Think Again: Peacekeeping in Somalia

There is a crisis. People are dying. Sending peacekeepers sounds great — they come with U.N. neutrality, a mandate (usually) to use force, and the promise to do something. Who doesn’t want to help out in places like the DR Congo, Zimbabwe, and Somalia? If only it were so easy, writes the U.S. Government Accountability ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
590940_081219_pkeepers5.jpg
590940_081219_pkeepers5.jpg

There is a crisis. People are dying. Sending peacekeepers sounds great -- they come with U.N. neutrality, a mandate (usually) to use force, and the promise to do something. Who doesn't want to help out in places like the DR Congo, Zimbabwe, and Somalia?

If only it were so easy, writes the U.S. Government Accountability Office in a report released today. Future peacekeeping missions will be plagued by complex logistics, extensive troop needs, daunting political circumstances, and a reluctance from member states to donate troops and resources.

But the report is even more jarring. One cannot help but notice that the "hypothetical" situation described in the report sounds not-so-vaguely reminiscent of Somalia, to which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested sending peacekeepers just this week.

There is a crisis. People are dying. Sending peacekeepers sounds great — they come with U.N. neutrality, a mandate (usually) to use force, and the promise to do something. Who doesn’t want to help out in places like the DR Congo, Zimbabwe, and Somalia?

If only it were so easy, writes the U.S. Government Accountability Office in a report released today. Future peacekeeping missions will be plagued by complex logistics, extensive troop needs, daunting political circumstances, and a reluctance from member states to donate troops and resources.

But the report is even more jarring. One cannot help but notice that the “hypothetical” situation described in the report sounds not-so-vaguely reminiscent of Somalia, to which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested sending peacekeepers just this week.

The potential new mission’s area of operations would have limited infrastructure and utilities, lacking roads, buildings, and water, and would thus require increased logistical planning…the potential new operation would be in a high-threat environment, political factions would recently have been fighting for control of the country, and there would be large numbers of internally displaced persons…According to UN planners, a potential new force would likely require units with the capability to deter threats from armed factions supported by international terrorist groups, which previous operations did not have to take into account to the same degree.

Sound familiar? There are only few countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have that level of chaos with possible international terrorists to boot — and Sudan already has two U.N. missions.

So what would a peacekeeping mission to Somalia look like? This “hypothetical” country would require 21,000 troops, 1,500 police, 4,000 to 5,000 civilian staff, and a costly helicopter force to supply aerial surveillance 24 hours a day. According to the report:

There are a limited number of countries that provide troops and police with needed capabilities to meet current needs, and some potential contributors may be unwilling to provide forces for a new operation due to such political factors as their own national interests and the environmental and security situation in the host country.

The U.N. is already short 18,000 troops to staff its mandated missions around the world, and is missing 22 percent of the needed civilian personnel. The GAO warns that, though there are efforts to help the U.N. close the gap, the U.S. has failed to support some incentives such as increased protection for civilian forces. And Somalia is far less appealing a locale than Liberia, Cote D’Ivoire, and maybe even Darfur.

So peacekeeping is failing — or it might, if the world tries this particular case. Blue helmets are not one-size-fits-all countries. Hopefully Congress will read this “hypothetical” between the lines.

Photo: STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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