Should the United States lead a Western coalition to enforce a no-fly zone over Darfur, Sudan?
This idea, which has been kicking around since at least 2006, was articulated recently in the Washington Post by former Air Force Chief of Staff and Obama advisor Tony McPeak, writing with Kurt Bassuener. Back when they were campaigning, President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all backed it. So it stands a good chance of becoming US policy.
The goal is to protect Darfurians from their nominal government without a costly US effort. But the opposite seems a more likely outcome. The no-fly zone may increase the violence in Darfur. And by committing the US to Darfur’s protection and failing, it may suck us deeper into Sudan’s civil war.
Like most advocates of U.S. intervention in Sudan, McPeak and Bassuener avoid saying that what is occurring in Sudan is a war with sides rather than an irrational slaughter. Attacks on civilians in Darfur, however reprehensible, are a tactic used by a weak, brutal central government to maintain power.
Sudan has some helicopters and Russian cargo aircraft converted into bombers that they use to support a counterinsurgency campaign executed mainly by its army and allied militias, some of which used to be rebels. The militias, in particular the horse-riding Janjaweed, kill and displace civilians because Darfur’s insurgent groups rely on them for things rebels need: intelligence, supply, and recruits. According to the Christian Science Monitor, about 400 civilians died as result of air strikes in 2007 and 2008, a fraction of the total killed by ground forces.
Take away the air strikes, McPeak and Bassuener say, and you get leverage over Sudan’s government. The leverage can be used to compel Sudan to accept a UN peacekeeping force to augment the largely useless African Union force there now.
Leaving aside the question of logistics (patrolling Darfur would be very costly given its the massive size), this plan simply doesn’t bear much logical scrutiny.
It is an application of strategic airpower theory, which tends to make magical assumptions about the political impact of aircraft. That theory tends to depict the enemy as an extremely cost sensitive actor ripped from the pages of economic textbooks rather than what we find in history: governments motivated by nationalistic norms to pursue their political aims at extraordinary cost. Sudan is not going to give up trying to unify its country because we won’t let helicopters and aircraft fly over it.
Because Darfur’s rebels could arm and police their territory behind the peacekeeper lines, allowing a real peacekeeping force into Sudan would be de facto recognition of Darfur’s secession. What leader of Sudan would accept that?
Beyond that, a no-fly zone is likely to make life worse for Darfur’s civilians. As Alan Kuperman notes, a no-fly zone, rather than forcing Khartoum to the table, is likely to drive it to increase ground attacks. We might see accelerated ethnic cleaning and slaughter occurring beneath NATO aircraft powerless to stop it, a repetition of past experience. Likewise, a no-fly zone may further discourage Darfurian rebels from coming to terms with the government, pouring further accelerant on the war. It would also keep Sudan from allowing aid workers to travel to Darfur.
A no-fly zone will also symbolize a US commitment to the dissolution of Sudan and the protection of Darfurian civilians. By accomplishing neither, it would likely produce calls for a more robust intervention – either US boots on the ground or air strikes against people on the ground. Acceding to these calls would make the United States a combatant in Sudan’s civil war. Those who push military intervention in Sudan should recognize that is the logical result of their position.
That position is not unreasonable. Full fledged intervention might protect civilians. And who wouldn’t be sympathetic to a revolt against an awful central government like Sudan’s?
But the United States needs to get out of the other people’s civil war business, not double down. We are participating in two civil conflicts abroad now. That is too many already. And Darfur is not the world’s only humanitarian nightmare. Peacekeeping the Congo might have more humanitarian payoff. We can’t fix everything.
That does not mean doing nothing. We should push Sudan to allow humanitarian workers full access to Darfur, condemn atrocities, and push the rebel factions to sign the peace deal outlined in 2006 or something like it.