The African Union’s first major peacekeeping mission — once considered the last line of defense for Darfur’s civilians — has been crippled by funding and equipment shortages, government harassment and an upsurge in armed attacks by rebel forces that last month left seven African troops dead.
The setbacks have sapped morale among peacekeepers, many of whom have not been paid for months. It has also compelled the force — which numbered 7,000 troops at its peak — to scale back its patrols and has diminished its capacity to protect civilians, aid workers and its own peacekeepers. In one example, Gambian troops last month failed to aid a Ghanaian peacekeeper who was gunned down in a carjacking incident within 300 yards of the mission’s Darfur headquarters, U.N. officials said.
When the fighting reached its peak in Darfur in spring 2004, the government of Sudan allowed a small number of African Union peacekeepers in to Darfur. Ostensibly, their job was to monitor a nominal cease-fire brokered between the government and rebels–not provide civilian protection. Still, considering the small number of troops, sparse resources at their disposal, and restrictive mandate, the African Union Mission in Sudan conducted itself admirably. In 2005, I interviewedBrian Steidle, a former US marine who served with the AU force. He recalled one incident in which the African Union deterred a government and janjaweed attack on a town of 45,000 by positioning merely 35 soldiers in the town.
So we know that the African Union can be effective. The problem is the AU is new at this. Its funding mechanisms are not guaranteed and neither are its logistical capabilities fully developed. But until a UN peacekeeping force sets foot in Darfur, AU troops are the only international boots on the ground. Donor countries need to do all they can to support them.