Promising Too Much?

Protection for victims of ethnic strife in Darfur finally is on the way, it would seem. Last week Sudan agreed to permit 3,500 African Union troops and police officers to deploy in the troubled region. That appeared to spell a victory for U.S. officials who have ramped up rhetorical pressure on the Khartoum regime; first Congress, then Secretary of State Colin Powell and finally President George W. Bush all recently described the scorched-earth government counterinsurgency in Western Sudan as genocide. "My hope is that the African Union moves rapidly to help save lives," Bush said in last week's debate. Those tracking the crisis might easily picture African bases bustling as crack troops mobilize to hit the ground in Sudan.

Wrong. This week the chiefs of staff of several African Union heads of state will meet to begin discussing how to go about setting up this hypothetical force. Among the issues: who will train the AU police to cooperate with their Sudanese counterparts? After these representatives go back to their bosses with a plan and it's approved, the program will go before the African Union's new Peace and Security Council in Addis Ababa. Before any troops move, that committee needs to set up a command center at the Addis headquarters. Bottom line: according to a United Nations official directly involved in planning the mission, the new AU force might not even arrive in Sudan by the end of this year. Until then, the foreign military presence will remain about where it is: 68 monitors and 308 troops to protect them, in an area the size of Texas. "The AU is very cumbersome," he explains.

And that's if the money materializes. Talk is cheap, but international peacekeeping isn't. AU President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, speaking at the U.N. last month, said the new force needs "hundreds of millions of dollars" from donors. Right now raising that sum might not be at the top of his own agenda: he's trying to negotiate an end to a threatened uprising by "rascally" activists in his country's most strategically important region, the oil-rich Niger Delta. The track record of U.N. fund-raising for the humanitarian crisis in Darfur over the last 18 months can't inspire confidence about the forthcoming appeal for money to support the AU troops, either. An appeal for $722 million to feed and shelter the estimated 1.2 million dispossessed farmers of Darfur so far has fallen short by $288 million-roughly the same amount U.N. planners expect the new AU military deployment to cost.

The Africans can't be blamed for trying. The AU was created two years ago because its 53 members believed that the continent should address its own problems-and to replace the discredited Organization of African Unity, frequently derided as a dictators' club. The new body pledged to cold-shoulder leaders who take power in coups and set up a "peer review" mechanism aimed at promoting better governance on a continent hobbled by corruption. Openly modeled on the U.N., the AU aspires to demonstrate a commitment to democratic reform that will encourage donors and foreign investors to get behind ambitious development plans spelled out in the so-called New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

At the AU's most recent meeting, in July, leaders agreed to set up rapid-deployment forces to tamp out regional conflicts. Donor countries have been quick to embrace a concept that tends to keep their own troops out of harm's way: the G8 nations in June promised to train 50,000 peacekeepers around the world, starting in Africa. But the war, which has pitted Sudan's Arab-led government against black Africans, began early last year, when all this was nothing more than hopeful words on paper. "This is the first test and a real challenge for the AU because we have never done this before," Obasanjo told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last month. "The AU has never put a multinational force in the field and had command and control." Some African experts worry that in its haste to please the West, the AU made promises it couldn't keep. "These [AU leaders] basically are acting as guinea pigs who don't seem to learn lessons," says Adekeye Adebajo, executive director of the Center for Conflict Resolution at the University of Cape Town. When African troops have intervened to regional problems, funding shortfalls usually have forced the U.N. to take over, says Adebajo, a Nigerian who served in several U.N. missions. The most recent examples include African interventions in Congo and Burundi. African generals long have complained that Western militaries are quick to offer training-which serves to hone their own troops' skills-but are stingy with expensive helicopters, troop transports and other vital logistical gear. "If that [Darfur] force is deployed, there's a good chance it eventually will come under the U.N. umbrella," he said. "It's letting the U.N. off the hook when you say 'regional solutions to regional problems'-exactly what the West wants. As long as there's no capacity within the continent, really the U.N. should be doing it."

The funding hurdle also conjures up memories of the West's abdication of responsibility in Rwanda in 1993. Writing in The New York Times and the Toronto Star this week, Romeo Dallaire, who commanded a small detachment of U.N. troops in Rwanda during the genocide, observes: "Several African countries promised me battalions of troops and hundreds of observers to help come to grips with the relentless carnage. But they had neither the equipment nor the logistical support to sustain themselves, and no way to fly the vehicles and ammunition needed to conduct sustained operations." Nigeria and its allies will suffer a similar fate in Sudan, he predicts. His solution: direct intervention by NATO or its members.

Darfur has been a kind of humanitarian perfect storm. The latest upsurge of violence in Sudan's 20 years of internecine conflict coincided with the anniversary of the Rwanda genocide and the start of a U.S. presidential election campaign. Both presidential candidates evidently speak to committed constituencies inside the United States-from Christians who for years have seen the Sudanese Islamist regime as oppressors, to African-American activists who seek a more muscular U.S. role in addressing Africa's problems. In the recent presidential debates, Sen. John Kerry suggested that Washington should give the AU "the logistical capacity to go in and stop the killing"-but stopped short of advocating the use of U.S. troops.

What both candidates left unstated-and few U.N. officials want to trumpet-is that fact that, for all its horror, Darfur is but one emergency among many. Even before Darfur, the civil war in Sudan had killed 2 million people and uprooted another 4 million. (Since then, the war in the west has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced nearly 1.5 million.) The longer-standing refugees also want to go home. In eastern Congo, where U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposes to sharply scale up the number of peacekeepers, 3.3 million people remain beyond the reach of relief groups, Reuters reports. The list is long and sad: half of all U.N. peacekeeping missions since the cold war ended have been in Africa. No wonder people are ready to let Africans take the lead. The price is any illusion that cavalry will soon ride to the rescue in Darfur. "The future is how we support organizations like [the AU]," says Gen. James Jones, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. "How can we as a group of nations contribute? Unfortunately it's happening at a time of need. It would have been better if we could have done it without the need being so great." Maybe next time.