By Bradley Graham and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 10, 2006
The Bush administration has settled on the idea of sending up to several hundred NATO advisers to help bolster African Union peacekeeping troops in their efforts to shield villagers in Sudan's Darfur region from fighting between government-backed Arab militias and rebel groups, administration officials said.
The move would include some U.S. troops and mark a significant expansion of U.S. and allied involvement in the conflict. So far, NATO's role has been limited to airlifting African Union forces to the region and providing a few military specialists to help the peacekeeping contingent.
The proposal, which still faces uncertain approval within NATO because of concerns that it could be a distraction from operations in Afghanistan, falls well short of more aggressive measures that some have advocated, such as sending ground combat troops or providing air patrols to protect peacekeepers and prevent the bombing of villages. These options have been ruled out as unnecessary at this time, an administration official said.
In general, U.S. officials said, their aim has been to address shortcomings in the African Union force without upstaging that force and stirring resentment in a region highly sensitive to the presence of Western troops.
Plans under consideration envision fewer than 500 NATO advisers. They would be assigned to African Union headquarters units and assist in logistics, communications, intelligence and command and control activities, not engage directly in field operations. The likely number of U.S. advisers has yet to be determined, officials said.
"This is supposed to be a support effort, not a take-over-the-mission effort," said the administration official, whose name and agency could not be identified under terms of the interview. As the reason for insisting on anonymity, the official cited the sensitivity of the internal planning.
The proposed deployment is intended as an interim measure until a U.N. force -- larger and with a broader mandate than the African Union force -- can be sent. International negotiations for such a force have been underway for months but remain complicated by mounting Sudanese opposition to a U.N. presence and the absence of a peace agreement among the warring groups in Darfur.
U.N. officials warn that the situation in Darfur is increasingly dangerous. "April seems set to be another month of spiraling violence," Hedi Annabi, a senior U.N. peacekeeping official, told the Security Council in a closed-door briefing Tuesday.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan formally appealed to NATO in late March for help in fortifying the ability of the African Union force to restrain armed groups and ensure the safety of civilians. The alliance's Military Committee is now drafting a plan that administration officials expect will be presented to NATO's political authorities later this month.
Nearly two months ago, President Bush signaled a new U.S. commitment to the Darfur crisis, calling for a sizable U.N. force and a bigger role for NATO in the peacekeeping effort. The remarks on Feb. 17 were said by aides at the time to have grown out of the president's frustration at the failure of the peace talks between Sudan's government and Darfur rebels to stop the violence.
"When he made his public remarks, that put everything on a much faster pace," the administration official said.
Still, the absence of major, visible gains in the weeks since Bush's statement has fed skepticism about the ability of the administration and the rest of the international community to mount an effective response.
"My hunch is, we're watching a bureaucratic slow-roll take place, but the danger is it's happening as the situation on the ground is getting worse," said Susan Rice, who served as an assistant secretary of state for Africa during the Clinton administration and now is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The administration has been in this knot of having called the situation genocide but then failing to do anything."
The latest conflict dates from early 2003, when Darfur rebel groups took up arms against the Arab-led Islamic government in Khartoum, citing discrimination against the region's black tribes. The Sudanese government bombed villages to force the rebels out and unleashed Arab militias that mounted a campaign of burning and pillaging. An estimated 100,000 to 400,000 people may have died from violence or disease, according to U.N. officials and human rights advocates, and more than 2 million people have been displaced to camps.
Juan Mendez, the U.N. special adviser for the prevention of genocide, last week expressed disappointment that the world's great powers had failed to take adequate action to halt the violence. "In effect, for the last two years we have engaged in half measures, and those half measures, one, have not been sufficient to protect and, two, they're showing signs of unraveling," Mendez told reporters Friday.
The African Union contingent, sent to Darfur in 2004, represents the first major test of the African peacekeeping force. It has grown to about 6,000 troops but, by all accounts, the force remains inadequate to secure a region that is the size of Texas. At least three international assessments of the force have found major weaknesses in its ability to manage its resources and organize operations.
By mid-March, Pentagon authorities had reviewed various options and were ready to back a large team of NATO advisers. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was briefed on the proposal March 17 and approved it for discussion with the White House and State Department, the administration official said. There is now "a general agreement in principle to this broad concept," the official added.
One of the factors limiting what can be done, U.S. officials said, is reluctance in NATO to undertake another major commitment on top of the alliance's growing role in securing Afghanistan.
"Afghanistan is a big mission for NATO, which wants to make sure it devotes appropriate priority to it," the administration official said. "Some NATO allies think Darfur could potentially become a distraction in a way that could jeopardize Afghanistan."
Nonetheless, U.N. officials have put the Bush administration and NATO on notice that they expect help in establishing the follow-on force to the African Union contingent.
"We've made it very clear that in order for a U.N. force to come," it "would need the kind of mobility and command and control and communications capacity that are reflected in the capacity of Western countries, which includes NATO and the United States," said Jane Holl Lute, the U.N. assistant secretary general for peacekeeping.
But U.N. officials have yet to spell out requirements. They are devising several options, depending on whether a full-fledged peace agreement can be reached or little more than a shaky ceasefire is achieved.
The U.N.'s military planning has been complicated by Khartoum's hardening opposition to a U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur. In a sign of stepped-up harassment of U.N. officials, Sudan last week barred a senior U.N. humanitarian official, Jan Egeland, from visiting Darfur. To avoid another confrontation, U.N. officials have postponed plans to send a military assessment team to the region.
John Prendergast, who heads the Africa division of the International Crisis Group, said Sudan's opposition to U.N. peacekeepers reflects fear that the troops could be used to arrest government officials currently under investigation by the International Criminal Court for ordering the commission of atrocities in Darfur.
"They don't want an effective force in Darfur," he said. "And they don't want the U.N. peacekeeping mission to become a Trojan horse that could execute the eventual ICC warrant for involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity by some of the leadership."
The envisioned transition to a U.N. force also been complicated by mounting resistance from the African Union to yielding power. The union chairman, former Malian president Alpha Oumar Konare, has been "backpedaling" on his commitment to support a handover to U.N. troops, a U.N. official said. Konare told Annan on March 31 that his organization was considering a series of options, including a proposal to have the African Union and the United Nations run a joint peacekeeping operation.
Lynch reported from the United Nations.