CAR: Bangui airport needs the EU

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The European Union, so often accused of lacking strategic purpose, seems to have discovered a new security role: keeping African airports safe.  In 2012, it launched EUAVSEC South Sudan, a small civilian operation tasked with improving airport security procedures in the young country’s capital, Juba.  While South Sudan stumbled through political crises and recurrent violence, EUAVSEC was busy training airport staff, even finding “170 high visibility vests” for security personnel. This wasn’t quite as silly as it sounds: the risks of terrorists infiltrating Juba’s poorly-run airport were significant enough to make many airlines refuse to fly there.  But the whole exercise has been somewhat overshadowed by South Sudan’s descent into murderous chaos over the last month, which may have claimed over 10,000 lives so far.

The EU’s decision to focus on such a small part of South Sudan’s security seemed to be indicative of the bloc’s declining desire to intervene in Africa after its far larger military operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Chad between 2003 and 2009. The Union’s disinterest in African security was highlighted in January 2013, when most of its members offered little operational support for the French intervention in Mali.  Although an EU Training Mission is now trying to coax the Malian army into shape, this episode left officials in Paris disgruntled.  But it is possible that the current humanitarian crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) may result in EU agreeing to a much larger a military mission.

Last week the EU’s Political and Security Committee signaled general support for an operation in CAR in response to proposals from the External Action Service (EAS).  Once again, there’s an airport involved.

One of the EAS’s proposals is for a battalion-strength EU force to secure the airport at CAR’s capital, Bangui.  This is currently under the control of a French intervention force, which is also attempting to maintain order in the rest of Bangui and towns elsewhere in the country.  The EAS has also put forward options including sending EU troops to secure important roads in western CAR, or deploying them to protect aid workers.  The airport plan, which is operationally discrete and fairly low-risk, may be the simplest to agree – although the mission should also have a baseline mandate to take extra steps to defend civilians under imminent threat of violence, as almost all UN peacekeepers are instructed to do.

While this might look like a limited engagement, even a small operation would be a positive step. Last year, the UK effectively blocked discussions of an EU operation in CAR as British troops were on standby as part of the much-discussed yet never-used EU Battle Group system. London has no strategic interest in CAR, and British officials have questioned whether the country – devastated by months of anarchy after rebels overthrew the government last March – can really be put back on its feet again. An African peacekeeping mission nearly disintegrated as fighting between Christian and Muslim militias intensified.

France had wanted to stay out of the fighting too, but eventually deployed in December as reports of mass violence and displacement became too ugly to ignore.  As I noted in an article forWorld Politics Review last month, this was a “strategic failure” for Paris, which would desperately like to limit its African commitments.  It may also have underestimated the level of violence it faced and the difficulty of restoring control.  The situation in Bangui actually deteriorated after the French operation had begun.

An EU deployment now would offer Paris both some immediate operational benefits – freeing up French troops – and political relief.  It would at least show that the EU has not deserted France completely in Africa.  A European mission would also be a positive signal to the African Union (AU) which is trying to establish a more effective operation of its own.  And it could prepare the way for an orderly deployment of a better-equipped United Nations force which could absorb and build on the AU mission later in 2014.

Although the proposed EU operation is indeed likely to be constrained in terms of both personnel and ambitions, therefore, it potentially makes sense in the context of other organizations’ efforts. As I argued in an ECFR paper on “the case for cooperation in crisis management” in 2012, the future of EU peace operations may involve “plug-and-play” arrangements in which “loose coalitions of international and regional organizations . . .  will bring together their different assets together on an ad hoc basis with decentralized command structures.”  It looks like this is the only viable set-up for peacekeeping in CAR.    

This assumes that the EU can find the troops and equipment it needs for the operation. In previous cases, such as the Chad mission, European deployments have been stalled by slow force generation. The EAS proposals are clearly a compromise: significant enough to give France and its African allies some real help but limited enough not to panic the majority of EU states with no interest in CAR.  Belgium and Poland have indicated interest in sending troops, but the moral case for stemming the suffering in CAR and the chance to boost EU support to the UN could attract the Nordic countries and others to assist.

Even if the EU manages to navigate these start-up issues and the AU and UN duly play their parts, some fundamental questions remain about the future of CAR.  Can the rudiments of a functioning state be pieced together after a prolonged period of violence?  What, if anything, can outsiders do to restore trust between Christian and Muslim citizens who have come to see each other as mortal enemies? This week, talks will begin on appointing an interim president, but this is a small step on a long political road.

The weakness of states institutions in CAR and the level of recent chaos point to the need for a heavy, long-term peacebuilding effort – perhaps even with an executive mandate like that the UN wielded in Kosovo after 1999.  But no major power, France included, wants this sort of investment. The UN is liable to lead a less ambitious but still complex process towards “good enough” peace. The EU is unlikely to play a prolonged military role in CAR, even if it provides a lot of the necessary funding for others to do so. Nonetheless, a European deployment now could send the message that the Union has not given up on its military ambitions, humanitarian aspirations and African ties. It’s time for the EU to go to the airport.

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