A U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force faced the first major challenge to its authority in Darfur, Sudan, this week, enduring more than 10 minutes of hostile fire from Sudanese forces without responding with a single shot.
The assault Tuesday evening against a clearly marked supply convoy of more than 20 trucks and armored personnel vehicles left a Sudanese driver critically wounded and prompted a formal protest from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. It also gave the U.N.-backed force a humiliating defeat during the critical first weeks of its mission in Darfur.
The United Nations' chief peacekeeping official, Jean-Marie Guehenno, vowed to "repel" future attacks against U.N. and African Union personnel. But other U.N. officials said the force's Nigerian commander, Gen. Martin Luther Agwai, lacks the firepower to respond forcefully to a larger and better-equipped Sudanese military.
The incident marked a setback to U.S.-backed efforts to end nearly five years of violence in Darfur through the deployment of more than 26,000 peacekeepers, mostly Africans. The mission replaced 7,000 African Union peacekeepers who had largely retreated to their barracks amid armed attacks.
So far the new force has about 9,000 peacekeepers, most of whom are African Union troops who simply replaced their green berets with blue U.N. berets.
The United States, the United Nations and other key powers had reason to believe an attack such as Tuesday's was coming. In September, an armed group assaulted an African Union base, killing 10 soldiers near the town of Haskanita. Since then, U.N. leaders have warned of the risk of failure from entering the Darfur conflict without adequate resources to repel an attack. But requests for vital equipment -- including 24 transport and attack helicopters -- have gone unanswered.
"If in this particular situation we had helicopters capable of flying at night and quickly reinforcing a convoy under attack, of course we would have been in a completely different situation," Guehenno said. "We would have been in a position to deter."
Sudan imposes hurdles
Sudan, meanwhile, has imposed technical hurdles for the mission, including the recent rejection of a unit of Nordic engineers, according to U.N. officials. The Sudanese authorities continue to haggle over the force's right to wear the U.N. blue helmets, recruit non-African troops and travel in Darfur without government approval.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has accused the Sudanese government of "dragging its feet" in an attempt to ensure that the U.N.-backed force remains incapable of protecting civilians in Darfur.
But Khalilzad also conceded that inadequately equipping the force has placed the credibility of the United Nations and its political patrons, including the United States, at stake. "We need to take stock of this and consider steps that incentivize the government of Sudan to cooperate," he said.
Former Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi conducted a major review of U.N. peacekeeping in 2000, in which he concluded that peacekeepers should not enter war zones without consent from key belligerents or without a political settlement that the United Nations could implement. Where the United Nations does serve, he added, it must equip its troops to respond to armed "spoilers."
Those lessons have yielded some success in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo and Haiti, where the United Nations recovered from setbacks by engaging in offensive military operations to put down challenges from rebels and armed gangs.
Ill-prepared force faces live battle zone
But in Darfur, an ill-prepared peacekeeping force has entered a live battle zone involving combatants from the Sudanese army, neighboring Chad and a major Darfurian rebel group. Guehenno said: "There is a combination of factors that may lead to the greatest risk to the United Nations since the 1990s. We have a war ongoing, maybe low intensity, but a war ongoing, especially in West Darfur."
Sudan's U.N. ambassador, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, initially denied that Sudan played a role in the attack, saying it was carried out by the Chadian government and local Darfurian rebels. "There is a big lie here," he said. "We have no relationship at all whatever with that attack."
But U.N. officials said a Sudanese commander has admitted that his force fired on the U.N. convoy. Sudan's Defense Ministry acknowledged Thursday that its troops carried out the attack, but it said the U.N.-backed force shared responsibility for the "mistake" because it had failed to alert Sudanese authorities that it was traveling in the area. The United Nations maintains that it provided adequate notice.