ONE of the largest United Nations military operations, and the first in Africa in 25 years, has had a very shaky start. Ironically, the worst fighting and highest casualties in 23 years of guerrilla struggle in Namibia occurred after the arrival of the first 1,000 ``peacekeepers'' of the United Nations Transition Assistance Group. Weeks of bickering over the UNTAG budget inhibited final preparations for a complex peacekeeping operation that had been anticipated for over a decade. In a stunning example of false economy, the permanent members of the Security Council - on purely financial grounds - cut back the authorized force from 7,500 to 4,650 soldiers. Fewer than 20 percent of UNTAG was even in Namibia in April, and the fledgling force was unable to deal with large-scale infiltrations from Angola by the South-West Africa People's Organization. As South African forces went into action, the carefully wrought plan for Namibian independence came very close to being scuttled.
It is therefore puzzling - even to senior UN officials - that the Secretary-General did not postpone the operation long enough to be sure that the reduced-scale force was properly deployed.
Peacekeeping operations are serious military undertakings that should not be planned on the back of an envelope or subjected to cut-rate financing. The precarious operation in Namibia underscores the necessity for a realistic understanding of UN peacekeeping, which is by no means a cure-all for international conflict.
In recent months, peacekeeping forces have been touted to solve a daunting array of problems - from bringing peace to Cambodia to interdicting the international drug trade. In the new international climate, the Soviet Union, and even China, have become enthusiastic proponents of UN peacekeeping.
But, lest policymakers be too distracted by flights of doves, we need a clearheaded view of just what peacekeepers may and may not accomplish. Though they are inextricably linked to international diplomacy, peacekeeping operations are still military undertakings, even if there is no enemy. There are no shortcuts in contingency, logistical, and operational planning. Participants must be accountable to the highest levels of professional military standards, especially since they are likely to be pummeled - figuratively, and often literally - from all sides.
UN peacekeepers have been most successful when they provided belligerents a welcome excuse not to fight (as on the Golan Heights). States contributing soldiers for UN operations are not eager to send their youth into combat, even under UN auspices. In the exuberance surrounding the rediscovery of peacekeeping, this obvious constraint has often been overlooked in loosely formulated proposals to send blue-helmeted UN soldiers into trouble spots.
Once established, peacekeeping operations tend to become indispensable, as illustrated in Cyprus and Lebanon, where UN forces have been deployed for 25 and 11 years, respectively. Peacekeeping is a stopgap measure that can only buy diplomatic breathing space. Yet the illusion of calm in areas under UN control often dissipates diplomatic energy, and peacekeeping becomes a diplomatic cop-out. Beneath the seeming calm, disputes fester, only to threaten repeated eruptions of violence. The troubled history of the UN force in southern Lebanon underlines this.
The Namibian agreement provides for UNTAG's departure in a year. But the history of peacekeeping teaches us that the force will have to beat the odds if it is to avoid becoming a long-lived acronym. It is a good bet that it will also become an indispensable part in the delicate structure of stability in southern Africa.
The UN's members have usually been quicker to create forces than to pay the bills. Some UN forces have functioned under severe monetary constraints. Troop-contributing countries often have to wait as long as a decade for even partial reimbursement of their expenses. The financial squabbling over UNTAG is hardly reassuring.
Also, the UN has had only mixed success in recruiting top-flight generals to lead peacekeeping operations. Every army is eager to sacrifice its marginally competent generals, but loath to give up its best. But peacekeeping is no place for inept or over-the-hill generals. A mechanism for the recruitment of distinguished top-level leadership is urgent.
Reports from the field indicate that the Namibian agreement is back on track, but success is hardly guaranteed. The headlong rush to embrace UN peacekeeping may lead to disappointment if policymakers are blind to the limitations of this unusual and important instrument of international order. In global politics, brave young soldiers are no substitute for wise diplomacy.