Things have gone from bad to worse in the Central African Republic. Nine months after a rebel alliance known as Seleka seized control of Bangui, the country’s riverside capital, and forced President François Bozizé into exile, CAR is quickly descending into chaos. The country could be "on the verge of genocide," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned last month, echoing John Ging, the director of the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, who in mid-November reported being "concerned that the seeds of a genocide are being sown." According to U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, "the population is enduring suffering beyond imagination."
In a country that has endured five coups in as many decades, instability has been one of the few predictable elements of daily life. But since the Seleka rebels began their campaign against the government in December of last year, the state has all but collapsed. Following the ouster of Bozizé and his replacement with rebel leader Michel Djotodia, the Seleka alliance turned on itself. In September, Djotodia officially disbanded the predominantly Muslim rebel movement that propelled him into office, leaving battle hardened fighters, many of them foreign mercenaries from Chad and Sudan, to prey indiscriminately on the population. What ensued was rape, pillage, and blood-letting on a massive scale — as well as the formation of predominantly Christian militias, known as anti-balaka ("anti-machete"), that have carried out their own atrocities against the country’s Muslim population.
"The resulting tit-for-tat spiral of violence [between Muslims and Christians] is creating the foundation of a religious conflict that will be very difficult to stop," Lawrence D. Wohlers, the recently departed U.S. ambassador to CAR, told Foreign Policy. "Although it is the Christian population that has suffered the most until now, the Muslim population is a distinct minority and may suffer far more as Seleka’s power declines," he said, adding that the country could be headed for "religious-inspired, murderous anarchy" in "which no one will be safe."
For months, the crisis in CAR went largely unnoticed by the outside world, but in recent weeks substantial progress has been made toward fashioning an international response. In what will be its second major military intervention in Africa this year, France has pledged an additional 1,000 troops to support the 2,500-member African Union peacekeeping mission already in place. Meanwhile the U.N. Security Council is set to vote this week on a draft resolution that would convert the AU-led force into a U.N. peacekeeping operation. Already, some 200 French communications and logistics specialists have arrived in Bangui, bringing the total number of French personnel to 600. France already has 400 troops stationed in the capital.
"The draft resolution represents the most serious attention that CAR has received in years from the international community," said Wohlers, adding that the French troop surge will likely make a "tremendous difference." According to Wohlers, "The U.N. mandate will be broad and all indications are that the French, while operating technically in support of the new African Union peacekeeping mission, will be very proactive in the initial phase."
Human rights advocates are similarly optimistic about the planned intervention. "French troops could certainly help signal to both parties that the international community is taking very seriously the current instability," said Rona E. Peligal, deputy director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "Securing the roadways and enabling people to return home or to access medical care would be an enormous help at this point."
But even if a more robust international presence can bring the fighting under control — a prospect that is far from certain in a country roughly the size of Texas, much of which is densely forested — rebuilding a semblance of state authority will likely take years, if not decades. Moreover, months of violence and lawlessness have left a massive logistical nightmare in their wake. According to the U.S. State Department, roughly 10 percent of the country’s 4.6 million residents have been displaced, and some 68,000 have sought refuge in neighboring countries.
"The difficulty will be what happens next," Wohlers said. "The CAR government structures have been largely destroyed, so a robust peacekeeping force will probably be necessary for years. That will be costly."
Another major problem is that the current Seleka-dominated transitional government is technically supposed to remain in power until 2015. "Its leadership is so unpopular now that President Djotodia rarely dares to appear in public," Wohlers said. He added that the government "is clearly incapable in its current form of beginning the process of asserting authority and rebuilding the country. The international community will have to focus as much on the political challenge as the security one."
For France — which has already reshuffled its international commitments in anticipation of the CAR intervention — a sustained mission may prove to be too much of a burden. "The French military has a limited capacity" to project power in Africa, said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the editor of the Long War Journal. "The fact that they had to cut their commitments in Kosovo is an indication that there is only so much they can do. Between that and Mali, it shows the strains of deploying troops in multiple theaters."
U.S. involvement in CAR, meanwhile, is unlikely to expand much beyond the $40 million Secretary of State John Kerry recently pledged to the AU-led mission and the $24 million in humanitarian assistance it has already provided. A small number of U.S. Special Operations troops are currently aiding African troops in their hunt for Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, but they have not been involved in the current push to restore order in CAR.
Although U.S. financial support has had a positive impact, Wohlers, the former U.S. ambassador in Bangui, does not think the United States has done enough on the diplomatic front. "This is the moment when experienced diplomats on the ground can be the essential catalyst for a political solution," said Wohlers, noting that the U.S. Embassy has been closed for more than a year for security reasons. "While security is of course important, it should not preclude our presence where we can make a difference. Other diplomatic missions, the U.N., and humanitarian organizations have all found a wa
y to maintain a permanent presence in the CAR. We can too."