Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


How to make peace using the principles of war

Sun Tzu's 'Art of War' can guide the UN's latest peacekeeping mission to success in Darfur.

By P. Surdas Mohit / August 13, 2007



La Jolla, Calif.

On July 31, the United Nations Security Council voted to authorize the creation of a peacekeeping mission to Sudan's Darfur region with a maximum strength of 20,000 military personnel and 6,000 police. After hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions driven from their home, can this intervention succeed? Only if we learn from the mistakes of the peacekeeping failures of the 1990s.

Skip to next paragraph

The missteps that led to the failure of these missions can be understood (and avoided) using the basic principles of warfare taught by the Chinese general Sun Tzu in "The Art of War" over 2,000 years ago. Sun Tzu described five keys to victory:

1. "He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight." In peacekeeping, this is particularly important, since the UN force is inevitably weaker than the principal belligerents. The mission in Somalia, for example, failed the moment that UN and United States forces attempted to defeat the warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid militarily, becoming themselves belligerents in the conflict. This was ultimately the result of misconstruing the capabilities of the forces at their disposal and Mr. Aidid's militia.

2. "He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces." Peacekeeping is a delicate balance between violent and nonviolent tactics, and a mission's success depends on the ability of both the commander and the soldiers to deal with confrontations of various sorts.

In cases such as Darfur, Bosnia, and Rwanda – where crimes against humanity are likely to occur or are occurring on a large scale – the goal should be to keep the major belligerents as quiet as possible, while using force to suppress smaller elements as needed to protect the civilian population. This technique was used with some success by MONUC ­– the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo –­ on a limited scale. In 2005, bolstered by the deployment of 5,000 additional troops, UN forces began to fight ethnic militias that were destabilizing the Ituri region, while continuing to avoid antagonizing bigger military players.

In Rwanda during the genocide of 1993-94, Canadian Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, more than any UN force commander before or since, showed an understanding of these principles and how to apply them in an environment where military victory cannot be achieved and is not the goal. However, the last three of Sun Tzu's keys to victory proved to be almost impossible to achieve within the UN's command and control structure:

3. "He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks."

4. "He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared."

5. "He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign."

In Rwanda, a few of the UN battalions performed with great courage and skill, such as the Tunisians and Ghanaians, while others were less dependable and ultimately detracted from the mission. In the end, General Dallaire's lack of control over the mission prevented him from taking meaningful action. Both his plan to catch the Interahamwe militia, composed of Hutu extremists, off guard by seizing arms caches prior to the genocide and his request for reinforcements once the genocide of the Tutsis began were denied, and the UN Security Council withdrew the majority of the remaining forces.

The experience of these missions provides us with some insight into how to maximize the chances for success in Darfur.

It is imperative that UNAMID, the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping mission to Darfur, avoid direct conflict with Sudanese government forces and the principal rebel groups. However, in order to protect civilians, they may have to crack down aggressively on the government-backed janjaweed militias.

The makeup of the force is very important. Large contingents from Tunisia and Ghana, whose soldiers have performed well on several UN missions, would go a long way toward strengthening the force, as would small contingents and military observers from Western countries with peacekeeping experience (such as Canada).

The UN should not try to manage events on the ground from New York; the force commander must have the ability to act when civilians are in danger.

The availability of additional forces can make the difference between success and failure. The UN's seldom-used rapid reaction force, SHIRBRIG, should be ready to deploy in support of UNAMID.

P. Surdas Mohit is a planetary geophysicist at University of California, San Diego's Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics.

Permissions