There are two ways to look at Darfur. There’s the raw graphic encounter, first of all. Click over to the website of Brian Steidle, a former U.S. Marine, who contracted with the African Union monitoring team in Darfur and took hundreds pictures of the devastation there. See the children with their backs torn open by bullets. See the villages torched and strafed by government gunships. See the refugees crammed into camps, parched and starving. A few minutes of this is enough to make one scream for someone, anyone, anyone at all to just do something.
And then there’s the second way, to ask: “What exactly is to be done?” And here’s where things get trickier. Last weekend the African Union took a long-awaited step forward on this front when it announced plans to bulk up its Darfur peacekeeping unit, from the woefully inadequate 2,300-strong force that was deployed last August, to 3,300 by May, and, it is hoped, 7,700 by the end of September. Even more importantly, the AU force will reportedly be granted a mandate to protect civilians in the region. Up until this point, peacekeepers have had authority only to monitor last April’s ceasefire between the Khartoum government and the rebels, who have been fighting what they consider discrimination against ethnic African Muslims in Darfur. The AU had to watch helplessly as the truce was repeatedly violated and villages were sacked by both government forces and the government-backed janjaweed Arab horseback militias. Meanwhile, the U.S. plans to shell out an extra $50 to $60 million to support the expanded AU force, and NATO will “consider” providing logistical help.
This doesn’t mean the cavalry has finally arrived. The African Union has been dragging its feet on intervention for months, despite growing evidence that Khartoum and the Arab janjaweed militias are engaged in genocide against the people of Darfur, along with a humanitarian crisis that has killed an estimated 400,000 civilians, and has left nearly 3 million refugees near the Sudan-Chad border in need of aid. Still, last October, leaders from Nigeria, Libya, and Chad called the mess in Darfur a “purely African question” and then sat by cynically and did nothing. As the Congressional Research Service pointed out in its report last month: “Many members of the African Union do not share the view that a genocide is occurring in Darfur and still consider the government of Sudan as the central player in the resolution of the conflict and protector of civilians.” Indeed, there’s no guarantee that the AU will even follow through with their latest proposed expansion, which is precisely why so many liberal interventionists would prefer not to leave Darfur in African hands.
In an ideal world, of course, letting Africans handle Darfur would be the best option. If they could handle it. But it’s doubtful that even the bulked-up AU deployment will be able to avert the worst of the crisis, which is the main concern here. The new AU troops won’t be ready until September, at the earliest, which means four more months of inaction, four more months of starvation and massacres, four more months of increased body counts. The rainy season will soon get underway in Darfur, which will deepen the crisis, hampering aid delivery and spreading contagious diseases, creating what aid groups called “a logistical nightmare” last summer.
More to the point, few experts seriously think that 7,700 troops will be able to secure a region the size of France, deter the janjaweed militias, secure all humanitarian corridors to and within Darfur, and provide refugees safe passage back to their villages. Jan Pronk, the UN’s envoy to the region, has said at least 12,300 troops will be needed, while the UN’s Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland has said at least 10,000. But both men have assumed that no non-AU forces will ever be forthcoming, so their estimates are tailored to what is feasible within these constraints. In order to actually restore peace in Darfur, Marine Capt. Brian Steidle, who had some success helping the AU deter janjaweed attacks in South Darfur, has said that up to 25,000 to 50,000 troops would be needed to protect villages and allow Darfuris to return home. And Gen. Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN Peacekeeping Force during the genocide in Rwanda, has estimated that up to 44,000 may be needed.
Moreover, it’s not clear that an AU force of any size, even with “logistical support” from NATO, would be able to stop the janjaweed or the Sudanese security forces from massacring civilians in Darfur and harassing aid workers. The AU has not spelled out rules of engagement for confronting the militias, and, moreover it is a certainty that the peacekeeping force will not be authorized to engage Sudanese security forces, despite the fact that the latter have been just as thoroughly involved in the slaughter. In this case, Khartoum can continue integrating the janjaweed into its police and army forces, as it has been doing for months now, and continue its war against the Darfur rebel groups unimpeded. There is also no back-up plan in case Khartoum refuses to allow an expanded AU presence into Darfur.
But if an AU deployment is appallingly ineffective, a Western intervention at this point looks both unrealistic and possibly dangerous. The UN Security Council could, in theory, put in an expanded civilian protection force into Darfur, possibly deploying peacekeepers from other African and Muslim countries. But China—which imports six percent of its oil from Sudan, and has a controlling stake in various Sudanese oil companies—would likely veto any such intervention. Likewise, NATO could step in, but for the fact that France has opposed such a move, arguing that the organization should not be “the gendarme of the world.” And other Arab countries have also declined to get involved; Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, for instance, has denounced any possible “internationalization” of the conflict.
For its part, the Bush administration no longer seems willing to put pressure on its allies over Darfur; over the past few weeks the State Department has shied away from calling the situation a “genocide,” a word that Colin Powell had been hurling around with authority last year. More recently, Mark Leon Goldberg of the American Prospect reported that the White House was trying to thwart the Darfur Accountability Act from passing Congress, an act which would accelerate AU deployment, authorize an expansion of the UN peacekeeping force, slap sanctions on Khartoum, and use international airpower to enforce a no-fly zone over Darfur and prevent Sudanese gunships from strafing villages. (In other words, a decent first step, if ultimately inadequate.) One possible explanation for the shift: The Los Angeles Times‘ Ken Silverstein reported last week that the U.S. appears to be gaining valuable counterterrorism support from, among other things, Sudan’s intelligence chief Salan Abdallah Gosh, who happens to be overseeing the genocidal war against Darfur.
Even if the will did exist in the United States and Europe, however, intervention in Sudan could still have grave consequences. For starters, any mission that aimed at halting the violence would require enforcing a no-fly zone over Darfur. But according to Eric Reeves, a Smith professor who has been covering the conflict extensively, the logistical difficulties here are very high: “Chad is the only realistic basing option, and neither the French nor [Chadian] President Idriss Deby gives the slightest sign of being willing to accept the required US or UK aerial combat forces.” And Sudan would potentially be capable of putting up a fight with its fleet of Chinese and Russian fighter jets. Enforcing a true no-fly zone might involve air combat, or forcibly disabling Khartoum’s air force, and either move could be severely provocative. Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail has already said that his country will resist any outside interference, “by force if necessary.”
Indeed, any serious Western intervention risks escalating the conflict in Sudan, which could easily lead to Sudanese attacks on UN peacekeepers or, worse, an outright expulsion of the 10,000 humanitarian workers currently delivering food and aid through the Western regions. (There have already been multiple reports of janjaweed militiamen and Sudanese security forces attacking these aid workers.) Forceful engagement of Khartoum’s Arab forces, moreover, would almost surely be denounced by Islamists around the world, perhaps turning Darfur into a second front for jihadis across the Middle East to come fight the West. And most critically, Western intervention in Darfur could provoke the central government into abandoning the recently-signed and still-fragile peace treaty between Khartoum and southern Sudan, which ended the country’s 20-year civil war. This is not to say that intervention is wrong—the moral case for intervening in Darfur is, quite frankly, overwhelming—but the risks are steep and worth a serious consideration.
Hardly a wonder, then, that many observers would prefer to let the African Union handle things. But there is no reason to think the AU can prevent the dying in Darfur from stretching on indefinitely. The calls to “do something” will continue, even as no one quite knows what, exactly, to do.