a very relevant September 28 piece at Foreign Policy:
Can Attack Helicopters Save U.N. Peacekeeping?
President Obama is leading a new effort to bolster the U.N.’s blue helmets. But are better weapons and tens of thousands of new troops enough to tamp the flames of war?
At the same time, the European forces that once formed the backbone of many tough peacekeeping missions have vanished [Canada?]. 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…
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 [website here]. 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 [see “UN Mali (Peacekeeping?) Force: Dutch Participate with Spooktitude“] 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…
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.