compounded the tragic problems they were meant to solve. Postulating objectives such as multiethnic democracy for the former Yugoslavia means that forces must remain indefinitely rather than the single year announced after the Dayton accords. Proposing to stop violent persecution of minorities around the world by humanitarian intervention implies U.S. and/or U.N. forces will be present in scores of countries for long periods. And recklessly underestimating the danger means needlessly putting troops at risk.

The United Nations has published detailed, self-critical reports on how and why its over-matched, undersupported peacekeepers were captured, killed and overrun in Bosnia and Rwanda, unable to protect civilians from massacre and ultimately forced to withdraw in failure. In Somalia, a similar pattern was followed when both United Nations and U.S. forces were withdrawn after being surprised by poorly armed but less inhibited, dedicated gunmen. As a result in 1994, the United Nations reassessed Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's wildly ambitious Agenda for Peace, and the Clinton administration scaled back its own equally ambitious ideas of assertive multilateralism (to the point where the U.S. failed to respond to the genocide in Rwanda).

For difficult, larger operations, the secretary general and the Security Council, led by the U.S., shifted to the subcontracting approach used effectively by the Bush administration in Somalia. In December 1992, it mobilized, with United Nations blessing, a Multi-National Force (MNF) which gained and maintained security in an unstable, dangerous environment, carrying out its limited humanitarian mission successfully and minimizing casualties to itself and to Somalia's people. Irrespective of the unrealistic political objectives, this security formula worked well in Haiti in 1994 where the U.S.-led multinational force was able to deter or easily defeat any challenge and hand over peacefully to the U.N. force. It is working in Bosnia where a NATO multinational force replaced the U.N. force (from which the United States was absent), and in Kosovo. It also has worked in East Timor where Australia took the lead of a multinational force with other contingents from Asia (and the U.S.) before giving way to a U.N. force.

Mistakes of the past have somehow been repeated with Sierra Leone. Once again, an unprepared, underarmed, disparate U.N. force with weak Rules of Engagement (ROE) was sent into what was well known in advance to be a volatile, dangerous situation. It was a place where agreements made were almost never kept and where the collection of fierce fighters loosely grouped under Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) label controlled the diamond areas, with no incentives to cooperate and no command structure to oblige them to do so. Moreover, the political objective was unclear, given Mr. Sankoh's peculiar position. The highly touted Lome agreement and his ostensible cooperation which the U.S. worked so hard to obtain, at the cost of abandoning its policy that justice must be done to war criminals had no credibility from the outset and even less when RUF's fighters predictably refused to disarm.

Yet, the Security Council and the secretary general went ahead, seemingly heedless of the evident danger, to deploy units of a U.N. force piecemeal before several of the large elements had arrived, despite the fact they had never trained together and lacked credible command, control, communications and intelligence key functions for success in any situation.

The U.N. units immediately ran into the same sort of ambushes as had Nigerians in Sierra Leone and unprepared peacekeepers in other operations (e.g. Cambodia, Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda).

The powerful United States political push provided in January by Vice President Al Gore's call in the Security Council for reassertive multilateralism and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke's active follow-up contributed substantially to this latest tragedy for Sierra Leone and embarrassment for the United Nations. But, a collective guilty conscience on the part of the U.S., the secretary general and the Security Council over Rwanda cannot be a substitute for a hardheaded assessment of realities on the ground.

Any peace operation ,whether U.N. or multinational force and no matter the objective, must have the capability to achieve dominance from the outset rather than get into trouble and then call for a more muscular rapid reaction force, as did the U.N. in Bosnia. Fortunately, the United Kingsom responded at once with an airborne battalion, plus ships and marines, to protect British citizens and, incidentally, secure Freetown and the airport, allowing the beleaguered U.N. force to regroup and reinforce. The U.S. offered airlift at several times the commercial rate.

Looking past Sierra Leone to the much more politically difficult and militarily dangerous situation in the Congo (30 times as large, 10 times as populous), it is evident that the U.N. Mission for the Congo (UNMOC) will certainly meet the same fate if it should be deployed as presently structured. As in Sierra Leone (or Somalia), there is no reason to believe the combatants can or care to make good on promises to stop fighting, disarm, reconcile politically, etc. The well-armed, genocidal Interham we share in benefits from the Congo's diamonds, have no place to go and no reason not to fight; while the equally well-armed, suicidal Congolese MaiMai also have no incentive to disarm. These and other uninhibited gunmen, with or without orders from nominal commanders, can be expected to treat an even smaller, weaker U.N. force at least as ferociously as the RUF fighters.

We have seen that a militarily robust multinational force (MNF) with good political preparation is a proven model. A properly prepared U.N. force might be able to secure Sierra Leone with the same sort of capable experienced core used for MNFs now that Mr. Sankoh has been captured.

Indian forces with adequate numbers of weapons,equipment and logistics could perform this function. Nigeria might be ready once again to assume such a role and work with the U.N. force. However, it would need a great deal more assistance than before in funding material and transport.

A few U.S. and/or U.K. soldiers on the ground for specialized functions could also be very helpful in such vital areas as communications and overall cohesion. Even more important, such a tangible commitment will encourage other nations to participate, have a deterrent effect on the RUF and its outside supporters and improve prospects for success. U.S. Special Forces have the experience in Africa to do the job well with minimal risk.

In Sierra Leone, and possibly the Congo, wishful thinking and a guilty conscience have been moving the U.N. into obvious danger, with the U.S. urging it on. If the Clinton administration wishes to be taken seriously on peacekeeping in Africa, it must somehow find the political will to fight as hard politically at home for the requisite financial and material support as it has for NATO enlargement or trade with China, and be willing to share the dangers on the ground with other nations. If the U.N. is to continue with peacekeeping, the Security Council and the secretary general must become tough-minded on both ends and means.

This may be beyond the political reach of the U.S., especially in an election year. In this case, the administration should lower its rhetoric to match its level of real support.

Robert Oakley is a former ambassador to Pakistan, Zaire and Somalia. He is currently a distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University.

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