The deep-throated buzz of American C-130 cargo planes has been rumbling across the skies over Sudan's troubled Darfur region of late.
The three gray pot-bellied aircraft, and the 125 US Air Force personnel who run them, have been ferrying Rwandan and Nigerian soldiers into Darfur as part of a plan by the African Union - a kind of United Nations of Africa - to help halt the killings in western Sudan, killings the US calls genocide. Experts say the cooperative effort represents the world's best, and perhaps last, hope of helping Darfur's masses, who've recently seen rising levels of violence.
It's also the biggest test yet of an emerging architecture aimed at halting Africa's conflicts: African "boots on the ground" backed by US or European money and logistical prowess. Success could mean it becomes the battle-tested formula for addressing Africa's wars. Failure could mean continued travails for people in Darfur and elsewhere.
The partnership between African and Western nations may not be perfect, but "it's better than anything that went before," says Alex de Waal, a longtime Africa observer and fellow at Harvard University's Global Equity Initiative.
The deployment of some 3,000 Nigerian and Rwandan troops and police officers under the African Union (AU) banner comes amid increased insecurity in Darfur. Last week Sudanese government troops reportedly moved into two refugee camps, forcibly removing some residents and preventing aid agencies from accessing the camps. The move was perhaps in retaliation for the kidnapping of 18 Arabs by Darfur rebels. Two rebel groups began an insurgency against the government early last year, claiming Khartoum has sidelined their region.
The UN's World Food Program (WFP) had to relocate 88 staff members due to safety concerns. Other aid groups have pulled staff from the unsafe areas. The WFP estimates 160,000 people in Darfur are in need of food and other aid but are in areas too unsafe for international agencies to enter. In all, 1.6 million Darfur residents have been displaced since fighting began. Some 70,000 civilians have been killed, many by government-backed militias. Peace talks in Nigeria have so far not borne fruit.
Into this fray comes the 322nd Air Expeditionary Group of the US Air Force, based in Ramstein, Germany. They set up camp at Rwanda's main airport, surrounded by rolling hills and turquoise mountain lakes. From there they've ferried troops, supplies, and equipment - including armored personnel carriers - 1,000 miles north into Darfur. Besides planes, the US has pledged $300 million to the Darfur effort. The European Union has also pledged $125 million. The money and airplanes are crucial because African countries notoriously have little of either. But they do have troops - something America has been reluctant to put in Africa since 18 US rangers were killed in Somalia in 1993.
Rwanda became one of the first African countries to provide troops for the Darfur effort, in part because of still-fresh memories of its own genocide in 1994. Other African nations have promised to send troops - a total of more than 700 from Chad, Gambia, Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania, according to news reports.
"The US Air Force's contribution to ending this crisis is just one part of a larger US and international effort," says the US mission commander, Col. Robert Baine. "Our focus is on providing airlift for African Union forces so they can save African lives."
The push by Africans to solve their own problems marks a significant shift, experts say. Rather than waiting for the outside world to resolve the crisis, "The AU has taken a very clear lead in saying, 'These are African problems, and we will sort them out,' " says Mr. de Waal.
But turning this rhetoric into a safe reality for people in Darfur will be tough, experts say. The AU, for instance, is seriously short-staffed. Its planning group for the Darfur mission reportedly includes only three people - and they're on loan from the United Nations.
For the AU troops, success depends on at least four variables observers say.
First, long-distance transport, which is being handled by the US. Second, communications like high-power radios, which are expensive. Third, health, which is a major concern in the forbidding desert of Darfur. Fourth, the rules governing their mission. So far the AU has restricted their role to protecting AU observers who are already on the ground monitoring a shaky government-rebel cease-fire signed in April. They can only protect civilians in their "immediate vicinity." And their ability to prevent government and rebel forces from looting aid convoys, which has been a recurring problem, is limited.
In the end, "It's not a question of whether it might work. It's got to work," says Henry Boshoff, a military analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. The main reason: "Who else is going to do it?" he asks. There's an effective deadlock in the UN Security Council over Sudan. Nations like China and France have essentially blocked US efforts to slap sanctions or take other actions against the Sudanese regime. The US and EU "decided this was the way to get past the deadlock," says Mr. Boshoff.
It's a formula that worked fairly well in Liberia last year, observers say, when US Marines supported regional troops. Together they helped restore order following that country's civil war. The best thing about the new architecture, says de Waal, is that it engages a host of stakeholders in solving the problem.
If the Darfur mission succeeds, it could give real impetus to the model, experts say. Last month, for instance, Somalia's newly elected president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, asked the AU for 20,000 peacekeepers to help rebuild his war-torn country. Such a large deployment would require major international support.