Is the US Calling for More Peacekeepers in South Sudan? UPDATE

Interesting to read that an unnamed US official is suggesting giving the UN Mission in South Sudan, UNMIS, a boost.  Specifically, the official would like to see the “augmenting of Unnmis in certain hotspots along the border where a buffer presence could be established.”

“Nobody thinks it is realistic to put Unmis, even if we had masses more troops, along the north-south border in a country that large,” the US official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“One thing I think we can and should consider if the (UN special representative) and the (UN) secretariat come forward with such a proposal is looking at augmenting Unmis in certain hotspots along the border where a buffer presence could be established,” the official added.

This is a good idea. But can it be accomplished?  It is unlikely that UNMIS will be able to change its mandate or boost troop levels before the referendum. At least until independence, South Sudan is a part of Sudan.  Any new troop levels would require the consent of Khartoum.    Theoretically, troops could be re-assigned within South Sudan. But keep in mind that there are only 10,600 uniformed personnel in UNMIS.   Deployment to any of these “hotspots” would be have to be limited.   The question is: would relatively small detachments of moderately armed peacekeepers successfully deter cross border attacks?  Would peacekeepers become targets?

I don’t know the answers. But if you are president of one of the countries that has troops deployed to UNMIS, would you be willing to put your troops in this position?  If so, you better be sure that countries calling for this augmentation will have your back if things get tough.

In the meantime, I will be interested to see how the Secretariat and UN peacekeeping respond to this “request” for contingency planning.

UPDATE:  From a press stakeout earlier today:

REPORTER:  Ambassador thank you.  You raised in your public remarks in the Security Council this idea of repositioning UNMIS troops in some sort of way, buffer zone, hot spots, whatever.  How seriously is the U.S. going to be pushing this; have you actively considered, what do you consider about the practicality of it given the force now, what kind of response are you getting from Security Council members on that possibility?

AMBASSADOR RICE:  This was an idea that we originally heard from the Government of the South.  We haven’t yet heard from the North and Khartoum on how they view this concept.  I think most Council Members are skeptical, to say the least, of the feasibility of a force that could line the entirety of the border.  The troops don’t exist; it couldn’t be constituted quickly enough.  But there is serious discussion of alternative models that might focus on those areas along the border that are most vulnerable or at high risk of violence and where civilians may be most at risk.  So we will await the recommendations from the Secretariat, from UNIMIS on this, but we’re having a preliminary discussion of impressions, and I think there is an openness to this idea that’s one that we would need to see fleshed out, know the views of all the parties, and discuss further.

So there you have it.

UPDATE II: I just spoke with someone who I can only identify as a “close observer” to the situation in South Sudan who called the idea of repositioning UNMIS “benign but naive.” His basic point was this: unless the Americans are willing to either deploy their own troops (unlikely) or convince their European allies to pony up troops (unlikely) and then push that plan through the Security Council in the next month (very unlikely) it is unreasonable to expect that re-positioning a limited number of UNMIS troops will make a dent in the security situation of South Sudan.

The best way the Americans can help, this person said, is to “play big cards” with Khartoum and Juba.  This means, in practice, to make some costly concessions to China in order to leverage China’s influence over Khartoum.  “If you really want to help, find out where the various pressure points are and then engage there, even if that engagement is politically expensive,” he said.

I find this line of reasoning convincing.   It is probably too late to change UNMIS’s mandate and infuse it with new troops before January. (And for the record, groups like Refugees International have been warning about UMMIS’s lack of capacity to adequately protect civilians for a long time.)

The most effective way to prevent violence is by using America’s special relationship with South Sudan to convince the southern Sudanese to keep their guns holstered and have China ask the same of Khartoum. All the while, both the Chinese and Americans can help convince the North and South to make certain concessions on oil revenue sharing and border demarcation that is required for a lasting solution to this conflict.

UNMIS can help facilitate the implementation of these new agreements. But peacekeepers cannot be expected to prevent the outbreak of conflict between two countries that are determined to go to war.