‘We do deserts, we don’t do mountains’

Alex de Waal

  • Soldiers of Diplomacy: The United Nations, Peacekeeping and the New World Order by Jocelyn Coulon
    Toronto, 231 pp, £26.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 8020 0899 2
  • Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention edited by Jonathan Moore
    Rowman and Littlefield, 320 pp, £18.95, December 1998, ISBN 0 8476 9031 8
  • New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in the Global Era by Mary Kaldor
    Polity, 200 pp, £13.99, December 1998, ISBN 0 7456 2067 1

Ineptitude and confounded expectations lie at the heart of military affairs. Probably not one war in a hundred has conformed to the course plotted for it by those who launched it. Journalists have catalogued many of the errors and stupidities of recent wars, and there have been some scholarly assaults on the territory, most of which are concerned with the British Army in its Imperial heydey and aftermath. Perhaps when US power has waned somewhat, we may see Americans becoming comfortable with the subject too, and attempting academic analyses of some of the more remarkable feats of precision air attack, such as the strike on the al shiffa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum or the neat destruction of the house next door to General Aidid’s headquarters in Mogadishu. Meanwhile, the nature of incompetence is changing. As generals come under closer political control and elected leaders are able to monitor and direct the conduct of wars on an hour-by-hour basis, civilian politicians are committing an ever-bigger share of blunders. In an extended hierarchical command system, the opportunities for mistakes proliferate. A competent frontline commander’s chance of failure is proportional to the amount of time he must spend fighting his own bureaucracy.

‘War,’ Clausewitz wrote, ‘is the province of uncertainty: three-quarters of those things on which action in war must be calculated are more or less hidden in the great clouds of uncertainty.’ Nonetheless, in his attempts to construct a theory of war, Clausewitz preferred to regard chance as part of the ‘friction’ that retards the operations of a skilled general. The theory would be less neat but one could plausibly argue that luck and stupidity are inherent to war and a well-executed campaign is so unusual as to require special scrutiny. Modern generals are well versed in management and intelligence problems, yet they, or their political superiors, are still capable of making monstrous errors on a routine basis. Calculating all the contingencies and outcomes is beyond even the most skilled analysts but the very real likelihood of everything getting out of hand is unthinkable to those so deeply schooled in command and control.

When wars come tolerably close to their planners’ blueprints (as the Falklands War did for the British or the Gulf War for the US), it is as much a matter of chance as of judgment, chance most often taking the form of mind-boggling incompetence on the part of their adversaries – Saddam Hussein obliged by leading his army to the brink of annihilation. Other campaigns work out simply because one belligerent possesses such overwhelming force that it can prevail despite making errors that would have been catastrophic to a lesser power. This appears to be how Nato defeated Serbia. A century ago, the British Empire was surprised, rather than put at risk, by the blunders of Spion Kop.

The most dangerous wars are successful ones. Victorious generals and their political masters prefer to delude themselves by taking the credit for winning, and so construct fictional accounts of the war, imputing rational calculation where none could have existed. Such is the hair’s breadth between disaster and triumph that spite, recrimination and finger-pointing follow one campaign and specious self-congratulation another though both were executed with the same skill and determination. Only the outcome was different – and that, again, mostly as a result of chance. After a hundred years in which the most inept British general could win wars in Asia and Africa, and at least contrive a draw in Russia, came the First World War – a canvas on which majestic incompetence would be painted on a grander scale than ever before. Alan Clark’s The Donkeys was one of the first forays into the study of institutionalised military idiocy. More recently, after the glories of the Gulf War, American generals rejected intervention in Bosnia with the words, ‘We do deserts, we don’t do mountains’ – and agreed to send the Marines to Somalia.

Military disasters determine the future of policy, especially if the command in question is the world’s remaining superpower, and its interests compel it to continue to despatch its forces around the world. After the US lost the will to fight on in Somalia, the National Security Council set in train a review of US involvement in peacekeeping and similar missions. This was not an easy task. Using force to keep the peace is one of the most difficult things to get right. Armed force is inherently ill-suited to peace missions. To be effective, peace-enforcers must be credible, which means they must be ready to threaten force, and if necessary use it; but once force has been used, conflict – any conflict – has a tendency to escalate. Creating the right mechanisms for political direction and military restraint should be the priorities.

The ‘humanitarian’ intervention in Somalia was misconceived and badly implemented. The political rationale was flawed; combat troops were sent instead of engineers and soldiers who’d specialised in law enforcement; and the US set deadlines for its own internal reasons. The war against General Aidid was a bungling, all-American failure: the US Rangers and Special Forces chain of command so completely bypassed the UN operation in Somalia that when the Malaysian and other contingents needed to launch a mission to rescue the stranded American helicopter crews, they did not even know there were Americans in action in Somalia, let alone where.

The National Security Council drew precisely the wrong lessons from that episode. Presidential Decision Directive 25, issued at the end of March 1994 and passed into law in May, was one of the worst-ever foreign policy proposals to emerge from Washington. Implicitly it put the blame everywhere except where it belonged – with the US command structure. The reluctance of the US to commit its own troops to uncertain ventures is understandable. But PDD25 went further and proposed that the US should support only those UN peacekeeping initiatives that met US national interests, enabled the US to reduce its proportion of UN peacekeeping budgets and had a clear mandate and exit strategy. By putting US interests first, it made a bonfire of the principles of collective responsibility and security. Its redeeming feature has been to enable critics to point the finger unequivocally at the US for any subsequent cock-ups in ‘collective’ military intervention.

PDD25 was put to the test a week later, with the launching of the genocide in Rwanda. Madeleine Albright dutifully insisted that there should be no international military intervention to halt the slaughter. She used the US position at the Security Council to ensure that even an independent African proposal for an intervention force did not go ahead. By July, the US had successfully withstood concerted pressure to act: Albright made the ‘disciplined and coherent choice’ that the Directive called for. Mothballed US armoured vehicles in Germany were not delivered to the rump UN force remaining in Kigali because the Americans could not be sure that the UN would pay the bills (the organisation has a cash-flow problem, not unconnected to overdue contributions from its major donor). Perhaps the ghosts of a million Rwandan dead provide a clue to the Secretary of State’s readiness to use force when genocide threatened in Kosovo.

Armies blunder despite unity of command and a carefully instilled ethos of national pride. Imagine how this capacity for self-inflicted incompetence is multiplied in the case of a multinational force operating according to a tight legal mandate, interpreted by one of the world’s less efficient bureaucracies, several continents away. UN peacekeeping forces are vulnerable not just to the aggregated problems of their various national contingents, but to a special dose of the UN’s own paralysing incapacity. (And of course sovereign states don’t particularly want to see the UN achieving competence in the use of force.) This has been clear for some time. Initially, UN peacekeeping forces were an ad hoc improvisation for the special circumstances of Suez and Cyprus. In the Congo in the early Sixties, they ran up against the now familiar problem of trying to keep the peace where there is no peace to keep. In 1968, a few years after that grim experience, the Canadian Department of National Defence commissioned a report, written by Roger Hill, and cited in Soldiers of Diplomacy. Its conclusions have not dated: ‘The UN has virtually no planning mechanism in New York to analyse past experience, monitor current operations or plan for future peacekeeping forces.’ It has ‘proceeded by a process of trial and error, instead of taking the trouble to analyse likely situations’. And in a remarkable forecast of the disarray that was to occur in Somalia and some other ambitious peacekeeping missions, Hill continued: ‘It is even conceivable that an Emergency Force in certain circumstances, if deprived of adequate backing from New York, could split into rival factions pursuing different goals while paying only lip-service to the UN Commander’s orders.’ Peacekeeping forces confront a host of problems, but an absence of warnings about potential managerial and command and control problems is not one of them.

A short chapter by the Canadian General Romeo Dallaire in Hard Choices must qualify as the most gripping account of peacekeeping ever written. Dallaire was the commander of the UN Assistance Mission to Rwanda (Unamir) when ‘Hutu Power’ extremists in the Government launched their final solution. A couple of months before the genocide, a high-ranking Government source warned Dallaire of the plan, and revealed the locations of hidden arms caches. Stockpiling weapons was a violation of the agreement that Unamir was supposed to enforce. Dallaire cabled the UN Secretariat, asking for permission to raid the caches. The Department of Peacekeeping, headed by Kofi Annan, instructed the General to report to the President of Rwanda and ask him to act on it. Dallaire dutifully carried out this idiotic order. The Government could rest assured that its secrets remained in safe hands. Dallaire’s highly-placed source fell silent. On 7 April, the day after the killers began their extermination of the Tutsi minority, the UN decided to pull out its force. Dallaire continues (the emphasis is his):

The fact that nearly 1500 highly capable troops from France, Italy and Belgium landed in Kigali within days, with several hundred US marines standing by in Burundi, to evacuate the expatriates and a few hundred selected Rwandans, and then left in the face of the unfolding tragedy and with full knowledge of the danger confronting the emasculated UN force, is inexcusable by any human criteria. Unamir was abandoned by all, including most of our civilian staff (by order), and we were left to fend for ourselves for weeks. That we were left in this state with neither mandate nor supplies – defensive stores, ammunition, medical supplies or water, and with only survival rations that were either rotten or inedible – is a description of inexcusable apathy by the sovereign states that make up the UN that is completely beyond comprehension and moral acceptability.

It took the General more than two weeks to ascertain where all his troops were. He continues, with understatement: ‘More than 70 per cent of my and my principal staff’s time was dedicated to an administrative battle with the UN’s somewhat constipated logistic and administrative structure, a structure on which the mission and the force were totally dependent’

Unamir’s 450 troops protected – i.e. saved from certain death – some thirty thousand Rwandan citizens, mostly Tutsi. It was a remarkable and often heroic effort, requiring courage, persistence and improvisation. With the right mandate and logistical support they could have saved many times that number. Had Dallaire been given the authority he craved, the genocide might have been prevented altogether.

Are all military interventions fated to go wrong? Or are we being too lavish with our use of hindsight, arguing for options that didn’t exist at the time? The abilities of Dallaire and other experienced, skilful and honest commanders testify to the possibility of success. How could an operation fail, with such talent at its head? It took a level of complacency and ineptitude well beyond the call of duty to overrule Dallaire’s readiness to see what was required and to carry it out.

International interventions – peacekeeping among them – will be needed for some time to come. Three options present themselves: a new doctrine of assertive interventionism, a return to traditional ‘blue helmet’ peacekeeping or a creative new approach somewhere between the two. The first option involves a readiness to send in troops to right the most egregious wrongs. Whatever the eventual outcome in Kosovo, whatever the consequences of the bombing for the Serbian population, whatever the causal chain whereby the worst of the killings and burnings occurred after the bombing started, the Nato assault was at least a coherent response to the actions of a repulsive regime. Of course, Nato did not intervene in Sudan or Sierra Leone or Afghanistan or Angola – let alone in Turkish Kurdistan, Tibet or Chechnya. This inconsistency does not mean it was wrong to go to war over Kosovo, but it does make it rather difficult to construct a new principle of interventionism. All calibration of human suffering, whatever its cause, is irredeemably subjective. So is any estimation of a ‘threat to international peace’. For any intervention to be truly ‘humanitarian’ it has to observe principles of legality and transparency and this in turn may stand in the way of an operation being swift and decisive. And the question of whether it is ‘do-able’ is vital – an intervention that fails is by definition immoral.

Realpolitik criteria are not much less problematic, hingeing as they do on notions of ‘national interest’. Did the Kosovo intervention meet the criteria of PDD25? Of course it did – the US likes to fight (or rather, annihilate) from a safe altitude and the command structure excluded the UN and the Russians. Cutting the US share of the peacekeeping budget is irrelevant when the US Air Force is in action, and US national interests were at stake – after all, the President’s credibility was on the line. As Michael Ignatieff argues in Hard Choices, Washington was spurred to action over Bosnia, too, not by the ‘CNN factor’ itself but by the way this translated into a question of leadership:

For three years, a small constituency pounded away at the shame of Bosnia, and in the end their campaign worked – not, I hasten to add, because political leaders themselves felt any great shame but because, in time, they were made to feel that they were failing to exercise ‘leadership’. Once a political leader feels his or her legitimacy and authority are put under sustained moral question, he or she is bound to act sooner or later.

The absence of any doctrine of humanitarian intervention in the UN Charter reflects the extent to which the concept had already been abused by the Forties – Hitler had cited ‘humanitarian’ grounds for his annexation of the Sudetenland. No coherent philosophy of intervention emerged under UN auspices in the early Nineties, and it is less likely to do so under Nato leadership, which bypasses other organisations such as the UN and the OSCE whenever it suits Washington and Whitehall to do so. Europe will soon learn, as Africa has done over the last decade, that moralising is no substitute for lawfulness, principle and professional diplomacy. Will another imperial hegemon have to learn the limits of power the hard way?

The second option – traditional ‘blue-helmet’ peacekeeping – is eloquently argued for by Jocelyn Coulon in Soldiers of Diplomacy:

While waiting for the member states of the UN, and in particular the great powers, to agree on a clear and coherent philosophy on military intervention and how it should be implemented, the UN must return to the great principle that governed the creation of the Blue Helmets: to keep the peace when this is what the parties concerned really want. This is no doubt a less spectacular, less heroic mission, but returning to it is the only way that the Blue Helmets will be able to continue to be an effective instrument of international diplomacy in the settlement of conflicts and a credible hope for thousands of people caught up in the turmoil of war.

In current UN-speak, this is known as ‘mandate accountability’. It has many advantages. It rules out several dangers, including arbitrariness, moralising (which always discolours judgment in such affairs) and escalation. A ‘blue-helmet’ operation under Chapter VI of the UN Charter will not get out of hand. It is not a panacea: it does not claim to be anything other than a particular response to a particular situation. In some cases, it can work. But in many others, it cannot Entrusting ultimate care of military operations in delicate circumstances to UN mandarins and placemen has a rather mixed record, as we know from Rwanda. There are relatively few places where all parties to a conflict ‘really want’ peace. In most cases, there is some armed group doing what it can to derail any peace agreement, and it is the peacekeepers’ duty to make sure it doesn’t succeed. UN forces then face the dilemma of deterrence: sending lightly armed troops in white vehicles under a tight mandate into an ongoing war is asking for trouble – as the history of the Blue Helmets in South Lebanon amply demonstrates.

An honourable tradition argues that humanitarian intervention should be illegal – but can occasionally be attempted. Sir William Harcourt, writing at a time when Britain could project its moral attitudes across the globe by force, argued that ‘intervention is a high and summary procedure which may sometimes snatch a remedy beyond the reach of law. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that in the case of intervention as that of revolution, its essence is its illegality and its justification is its success.’ Such a position is perhaps implicit in the tension between the UN Charter, which outlaws the use of force under all circumstances, and the 1948 Genocide Convention, which lays down an obligation to prevent and punish the crime of genocide, but is conspicuously silent on how this should be done. There are times at which rules break down and legality should give way to a higher moral claim – and the fight against genocide is the locus classicus of such a situation. But, given the profound uncertainty of any military undertaking, Harcourt’s criterion of success as the justification of intervention may be hard to meet.

An interesting third position is developed by Mary Kaldor in New and Old Wars. She calls it ‘cosmopolitan law enforcement’, something between soldiering and policing:

Unlike war-fighting, in which the aim is to maximise casualties on the other side and to minimise casualties on your own side, and peacekeeping, which does not use force, cosmopolitan law-enforcement has to minimise casualties on all sides. The significance of Nuremberg was that individuals and not collectivities were held responsible for war crimes. It is the arrest of individuals who may have committed war crimes or violations of human rights that is required for cosmopolitan law-enforcement, not the defeat of sides.

This would require a radical reorientation of armies, in terms of equipment, training, command and outlook. A new multinational force with an autonomous command would be required. It would have to be ready to take some casualties.

The idea of cosmopolitan law enforcement is conceived with cases like Bosnia in mind. As the war recedes, it is easy to assume that Nato ultimately ‘solved’ Bosnia. This is unlikely to prove the case, as the country becomes a protectorate under indefinite Nato tutelage, with only hollow democratic institutions. Ultimately, Nato’s role in Bosnia is underwritten, not by the mandate to hand over to newly developing Bosnian political institutions, but by its ability to threaten overwhelming force. Kaldor recognises that any international engagement with Bosnia (and by extension Kosovo) is profound and will be long-lasting, and thus that imperial-style responsibilities should be taken seriously. Building effective social and political institutions in Bosnia and Kosovo will require far greater political commitment and a very different kind of military presence. Opaque international bureaucracies and conventional Nato-style armies cannot, in the long term, be the way to bring about peace and ensure democracy: there must be a fundamental change in approach. This of course is far more difficult to achieve, and few Western political leaders are ready to acknowledge openly how long their forces and aid money will be tied up in the former Yugoslavia. More widely, Kaldor’s prescription is based on the notion that Clausewitzean wars are a thing of the past: irregular wars of identity politics and against crime – i.e. terrorism and drug wars – are the challenge of the future. This is not implausible, but conventional wars (India-Pakistan, Ethiopia-Eritrea) have not yet disappeared.

The real obstacle to the idea of cosmopolitan law enforcement is that it is not likely to be attractive to armies (and their suppliers). There is simply too much at stake in maintaining the current military institutions and their contracts. Nato armies are likely to choose conflicts that will allow them to put on a firework display and justify their current outlook: yes to taking on plywood replicas of Serbian tanks from the skies; no to trying to police Sierra Leone. Creating a specialised cosmopolitan law-enforcement force would cost a fraction of the arms expenditure of even a small European country, and wouldn’t compete with the big military establishments, but in the aftermath of the Kosovo triumph it remains a distant possibility.

In reality what is emerging is a doctrine of regional responsibility for intervention – ‘let the neighbours sort it out.’ The West African peacekeeping force in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Ecomog, is the best example of this way of doing things. Its performance would certainly not be openly tolerated by a UN-led force. The first Ecomog commander landed in Monrovia without even a map of the city, and with four military contingents that took orders directly from their national army headquarters. Its performance was often shambolic, it wantonly violated human rights, and it soon became a partisan belligerent force itself. But Ecomog was refreshingly honest about its political agenda from the outset; and, unencumbered by misleading humanitarian mission statements, it has been ready to stay and fight for a decade. Perhaps Somalia would have been better off with a similar slow and dirty approach. And Europe and the US have been ready to let Ecomog, under Nigerian leadership, get on with the job. For the majority of the world’s trouble spots that do not interest Nato, West Africa may augur the future of peace-keeping.

Almost anything would be better than the current Nato doctrine of high-tech annihilation from on high. For one thing, Nato does not have the capacity or will to deliver its ‘solution’ to countries like Sudan or Afghanistan. Counting on the rationality of its adversaries closer to home – which used to be the basis of deterrence – is an inherently risky strategy, because any leader who seriously contemplates launching a war has already let go of any recognisable rationality. Much better to re-embark on the project, neglected for half a century, of outlawing war altogether, criminalising those who wage it and keeping all but non-violent solutions as exceptional measures that run beyond the remit of any legislation.