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April 8, 2004
The Folly of "Peacekeepers"

Over the past twenty years or so, we have seen the emergence of a new philosophy of military deployment called "peacekeeping". The theory is that if you can negotiate a cessation of open hostilities, you can inject soldiers from a third party or outside coalition to keep people separated long enough to reach a peaceful accommodation. This notion sprngs from a serious misreading of the military standoffs in Korea and Cold War Europe, and in almost every instance it's been used, it has led to either disaster or quagmire.

Governments that send troops to be "peacekeepers" inevitably sell this idea to their constituencies like this:

Coalition governments could tell their nervous publics that the troops were in Iraq on humanitarian missions repairing roads, digging wells, providing security and generally helping a shattered people recover from decades of war and tyranny. ... Japan's government sold the mission to a skeptical public by calling it a humanitarian mission.

The problem comes when the people you're keeping separated decide that they want to duke it out for a while, or when people get tired of having third parties around at all. If countries deploy troops with no intention of having them take action when attacks start, they become little more than armed witnesses -- in other words, useless. The philosophy only works when the nations contributing those troops have the political will to actually return fire and take control of a situation militarily, as is true in Korea and was true in Cold War Europe.

When troops have no authority to engage, as we have seen a number of times over the past ten years, all they do is make the situation worse than it was before. The UN's peacekeeping force made Srebrenica a "safe zone" and encouraged Bosnian Muslims to locate their for their own protection. Yet when the Serbs attacked Srebrenica (since all their enemies were conveniently now in one place), the Dutch contingent stood by and did nothing to stop them. Earlier this year, despite thousands of "peacekeepers" in Kosovo, the Albianians went wild, burning churches that had stood for hundreds of years and attacking Serbian residents, while the troops stationed there did little to contain the violence.

This isn't peacekeeping; it's demonstrating weakness, and it gets people killed.

Unfortunately, it's happening again in Iraq, as international troop contributors in the Coalition did not sufficiently plan for the peacekeeping mission to actually require them to keep the peace. It's not just about digging wells and turning on the electricity; it's about demonstrating the will to fire your rifle at provocateurs who want to make trouble, sometimes on a small scale, sometimes on a larger one. Now that al-Sadr has attacked Coalition forces, we see those units that were prepared for the real mission, and those that weren't:

On Wednesday, Ukrainian troops abandoned the strategic town of Kut, evacuating about 20 American, British, Polish and other civilian officials of the U.S.-led occupation authority after mortar and infantry attacks by al-Sadr's militia, the al-Mahdi Army. ...

Elsewhere, the Spanish military watched as al-Sadr's gunmen seized control of the holy Shiite city of Najaf, including police stations and the Imam Ali Shrine. Spanish officials have turned to local tribal and religious leaders to see if they can negotiate an end to the takeover.

Italian troops and paramilitary police battled Shiite gunmen early Tuesday for control of bridges across the Euphrates River in Nasiriyah. Fifteen Iraqis were killed and 12 Italians were slightly wounded, Italian authorities said.

Even before the flare-up, South Korea (news - web sites) backed out of sending its 3,600 troops to Kirkuk because of possible conflict in an area coveted by rival ethnic groups. The South Koreans are considering two Kurdish cities which are among the most peaceful in the country. ...

Since the trouble started, the nearly 500 Japanese soldiers have been holed up in their camp near Samawah, ceasing all humanitarian activities until order is restored.

All this happened because political pressure on both Bush and Blair forced them to bring countries that weren't prepared to actually fight into the Coalition, unlike Italy, Poland, or Australia, for instance. You can't blame this on a failure to get UNSC sanction, either, although you can see where the UN approach originates. The reason we didn't want the UN in charge is because all forces in Iraq would be working under the Kosovo/Srebrenica rules of engagement. This demonstrates why Bush and Blair have insisted on a "vital" but not central role for the UN; in order to make the mission successful, the ROEs cannot come from the historically inept UN "peacekeeping" command.

American commanders recently requested more troops; I suspect that they want to replace some of the international units with more reliable deployments. We should allow those Coalition partners who won't take action on the ground to withdraw as graciously as possible and be happy with their support in material and politics instead.

UPDATE: Of course, bone-headed decisions like this don't help at all:

Two cousins of a Kosovo Liberation Army soldier shot dead by British peacekeepers in 1999 won a landmark compensation claim yesterday. ... The two were in a car with another cousin, Fahri Bici, in Pristina on July 2 1999, when he fired an AK-47 into the air during a demonstration to celebrate a Nato ceasefire between the KLA and the Serbs. Soldiers of the Parachute Regiment ordered the car to stop, and opened fire when it did not. Fahri Bici and another Kosovan Albanian were killed, and Mohamet Bici was shot in the jaw.

An investigation by the Royal Military Police cleared the three soldiers of wrongdoing. But yesterday Mr Justice Elias dismissed arguments from the MoD that the soldiers were acting in self-defence, or that they were covered by "combat immunity".

UPDATE II: Updated to add Poland to those who understood the actual mission in Iraq, although they seem to have gone wobbly this week. (Hat tip to Bithead.)

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 8, 2004 5:55 AM

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