African troops tested in Darfur

Sudan says it is willing to accept more African Union forces.

Out at the airport in this dusty outpost in western Sudan, a group of Rwandan soldiers, sent by the African Union (AU) to protect a group monitoring the cease-fire in war-torn Darfur, is losing motivation.

They have no vehicles, no phones, and no radios. So far, they have done little of the good work they felt they were supposed to do.

So they spend much of their day digging holes for latrines and taking naps, just to kill time.

"We are rather relaxed," says one soldier wearily, who gave his name only as Eugene.

Even if they get sufficient equipment and numbers, this group and the monitors it is here to protect have a daunting task - trying to bring to a close the 18-month humanitarian disaster here. Help may be on the way: This week UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for an increase in the number of international troops, and the UN Security Council backed an AU request for more than 3,000 fresh forces. In a reversal of previous statements, the government in Khartoum late Wednesday signaled it would permit such an increase.

The Darfur mission is the first foray into peace monitoring by the AU, and it has the full weight of the international community behind it, if not a full measure of resources. But whether this small and often ragtag band can actually bring an end the crisis will be a crucial test of Africa's ability to police itself.

Currently there are just 80 monitors from more than 10 countries spread around the region, which is the size of Iraq. They speak a medley of languages, possess few vehicles, and have wildly varying levels of experience. Added to this are 305 Rwandan and Nigerian troops whose mandate does not include disarming the government-backed militias who have been accused of killing civilians.

While the debate so far regarding the Darfur mission has focused on the numbers of AU troops on the ground, this is not the only hurdle to their success, say experts. Other problems include the mixed ability and experience of the troops and monitors, their unclear mandate, and the lack of sufficient technical and financial backup from the West.

The monitors come with varying backgrounds. Many, especially the West Africans, have served in UN peacekeeping missions around the continent. Many have previously gone through training by the US or the EU. But many others still wonder if they are up to the task.

"There is a lot of combined experience in the field," says one European Union military adviser to the mission, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But what's missing are men who have been responsible for a mission before, not just part of one. There needs to be proper mission analysis, a concept of the operations, and the ability to develop a plan. That is missing."

Still, he stresses, there is a learning curve, and the men are climbing it.

An equally big, if not bigger, problem is the monitor's mandate.

As it stands their job is to verify that the two sides of the April cease-fire agreement - the government of Khartoum and the two rebel groups - are fulfilling their obligations. They report violations to the political arm of the AU, which is working to hammer out a long-term resolution between the sides in peace talks in Nigeria.

But the AU pushing for a broader mandate to allow both monitors and protection troops to use force to stop attacks on civilians by the militias.

This is a call the Sudanese government has been reluctant to heed. Sudan's UN Ambassador Elfatih Mohamed Erwa this week told reporters the government had no objection to increasing the AU force, but would not accept a changed mandate for them. Khartoum, he said, is increasing the number of its police on the ground and improving security on its own. An expanded mandate would only lead to confrontation, he said.

Sudan is expected to avoid sanctions, which were threatened by the UN if Khartoum didn't make moves to end the crisis by Aug. 30.

Finally, it is clear on the ground that the monitors cannot even uphold the mandate they have, let alone a broader one, without more technical support, including equipment, food, housing, and transportation.

In Geneina, for example, the monitors have four vehicles. They need two for every patrol in case one gets stuck, and one more at headquarters for emergencies. This means that while there are 26 monitors in the province of West Darfur and 12 more Rwandans protecting them, only one patrol goes out a day.

Both the US and the EU are giving financial assistance and training to the AU, but not enough, according to one Western diplomat. "We need more people on the ground, and if [Western powers] don't want to be those people on the ground then we need to give logistical and financial support beyond what we are intending," he says. "The African countries are ready to get the job done. The question is: are we?

"Our rhetoric is not matched by resources," he says, answering his own question.

On the hill rising above Geneina, in the Sultan's old - and now ramshackle - palace, two dozen of the monitors are sitting around watching highlights from an athletic dance competition on Arabic satellite TV when the generator sputters out.

Someone goes out to tinker with it.

The faint sound of the call to prayer is heard and a few more men wander off, chatting in French, to pray to Allah. A Cameroonian sings a little ditty from back home and the rest head off to sleep. The TV suddenly flicks back on with news about Darfur.

But by now the room is empty. The generator sputters again and the image is lost.

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