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The danger of intervention

Monday 4 September 2006, by Alex de Waal

The collapse of the Darfur peace agreement designed to resolve the conflict in western Sudan could be averted by a more comprehensive approach to the key issue of disarmament.

The implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) signed on 5 May 2006 is stalling, amid new insecurity across the western Sudanese region. In these circumstances, more calls are being made for armed intervention by Nato or other western forces. A quick examination of the record of military intervention and of the problems that would await an intervention force in Darfur, counsels caution – and also suggests that the DPA’s security-arrangements chapter can provide a blueprint for progress.

There are vigorous debates on the law and ethics of intervention that often serve to obscure the key criterion that justifies sending troops on a humanitarian mission: will they succeed? The limited patience of western publics for such missions – especially when casualties are involved – suggests that a variant on the criterion might be appropriate: will they succeed quickly?

The criterion of "quick success" immediately rules out the pundits’ favourite proposals for intervention in Darfur. The central question for an intervention force is what to do about the janjaweed militia. The various militia groups that have been labeled janjaweed have over the last few years been responsible for horrendous atrocities. They have also been engaged in some fierce fighting against the combat-hardened guerrillas of the Darfur rebel movements. A Nato force able to protect civilians and disarm the janjaweed is the option favoured by many activists.

To disarm a militia, combat-tested and operating in its own terrain with support from its own communities, requires a counter-insurgency operation of formidable capacity. In 1988, a combined air-and-land attack by the Chadian army and France’s Opération Épervier (Operation Sparrowhawk) crossed the border into Darfur and defeated the first janjaweed groups sheltering there. At that time there were fewer than 500 janjaweed militiamen; today there 20,000 or so, depending on what definition is used.

Similar commando strikes might be possible against the principal janjaweed headquarters today. But, as many janjaweed units are now part of the Sudanese regular forces, this would entail declaring war on the Sudan government. No doubt some advocates of intervention would be delighted to do just that.

A purely military solution to the janjaweed problem would be large, long and costly. The basic rule of thumb for suppressing insurgencies is that a force ration of ten to one is required. This implies an intervention force of 200,000 for an indefinite period.