Outmanned, Outgunned in Sierra Leone

New York Times op-ed

The drama in Sierra Leone, where a rebel group is holding 500 United Nations peacekeepers hostage, is all the more distressing because of the circumstances: the soldiers wandered into the West African bush with outdated maps, got lost, and then were captured and stripped of their weapons by the very guerrillas they were sent to disarm. The rebels also made off with armored personnel carriers and other military gear.

For the United Nations, the Sierra Leone debacle is the latest humiliation in a string of peacekeeping failures that includes Somalia and Bosnia. It is sure to contribute anecdotes and ammunition to the critics in the United States who regard the United Nations as useless and not worthy of our support. Apologists for the peacekeeping effort describe it as good intentions falling short of their mark, but hope that a speeded-up deployment of more U.N. troops will help.

Either way, however, the effort to intervene in Sierra Leone's brutal nine-year civil war was doomed from the start. It was the product of wishful thinking on the part of Western countries, which have the world's best financed, armed and trained armies, but thought they could dispatch their commitment to peace in Africa by hiring underprepared third world soldiers and putting them in blue helmets. Collectively and awkwardly known as Unamsil, the troops began arriving in Sierra Leone late last year to enforce a 10-month-old peace accord between the recently elected government and the Revolutionary United Front, a group known for winning hearts and minds by hacking off the hands of men, women and children across the countryside.

Many of the peacekeepers are from elsewhere in Africa, a policy that makes sense until you realize that they and the other troops were sent into Sierra Leone without the support they needed. The soldiers, from countries with few economic resources, are ill-equipped and poorly trained; African nations generally are not sending the elite troops that protect presidents or are used for defense at home. In some cases, the troops are thrown into peacekeeping operations because their home countries are being well paid to hire them out. So what motivation and commitment to the cause should the soldiers be expected to have? In Sierra Leone they are outnumbered -- 8,700 against 45,000 rebels -- outgunned, and in all ways no match for the hardened rebels they are being asked to police.

There are two ways to deal with a rebel group like the Revolutionary United Front. The first was employed by the Nigerian-dominated West African peacekeeping force that recently left Sierra Leone as part of a peace agreement. The Nigerians kept the peace as they had done earlier in Liberia, by being as ruthless as the rebels they were up against. They earned the rebels' respect by playing their game.

This is not an option for the United Nations, which must adhere to strict rules of engagement and must deal with the scrutiny of the international press.

The second way to contain the rebels would be through overwhelming force and technical supremacy. In other words, by using troops from developed nations -- and in significant numbers. The United States, despite its military might, would never expect its soldiers to battle the odds that the African troops have come up against in Sierra Leone. Indeed, the doctrine of overwhelming force would demand something on the order of 100,000 troops backed by significant air support to contain a rebel group the size of the Revolutionary United Front.

Of course the price tag for that would be considerably higher than the $70 million the United States government is now contributing to Unamsil.

Without a full commitment from the West, the United Nations has no authority. Combatants see the policing force for what it is, a ragtag collection of third world armies thrown at a problem. They are regarded as the international equivalent of rent-a-cops.

Africans see the commitment of Western troops in the Balkans and understand that the world is serious about peace there. They see the neglect of Africa, and it leads them to despair. They are not fooled by the presence of the United Nations and words from the West about a commitment to peace.

If the world thinks Sierra Leone is important, let the world really enforce the peace. If not, the message will be clear. The West doesn't care.

Michael Maren is the author of ''The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity.''

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