Global Policy Forum

Powell's Peacekeeping Promise


By Charles Cobb jr.
May 24, 2001

In the White House earlier this month, U.S. President George Bush told Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo that the United States would continue to help train Nigerian troops as peacekeepers. This week en route to Mali, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters that President Bush's assurance represented an unbreakable promise, despite Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's intention to reduce overseas commitments by the Pentagon.

"Secretary Rumsfeld is always looking for opportunities to back off on some of the overseas commitments we have, and that's his job.... But we have to balance it against our responsibilities," said Powell, denying that a fight between the State Department and the Pentagon over the issue is underway. "We'll always be looking for that right balance, so there really is no disconnect between Don always trying to make sure it is the right mission and an important mission and worth our investing in it, and the State Department sort of anxious to move our foreign policy along by training these guys in peacekeeping units. So we're always tugging at this; but it is not a fight, just trying to find the right balance between getting too committed and not getting committed enough."

Phase two of 'Operation Focus Relief', a U.S. partnership with West African armies to support United Nations operations in Sierra Leone, began this month. Light infantry weapons were issued to two Ghanaian and Senegalese battalions participating in the current training cycle. The first phase, initiated late last year, involved two Nigerian battalions (about 1,5000 men) and the third segment will involve three more. All seven West African battalions will be commanded by the UN effort, known as UNAMSIL, and will operate according to its UN mandate and rules of engagement.

The U.S. support program was created as a direct response to atrocities against civilians by the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. But in a broader, more political sense, the initiative is rooted in the stinging criticism directed at Washington for its failure to respond to the Rwanda genocide of 1994.

In July of this year, about 500 U.S. Special Forces troops will arrive in Bamako to spend 40 days training Mali's soldiers to cope with both military and humanitarian crises. Although the United States has small military training programs and a presence in over a dozen African nations, Nigeria is where the bulk of U.S. military aid has been directed. The oil that makes that West African nation so important to the U.S., as well as the ugliness of the nearby conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone, contribute to Nigeria's role.

Use of U.S. troops in African conflicts has been ruled out, a fact that fuels criticism by some, like Paul Olweny of the World Policy Institute. "We're shirking our own responsibility by doing this outsourcing, he says." Point to Bosnia and former Yugoslavia,he asks: "Why is it a problem in Africa?"

Speaking to reporters, Powell said, "I really don't see any missions coming along where I can anticipate a need for U.S. combat troops." And in fact, few of even the most strident voices suspicious of the Bush Administration are calling for a U.S. troop response to Africa's regional conflicts. Olweny acknowledges that "The Nigerians have proven themselves to be the best at peacekeeping in the region." But in a "fledgling democracy," he is uncertain how balanced a policy is "that throws all of our resources into the institution responsible for much of the past problems."

The United States has the muscle to strengthen civil society, even as it aids peacekeeping, he believes. "What about profesionalizing the police? Transparency? There's not enough of it; not much of it.... These are very serious concerns if we're talking peace and stability."

More Information on US Policy on Peacekeeping
More Information on Peacekeeping
More Information on Sierra Leone and Liberia


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