Last week’s ambush of a convoy of Nigerian peacekeepers in Darfur — at the hands of 60 well-armed bandits (likely janjaweed militias), wearing military uniforms and wielding machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades — adds yet another exclamation point to the urgent need to bolster UNAMID, the joint UN-AU peacekeeping force still struggling to patrol an area the size of France with just 9,000-odd troops. UNAMID’s spokesman, Norredine Mezni, captures the difficulties faced by the force well:

“We have bandits and we have armed groups and we have the (rebel) factions. With our very limited number of troops, it is not an easy job,” Mezni told Reuters.

“We are a peacekeeping organisation but there is no peace on the ground to keep. We are appealing for the cooperation of all sides in this conflict. We are here to help.”

Mezni could not be more on the mark. As much as the attack underscored the urgency both of deploying more peacekeepers and of better supplying those currently on the ground, the need for “cooperation of all sides” is ultimately the bedrock on which UNAMID — as a neutral, peacekeeping force — must operate. NYT correpondent Lydia Polgreen characterizes the attack as “a humiliating blow,” but the scales seem far too overwhelmingly stacked against UNAMID to justify calling this an embarrassment. Rather, the ambush emphasizes how unattainable the mission’s goals are in an atmosphere of such uninhibited obstruction from all sides. UNAMID simply cannot function when continually harassed by rebels, militias, government bureaucracy, and opportunistic raiders. Instead of depicting the UN-AU peacekeepers as hapless victims, though, the international community should recognize their unsustainable position, and take stronger steps to address the root causes of their situation.

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