The long road out of Darfur

It can't be said that the world has completely forgotten Darfur, one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, but it nearly has. About 7,000 troops from the 53-member-nation African Union are doing their best to protect 2 million Darfurians uprooted by killing and pillaging. That's not nearly enough of a security presence.

Although the killing in this brutal internal conflict has subsided under a shaky cease-fire, the people of Sudan's Darfur region - a dry, undeveloped area the size of Texas - are still threatened by violence. Tens of thousands of Darfurians continue to be displaced. Women leaving displacement camps searching for firewood face the threat of rape. Bandits have closed road corridors, limiting access to vital aid workers.

And tension is growing on the Darfur border with Chad, threatening to expand this conflict. Chad, reported to be aiding Darfurian rebels, has accused Sudanese militias of border attacks.

The African Union (AU) deserves credit for stepping in militarily in 2004 where no one else has - even after the US condemned Darfur as a scene of genocide. But it's clearly overstretched. A report by the AU released earlier this month says it has had to make do with "about half the logistical capacity" it needs, and it doesn't even have money to last through March - let alone to oversee the hoped-for safe return of refugees.

The UN, with Washington's backing, is now working to enlarge the security mission and turn it over to the United Nations. Earlier this month, Jan Pronk, UN envoy to Sudan, called for as many as 20,000 troops to protect returning refugees. They should have a mandate to disarm the Sudanese-backed militias, known as janjaweed, who have driven so many Darfurians from their villages.

But it's a long, long way from here to there, and will require a lot more political will on the part of Washington and other players to get there.

The first hurdle, resistance within the AU, seems to be falling. The UN is talking with the AU, which agrees "in principle" to transfer its mission. But there's a certain degree of African pride involved, and the AU needs to be properly acknowledged for its contribution.

The bigger hurdle is Khartoum, which steadfastly refuses to allow nonAfrican intervention. Last week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice endorsed a UN military role in Darfur, and told Khartoum to cooperate. But it will take far more high-level pressure from Washington to get Khartoum, accused of backing the pillaging janjaweed, to budge.

And should the Sudanese government agree to a UN mission, where will the troops come from? Because of its vastness, Darfur requires air support, not a specialty of the developing countries which normally make up UN peacekeeping. That leaves the US (too strapped in Afghanistan and Iraq) or NATO.

But NATO itself is still extremely wary (and tiresomely so) about missions outside Europe. The Dutch parliament, for instance, is holding up deployment of troops to southern Afghanistan, where NATO is to take over for the US.

Considering all of these obstacles, it's certainly a lot easier to muddle along and almost forget Darfur. Easier, that is, except for those living miserably in its refugee camps.

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