A Mission That Was Set Up to Fail
How Washington turned its back on a foreign-policy triumph and let Darfur descend back into chaos. Part 3 in Foreign Policy's exclusive investigation of the U.N.'s peacekeeping debacle in Sudan.
A decade ago, Darfur, a distant expanse of territory in western Sudan, became a household name in the United States and posed a stark moral question for American policymakers, generals and diplomats: should Washington risk American lives to try to prevent genocide in a remote backwater that had no obvious strategic value to the United States?
The answer, in part, was a clumsily named peacekeeping mission, the African Union/United Nations hybrid operation in Darfur, or UNAMID, that the United States helped create in 2008 to offer peace and security to the more than 2.7 million people driven from their homes in a government-sponsored scorched earth campaign. Then-President George W. Bush’s top Africa diplomat, Jendayi Frazer, hailed the deployment of this “large, robust peacekeeping force for Darfur” as a triumph of American diplomacy. The United States, she vowed, would be “watching closely” to ensure the government of Sudan extended “nothing less than full cooperation.”
That, to put it mildly, never happened. The United States and its allies flatly ruled out the idea of sending Western military forces to Darfur, leaving the mission in the hands of under-equipped, badly-trained, and vastly outgunned African peacekeepers. Khartoum never cooperated with the mission and in many cases directly threatened the peacekeepers. Washington, London, and other major powers, meanwhile, focused most of their diplomatic firepower on South Sudan’s independence drive and largely abandoned efforts to enforce the raft of U.N. sanctions they had devised to compel Sudan to stop abusing civilians in Darfur. “The United States stepped back from Darfur,” said Enrico Carisch, a former chief of the U.N. sanctions panel for Darfur. “The sanctions started to fade from everyone’s attention.”
THE SUFFERING SEEMS TO NEVER END
The violence in Darfur began in early 2003 when two rebel groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, took up arms against Sudan’s Islamist government, citing political and economic discrimination against the region’s Fur and Zaghawa tribes. Khartoum responded by recruiting, arming, and supporting local Arab militias known as the Janjaweed. Backed by Sudanese airpower, the militias burned and plundered hundreds of villages and killed tens of thousands of people suspected of sympathizing with the rebels. Roughly 200,000 people died in Darfur as a result of violence and disease, and 2 million more were driven from their homes.
In September 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the violence committed by the Sudanese government, and its Janjaweed proxies, amounted to genocide — an extraordinarily powerful charge. “When we reviewed the evidence compiled by our team, we concluded — and I concluded — that genocide has been committed in Darfur…and that genocide may still be occurring.”
In response, the administration pushed through a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibiting arms transfers into Darfur, barring Khartoum from using its air force for attacks against targets on the ground, and requiring that perpetrators of the worst crimes in Darfur be held accountable. After initial resistance, the Bush administration signed off on allowing the International Criminal Court to investigate mass atrocities in Darfur, a probe that would end with the court issuing an arrest warrant accusing Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of genocide. The Bush administration began sinking hundreds of millions per year into relief efforts for Darfur, making Washington the largest single international donor. In July 2004, the United States also began to underwrite a 7,000-man African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur.
By 2007, though, it was painfully obvious that the African peacekeepers — poorly equipped and trained, often unpaid, and severely demoralized by a lack of firepower — had failed to protect the citizens of Darfur. Facing frequent attacks by armed groups, the African peacekeepers effectively halted their patrols of Darfur’s refugee camps, leaving residents vulnerable to robberies, rapes and other crimes. Leaders from across the globe began calling for the creation of a full-fledged U.N. peacekeeping mission for Darfur.
Khartoum rejected a U.N. Security Council plan to send in a large contingent of blue helmets, but it agreed to allow in a hybrid force of A.U. and U.N. peacekeepers. The compromise was brokered with the assistance of China, which feared that ongoing violence in Darfur would tarnish its standing on the world stage on the eve of Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics. American policymakers thought the new force would be a massive improvement over its predecessor. It would have 20,000 troops at its disposal, triple the size of the initial force. Wealthy countries like Norway and Thailand promised to contribute advanced weaponry. The detachment would be funded and supported by the U.N., which had senior officials who had spent decades overseeing peacekeeping missions in far-flung places.
Washington hoped the new force would succeed where the other had failed.
The new force, though, was hobbled from the beginning by a serious flaw. The U.N. had always managed its own peacekeeping missions. This time, however, the world body would share control with the African Union. That created parallel command structures that sometimes issued conflicting orders and rarely seemed to be on the same page about the proper strategy for Darfur. The peacekeepers were unable to protect ordinary Darfuris. In several cases, they weren’t even able to protect themselves from attacks by the Sudanese military.
Six and a half years later, Darfur is again engulfed by violence, with Sudanese troops and their Arab allies brazenly flouting the previous U.N. sanctions and renewing their air and ground attacks against villages across the region. More than 500,000 Darfuris have been driven from their homes so far this year. “The suffering of Darfur’s civilians at the hands of the government seems to never end,” Daniel Bekele, Human Rights Watch’s Africa director, said in a recent statement.
John Prendergast, who has spent years publicizing the carnage in Darfur, said the violence was as bad as it had been before the U.N. intervention. “We are edging back to a 2004-2005 scenario, where government-backed Janjaweed militias, now incorporated into various paramilitary entities — are again attacking villages as a means to clear areas of population potentially sympathetic to the rebels,” he wrote in an email exchange. “It is a classic ‘drain the water to catch the fish’ counterinsurgency campaign to displace the people, obstruct humanitarian aid, and clear areas from government-controlled urban centers. The humanitarian results are catastrophic.”
“WE HAVE TO ACCEPT THIS AS A QUAGMIRE”
Top peacekeeping officials recently completed a strategic review that highlights the Darfur mission’s shortcomings, including a reluctance to confront challenges and a deep pessimism over the mission’s feasibility. Deliberations at the U.N. over its findings come as Foreign Policy has been publishing a trove of internal UNAMID documents highlighting the blue helmets’ struggles to protect civilians. But the U.N. Security Council appears unlikely to shutter the $1.3 billion-a-year mission and declare defeat, reasoning that even a weak mission still provides some measure of deterrence against attacks on civilians.
Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping at New York University’s Center for International Cooperation, recalled an argument he had with a U.N. official about Darfur. “I said this situation has become so bad and in many ways is such a disgrace that this is one case where the U.N. should declare defeat and go home,” Gowan said. “The response from the U.N. colleague was that ‘we would love to declare defeat but we can’t. We have to accept this as a quagmire.’ There is a very strong sense within the U.N. that this was a mission that was set up to fail.”
Michael Gaouette, a former U.N. official who led the U.N. peacekeeping department’s Darfur team in 2008, said that many of the new forces’ shortcomings were foreseeable and inevitable. The notion of a peacekeeping mission as the solution to Darfur’s ills became part of the message tirelessly promoted by foreign governments, humanitarian groups, and well-intentioned celebrities like George Clooney. The problem, he said, was that none of the conditions necessary for a successful peacekeeping mission — a ceasefire, a viable political settlement, or true consent from the Sudanese government — were in place. Darfur also held “zero strategic importance” for the few countries, including the United States, with the military capability to deploy an effective expeditionary force in a place like Darfur, Gaouette said.
“This all begins with this problem being insoluble in the short term, which was an unacceptable admission. Something had to be done right away,” he said. “It was mind-bogglingly ridiculous to propose that peacekeeping would be the key that unlocked the door to the Darfur solution. And yet peacekeeping was graspable, peacekeeping in its most simplified, misunderstood form — sending soldiers to a place in trouble.”
“THIS IS WHY GOD GAVE YOU BULLETS. USE THEM.”
U.S. policymakers knew that the new force would be attacked, but they hoped UNAMID would respond with force to show that it was there to stay and ready to fight. In reality, the peacekeepers — who lost seven soldiers during a bloody July 2008 ambush — never seemed prepared to engage their enemies or make a real attempt to defeat them. It was also never able to win the cooperation of Khartoum, which hadn’t wanted peacekeepers within Sudan’s borders in the first place and was willing to do everything in its power to ensure their failure.
The pushback began early and never really stopped. Khartoum rejected U.N. plans to deploy advanced military units from countries like Norway and Thailand, threatened the peacekeepers, and imposed a raft of Orwellian bureaucratic obstacles, including the routine denial of visas for UNAMID personnel, that have undermined the peacekeepers’ abilities to do their jobs.
The United States and other governments that professed a commitment to preventing Darfur from sliding back into chaos, meanwhile, failed to adequately equip the peacekeepers. In a prescient warning delivered before UNAMID forces had even arrived in Darfur, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the U.N. Security Council that the failure of Western governments to supply the new force with a fleet of two dozen attack and transport helicopters would make it impossible for the peacekeepers to patrol a region nearly the size of Spain. “While helicopters alone cannot ensure the success of the mission, their absence may well doom it to failure,” the newly appointed U.N. chief wrote the council in 2007. It is time for key governments, he said, “to walk their talk.” Still, Ban’s persistent U.N. requests for transport and attack helicopters to enable the mission to confront armed challenges went largely unanswered.
Sudan has used a variety of tactics to stymie the UNAMID peacekeeping mission, including the denial of access to areas where abuses occur, intimidation, and in some cases actual armed attacks against the blue helmets.
Scott Gration spent more than two decades in the Air Force before retiring as a two-star general. In 2009, Obama tabbed Gration to be his first special envoy to Darfur. When he first visited Sudan, Gration was dismayed to find out that UNAMID forces were taking it on the chin.
In a meeting with UNAMID’s Rwandan commander, Lt. General Patrick Nyamvumba, and other UNAMID officers, Gration advocated a far tougher approach.
“I was less than impressed; I felt that they should have done night patrols and they should have been taking a more proactive stance,” he said in a recent interview, recalling an incident in which an armed group ambushed the peacekeepers, and stole their guns, ammunition, and clothes without the peacekeepers firing a shot.
“This is why God gave you bullets,” he told the UNAMID commanders. “Use them.”
Nyamvumba turned the tables on Gration, a son of African missionaries, recalled Cameron Hudson, who advised Gration on Darfur. “His point was ‘if we shoot back there is no cavalry, no helicopter gunships, coming to save us. We are exposed and you Americans aren’t there to pull our backs out of the fire,'” Hudson recalled. “He had a point.”
WAR OF ATTRITION
But perhaps nothing has eroded morale as much as the mundane bureaucratic impediments that have severely restricted every aspect of life for the peacekeepers.
A trove of internal UNAMID documents shared with FP by a former spokeswoman for the mission, Aicha Elbasri, highlights the myriad ways that Sudan has undermined the mission’s effectiveness, providing a kind of playbook on how a country can foil efforts by international peacekeepers to do their job.
Sudan routinely arrested and harassed UNAMID’s Sudanese employees, denied flight clearances for the force’s aircraft, and imposed chronic delays on the issuance of visas, according to a confidential list of Sudanese restrictions compiled by the mission. In September 2012, Sudanese customs officials went so far as to impound a U.N. diplomatic pouch, without providing so much as an explanation for its actions. That was a brazenly illegal act, but there were no consequences.
Frustrated by Khartoum’s obstructions, a top UNAMID official, Mohamed Yonis, used a December 2012 meeting with key Sudanese leaders to complain that the delays were adding up. Sudanese customs officials, he noted, had failed to approve 1,515 visa applications, most of which were for UNAMID police, according to an internal UNAMID cable describing the meeting.
UNAMID officials also voiced concern that delays in customs clearances were holding up the delivery of armored personnel vehicles for Bangladeshi peacekeepers and weapons for Nigerian and Gambian contingents, contributing to “a security vacuum” that “seriously hindered the ability to secure [peacekeeping outposts] and conduct scheduled humanitarian, administrative, and logistics patrols,” according to a UNAMID report.
Sudan had also imposed delays on the delivery of critical items, including equipment spare parts, food rations, medical supplies, blood, and reproductive health kits, according to the report. Its impediments “hampered” U.N. efforts to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV-AIDs, and contributed to the waste of food and medicines. The report also cites other bureaucratic impediments with “life threatening consequences.” One entry alleges that Sudanese authorities refused to allow Medevac helicopters to transport the sick and wounded to camps with better medical facilities. “No reason is given for refusal verbally or in writing,” according to the entry.
Even the simplest activities, like drawing water from a well or obtaining toothpaste, led to threats by government security forces or got mired in bureaucratic red tape, sapping morale among the peacekeepers. Last April, two armed, plainclothes Sudanese intelligence agents and three Sudanese soldiers threatened to kill villagers from the town of Zalingei in central Darfur if they drew water from a local well and gave it to a Rwandan peacekeeper. Two containers of electronics, toiletries, tobacco, and perfumes for the peacekeepers were held up at Port Sudan for eight months and then shipped back to Haiti and Liberia. The delays were “severely hampering” UNAMID’s operations in Darfur, according to an internal cable. They were also encouraging foreign staffers to take jobs elsewhere, leaving a staffing gap. The mission’s chief communications official, Michael Meyer, left the United Nations recently to take a teaching job after failing to secure a visa to work in Darfur.
UNAMID’s complaints to top Sudanese officials didn’t work. When the U.N. complained about bureaucratic snafus, a senior Sudanese Foreign Ministry official, Rahmatalla Mohamed Osman, threatened to further curtail his government’s cooperation with the peacekeeping force, according to an internal UNAMID cable describing the session.
TESTING AMERICA’S METTLE
Long before he launched his campaign for the American presidency, then-Sen. Barack Obama took a personal interest in Darfur, writing eloquently about the need to use international soldiers to protect Darfur’s civilians. In December 2005, Obama and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) wrote a joint op-ed alleging that President Bush’s Darfur policy had gone “dangerously adrift” and calling for a U.N. or NATO peacekeeping force. But Obama’s proposed solution to Darfur’s problems mirrored Bush’s in its reliance on international peacekeepers, backed by international pressure and a viable peace process, rather than on the use of American troops. “It has become clear that a U.N.- or NATO-led force is required, and the administration must use diplomacy to override Chinese and Sudanese opposition to such a force and persuade outside troops to join it,” the two senators wrote.
As he explored a presidential bid, Obama turned to two foreign-policy advisors, Susan Rice and Samantha Power, who had each spent years focusing on Darfur. Rice, who had previously served as the State Department’s top Africa official during the Clinton administration, had been advocating while outside government for a tougher approach to Darfur, including the imposition of a no-fly zone over Darfur and the establishment of a humanitarian aid corridor. Power, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, had written a wrenching dispatch on the plight of Darfur’s victims before joining the administration.
Once elected president, Obama faced an early test of his commitment to hold Sudan’s feet to the fire in Darfur. In March 2009, shortly after the ICC issued an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan expelled an array of international aid agencies, claiming they were engaging in spying.
Gration, Obama’s new Sudan envoy, secured an agreement to permit some humanitarian aid workers back into the country. But the message had been sent: Khartoum was prepared to withstand international condemnation associated with tossing foreign aid workers out of the country. “It was an early shot across the bow; and it showed how precarious the situation was in Darfur,” said Cameron Hudson, who served as an advisor to three special envoys on Darfur. “They held all the cards in Sudan.”
Gration saw UNAMID as one of a series of half-measures the international community had embraced to stanch the bleeding in Darfur, and he had little hope it could resolve Darfur’s fundamental challenges. “His assessment was we can’t keep putting band aids on this, we can’t spend ten years chasing helicopters for the U.N.,” Cameron recalled. “We have to find peace.”
That didn’t involve threats. “We’ve got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries — they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk engagement,” he famously told theWashington Post‘s Stephanie McCrummen.
In a telephone interview from Nairobi, Gration said that quote has been harnessed for years by critics to simplify and caricature his approach to Sudan.
Every major diplomatic challenge in Darfur — including negotiating peace between Sudan and Chad, brokering a settlement between Darfur’s warring factions, and paving the way for South Sudan’s independence — required Khartoum’s signature. He said he was successful on a number of those fronts.
But ultimately, peace wasn’t in the cards.
Following Gration’s departure, Princeton Lyman, his successor, was appointed to focus on the creation of South Sudan, one of the most important U.S. political initiatives in Africa. The tedious work of pursuing a peace deal in Darfur was delegated to a less high-profile American ambassador, Dane Smith. Washington’s shift away from Darfur, and its lack of interest in UNAMID, were deeply frustrating to those who had spent years documenting the atrocities there. Enrico Carisch, a former Swiss journalist with considerable experience in Darfur, brought his concerns to Congress.
The United States and other countries that crafted sanctions against Khartoum “now seem unwilling to fight back,” he complained in testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in December 2009. “Increasingly, it looks like the poorly understood and under-enforced U.N. sanctions are being sold out in favor of mediation whose success is at any rate far from being assured.”
The failure “to stand on the principles previously decided and adopted is sending a very loud signal to the Darfurians,” he added. “The Security Council and member states, including the United States, are not coming to help.”
In an interview, Lyman said the United States imposed tougher sanctions on Khartoum than any country in the world. The problem with the U.N. arms embargo — which allowed Sudan to import weapons into the country, but not to ship them into Darfur — was that it was “unenforceable.” Any hopes of strengthening sanctions was rendered impossible by Chinese and Russian opposition. “We could have beaten the drum and yelled and tried to get a veto,” he said. “But the fact was that we assessed it over and over again and the assessment was that the Russians and Chinese would not allow it.”
In a recent interview, Carisch said that there were steps, short of a new sanctions resolution, that Washington could have taken to tighten enforcement of existing sanctions. It was America’s unwillingness to do so that had driven him to address Congress. The last straw, he said, was a meeting he’d had with Sudan’s top liaison to the United Nations, Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi. “Al-Dabi would tell us it’s better to talk with Gration; he understands us,” Carisch recalled. “At one point he told us outright that Gration is telling him not to be too concerned about U.N. stuff. We were never really able to recover from that.”
Gration said that he did not recall making that remark to al-Dabi. But he said the “reality was that it is very naïve to think you could shun, or shut off, Khartoum,” he said. “So, yes I had to negotiate with the north, and frankly they were very helpful in resolving a lot of problems. They could have not let NGO’s [aid workers] back into the country, they could have not let the South go. That’s what negotiations are about. The reality is I had to do it.”