• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

A UN Volunteer Force—The Prospects

Editors’ Note: In the June 10 issue Brian Urquhart, former Undersecretary-General of the United Nations, proposed that a UN volunteer military force be organized to meet the need for an “international volunteer force, willing, if necessary, to fight hard to break the cycle of violence at an early stage in low-level but dangerous conflicts, especially ones involving irregular militias and groups.”

Clearly,” he wrote, “a timely intervention by a relatively small but highly trained force, willing and authorized to take combat risks and representing the will of the international community, could make a decisive difference in the early stages of the crisis.” Such an international force, Mr. Urquhart said, “would be under the exclusive authority of the Security Council and under the day-to-day direction of the Secretary-General.”

Several comments on Mr. Urquhart’s proposal appeared in the June 24 issue. Six further statements on the proposal follow.

Robert Oakley

Sir Brian Urquhart has since World War II been one of the foremost thinkers and doers who have been concerned with the role of the United Nations in international peace and security. First, he worked directly inside the system with Ralph Bunche and successive secretaries-general in planning and conducting United Nations peace-keeping operations. More recently, from the outside, he has remained keenly interested and actively involved as a scholar, writer, commentator, and adviser, contributing to both long-term studies and near-term decisions on how the United Nations can do a better job. Therefore, when he says that the time has come to put into effect Trygve Lie’s original idea of a permanent UN military force, we should all take notice.

There is no denying Sir Brian’s point that traditional UN peace-keeping operations cannot deal with the new waves of largely intrastate violence, and with the humanitarian crises arising from local conflict, that are sweeping the post–cold war world. Similarly, this trend will undoubtedly continue, even as the likelihood of major conflict between states diminishes. In response to this new situation—which includes cooperation between the US and Russia on seeking solutions instead of exacerbating local and regional unrest—thirteen UN peace-keeping operations (PKOs) were begun between 1989 and 1992. This is equal to the total number approved between 1945 and 1989. However, many of the PKOs have been too slow in getting organized, too small and too weak logistically for the task. Frequently their mandates and missions have been imprecise or inadequate. As a result, UN forces have often been unable to achieve success and have become bogged down in a deteriorating environment where the violence they were supposed to stop continues largely unabated around them.

Under such circumstances, the international community has several alternatives: to mount much larger, more forceful initial or rescue operations (as in Somalia); to acquiesce in a compromise in an attempt to minimize the loss of life (as in Bosnia); or to sit on its collective hands with the UN force an impotent witness to continued conflict, death, and destruction (as in Angola). In view of the large cost in money and military resources, as well as the risk of casualties, organizing a large, forceful operation is not going to be a frequent choice. For the US alone, the operation in Somalia required, during a period of five months, a force of almost 30,000 and it cost over 1 billion dollars; and the UN force in Somalia of some 25,000 men cost, during one year, 1.5 billion dollars. In Cambodia, the peace-keeping operation involving over 25,000 personnel has cost about 2 billion dollars. The most realistic choice therefore would seem to be between not committing UN peace-keeping forces at all or acting much more rapidly and more decisively, before the situation on the ground disintegrates to the point that the only means of dealing with it involves large forces. Sir Brian’s proposal could achieve this.

Aside from the costs in money, men, and equipment, the major obstacles to a standing UN force have been, and remain, the reservations of thoughtful military leaders about inadequate command and control, the lack of a clear mandate and clear rules of engagement, and insufficient resources for the specific mission to be undertaken. The usual UN peace-keeping practices, including command and control from a UN headquarters whose planning has been vague, and whose logistics have been weak, are widely considered to be militarily unworkable. If this system continues unchanged, no self-respecting military commander (or political leader) would willingly send his or her forces into harm’s way “under the exclusive authority of the Security Council and under the day-to-day direction of the Secretary-General, as Sir Brian puts it. This traditional approach is a formula for confusion, failure, and potential disaster.

Strategic guidance by a committee and tactical decisions by remote control are simply unacceptable to responsible military authorities. In fact, as Sir Brian knows from first-hand experience, the UN force in the Congo in the early 1960s succeeded militarily in reintegrating the Katanga region into the Congo only after communications with UN headquarters had conveniently been cut, allowing the field commander to do what he considered necessary without the supervision of the Security Council, in which the Soviets would have used their veto. Secretary-General Hammarskjold wisely delegated command and control to the UN commander on the ground.

With respect to Somalia, the United States insisted last November on two conditions: first, on using its time-tested, combat-proven doctrine of having clear lines of command and control, with maximum responsibility given to the commander in the field, and, second, on having overwhelming, decisive force at the outset with freedom to use it to achieve the mission. This insistence played a part in the unwillingness of the Secretary-General and the Security Council to accept President Bush’s offer to make the US-led force a UN peace-keeping (or peace enforcement) operation. At that time, this US concept flew directly in the face of the traditional UN approach by which (1) peace-keeping was based upon minimal force, to be used only for self-protection; (2) most control and command functions were maintained at UN headquarters; and (3) permission was requested from local authorities before taking action.

Subsequently, UN thinking has been undergoing a major change, in good part as the result of the success of the original US-led, UN-approved international coalition for Somalia (UNITAF). The coalition was able to achieve its mission, limited though it was, very rapidly and with few casualties to international forces or Somalis—and this success came immediately after the demonstrated ineffectiveness and humiliation of a traditional UN force in Somalia (UNOSOM I), and after it became clear that serious problems were being encountered by other traditional UN forces (e.g., in Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia).

Thus the new UN force for Somalia (UNOSOM II) was established by the Security Council with generally the same command and control procedures, rules of engagement, and freedom to use force that had applied to UNITAF. The UN commander, Turkish Lt. General Cevet Bir and UN Special Representative Admiral (ret.) Jonathan Howe are, in theory and according to their mandate, as much in command of the twenty-odd individual foreign units as US Marine Lt. General Robert Johnson was of the twenty-odd foreign units comprising UNITAF. The latter was molded into an effective force in which the different national units accepted standard, vertical military command and competed with one another to maintain high standards of discipline in carrying out their mission. While Lt. General Bir has a much broader mission and larger territory to cover with fewer forces, he and Admiral Howe were able to maintain the essentials of command and control among UNOSOM II units until early June when Pakistani forces were ambushed. Although overall effectiveness was not seriously jeopardized the ensuing events showed the need for still stronger command and control, as well as training of all units for the special responsibilities and situations likely to arise in peace-keeping situations.

US troops are participating for the first time in a UN peace-keeping operation. The US Congress as well as the administration have approved this clear departure from the previous US policy of nonparticipation and also approved 300 million dollars in the fiscal year 1994 Department of Defense budget for peace-keeping. This will henceforth be an integral part of US military planning and operations, as it has been for years with Canada and the Scandinavian countries.

The new approach also seems to be gaining ground in current UN thinking about future peace-keeping operations. It is in line with Sir Brian’s proposal for more effective UN forces—even though it differs importantly with respect to command and control. For the present, UN thinking is largely based on the more traditional approach by which member states designate existing units for duty in individual peace-keeping operations. As Sir Brian has suggested, this could be modified to provide for a small standing force, an innovation that would probably be readily accepted by a number of the nations that could be expected to supply troops. Such a force might best be made up of individual national battalions of ground forces plus national support units (transportation, engineers, communications, etc.). It should have a carefully selected staff of officers with experience working both with one another’s military establishments and with international coalitions. To broaden the base of troop contributions, different member states could, under a system of rotation, supply units every year or so.

The alternative proposal of an all-volunteer force of assorted individuals from many different countries somehow brought together under UN control would, in my view, be militarily unworkable. To be effective, it would require the sort of tough training and discipline, as well as the unified basic outlook—and the shared military doctrine on the part of the staff—that is to be found in the French Foreign Legion or in the United States Marine Corps. This would require a complete change in the ways of thinking now characteristic of the UN, plus many years of hard work. Moreover, most member states would probably prefer to volunteer their own forces than see the UN with a wholly independent force, even though Security Council approval, subject to veto, would be required before any force was actually used.

The new approach also needs to be formulated with care, despite its apparent attractiveness. The UN members who contribute troops can only rarely, and after considerable debate, be expected to tolerate a large UN operation that may become engaged in major combat, with the likelihood of high casualties on all sides. The political as well as military and financial costs are seen as simply too high. These reservations are even stronger for a standing force than for a single operation. As it is, the UN is unable to obtain all the forces it is requesting for some ongoing peace-keeping operations, and its peace-keeping budget is badly overdrawn.

Moreover, one needs to take into account that, notwithstanding the current, almost exclusive concentration of the mass media on Bosnia, there are today at least a dozen violent, life-destroying crises that could benefit from the help of the UN (e.g., in Nagorno-Karabakh, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Sudan, Zaire, Haiti, etc.). The probability is that there will be many more. The use of major UN forces for so many operations is simply not in the cards. Should UN members therefore shut their eyes to many actual or potential conflicts?

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print