The Bear Blows First

Last week, the EU peacekeeping force for Chad/the Central African Republic/and anywhere else in the general mess left of Darfur looked all set; after the French government offered to pony up more troops, and specifically enough Transall cargo planes and Puma support helicopters to assure the force’s mobility, the EU foreign ministers signed off the deal. It was settled that a multinational HQ at Mont-Valerien outside Paris, headed by an Irish general, would command the operation, with a French land force commander on the scene; the first-flights were due to arrive on Thursday and Friday, bringing an advanced guard of Irish Rangers and various logistic elements.

However, it seems Chad’s rebels have adopted the bear principle. Remember the man who tried to give the powder to the bear, said Winston Churchill; he rolled it up in a piece of paper, pointed it down the bear’s nose…but the bear blew first. The initial airlift was held on the ground, as a column of rebels appeared at the gates of N’Djamena; instead the French army brought in 150 more troops from their base in Gabon. The rebels, who raided the city last spring and were beaten off with the help of French aircraft are reported to be fighting towards the presidential palace. As Secret Defense (my new favourite blog) points out at the link, it’s in the nature of desert warfare that enemies can appear suddenly almost anywhere, especially when the modern ship of the desert is the Toyota Land Cruiser.

The French troops evacuated 400 or so nationals to Gabon, but the million-dollar question is whether they will support Idriss Deby in trying to stay in power; French forces have been doing precisely that ever since 1986 under Operation EPERVIER. Apparently Deby refused the offer of a Dassault Falcon lift into exile and is fighting it out; the head of the Chadian army was reported to have been killed in action, which argues that this is pretty serious business. For what it’s worth, Bernard Kouchner says France is neutral in this conflict, but we support legality and the powers-that-be.

Pretty clearly, part of the point was to act before EUFOR deployed across the route from the border to the city; the questions are now whether EUFOR will ever move – after all, will there be any peace to keep? – and whether its French elements move to save France’s man in Chad. This only points up the ambiguity in the entire mission; protecting the civilian population and supporting the African Union in Darfur are goals that are easily merged with saving Idriss Deby’s skin and TotalFinaElf’s interests. As Daniel Davies so wisely said, unless you can make it rain as much as it used to, you probably aren’t going to solve Darfur’s problems.