Why Helicopters Matter

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The head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Marie Guehenno, warns of possible mission failure should 24 helicopters — including six attack helicopters — not be made available for UNAMID, the joint AU-UN Darfur mission. The United Nations has been asking member states to provide these important “force multipliers” for weeks, but so far those pleas have fallen on deaf ears. In a not-so-subtle jab to stingy member states, Guehenno says, “I think it tells a sad story on the commitment for Darfur, frankly.”

Why are attacks helicopters so important? First, peacekeepers deployed to Darfur will likely be subject to attack themselves — out gunned and out manned, the African Union lost ten soldiers in an attack last month. “If [UNAMID] was to know humiliation in the early stage of its deployment,” warns Guehenno, “then it’d be very hard to recover.”

Second, the extent to which the joint AU-UN Darfur mission will be able to deter attacks on civilians is reliant on the availability to superior firepower. Attack helicopters can be decisive in deterring attacks on civilians, especially when the attackers are using supped-up Toyotas and horses; it is widely acknowledged that a key turning point for UN peacekeeping in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was the deployment of Indian air force attack helicopters, which were then used to proactively target militias that attacked civilian enclaves. A similar dynamic will likely occur once peacekeepers are deployed to Darfur. “Peace enforcement,” the euphemistic term for aggressively deterring spoilers, will be a critical to the success of the Darfur mission. But without the right equipment, peace enforcement would be nearly impossible. This why Guehenno is warning that UNAMID might fail if member states do not supply the UN with the helicopters.