After Afghanistan: A Return to UN Peacekeeping?

2014•01•22 Peter Nadin

In early 1993, many Western states — including the United Kingdom, France, Norway, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia — actively contributed to United Nations peacekeeping. They deployed troops in significant numbers to places like Bosnia, Somalia and Cambodia. However, after the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993 (commonly known as the Black Hawk Down incident), Western countries withdrew their troop commitments to peacekeeping. The Security Council too held back for a number of years on authorizing large deployments.

However, by the end of the 1990s, the international attitude shifted back towards peacekeeping with the establishment of two ambitious transitional administrations in Kosovo and East Timor, and the multi-dimensional UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). In both Kosovo and East Timor, Western countries opted against deploying their troops under UN command. Instead, they decided to deploy under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Kosovo Force and the Australian-led International Force for East Timor. In the case of Sierra Leone, a unilateral ‘over-the-horizon’ mission (launched from beyond visual and radar range of the shoreline) by the United Kingdom, known as Operation Palliser, operated in support of UNAMSIL but not as part of the official mission.

Since 2001, Western expeditionary forces have focused on stabilization and counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan is still ongoing, but a reduction in troop numbers has begun and by the end of 2014 the bulk of the international force will have departed the country. With this reduction well under way, many in peacekeeping circles are beginning to ask the question: will Western militaries return to UN Peacekeeping?

Many Western countries continue to boast of their proud peacekeeping traditions. Australia, for instance, stated in a brochure to back its bid for a seat on the 2013–14 Security Council that it “has contributed 65,000 personnel to more than 50 UN and other multilateral peace and security operations worldwide, including in Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands, Lebanon, Sudan, Cyprus and Korea”. Despite the rhetoric, at present Australia has a total of 64 personnel deployed to UN Peacekeeping missions. And Australia is not alone: Canada deploys only 153, Germany 254, the Netherlands 27, the United Kingdom 284, the United States 116, Denmark 32, Sweden 53, Norway 71 and Portugal 1.

Numbers are not the only way in which to contribute. It is true that some Western countries provide UN missions with specialized contributions. Many of these countries also allow their senior officers to be seconded to either the Office of Military Affairs in New York or a UN Peacekeeping mission in the field. Major General Adrian Foster (UK), Major General Patrick Cammaert (the Netherlands), Major General Jean Baillaud (France), and Major General Michael Smith (Australia) have all served with distinction as either force commanders, deputy force commanders or military advisers.

Despite these ‘token contributions’, the fact remains that outside of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon virtually no Western troops are deployed to complex UN mission environments. Since the mid-1990s Western countries have opted instead to deploy their troops as part of short-term and limited scope multinational forces. The European Union Force’s (EUFOR) expeditions into Africa have been particularly notable (EUFOR Artemis, EUFOR Democratic Republic of the Congo, and EUFOR Chad and the Central African Republic), while France in particular has deployed forces in parallel with UN or regional missions [Operation Serval (Mali), Operation Licorne (Cote d’Ivoire), Operation Sangaris (Central African Republic)]. Western countries have many options and, as the evidence suggests, most of them continue to exhibit strong preferences for the alternative deployment avenues.

Why does UN Peacekeeping need Western forces?

Western countries should deploy their force and materiel to UN missions for four reasons. Firstly, UN Peacekeeping should be representative of the UN itself. The UN is an organization comprised of 193 Member States; 119 of those Member States contribute at least one single uniformed personnel to a UN Peacekeeping mission. At present, the three top contributors are the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. They contribute a total of 24,090 personnel (both police and military), which constitutes almost 30 percent of the total number of UN peacekeepers worldwide (98,311). Moreover, the top 10 countries (53,847), all of which are developing, contribute over half of all personnel. Western states by comparison contribute only 5,298 personnel or a mere 5 percent of the total number of peacekeepers.

Secondly, the deployment of Western armies would give Western governments a ‘direct stake’ in a particular operation; which is more than simply voting ‘yes’ in the Security Council or providing funding through the peacekeeping budget.

Thirdly, the political leverage applied by more representative and strengthened peacekeeping operations would be greater. As former Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guehenno noted: “the troublemakers — and, unfortunately, we have quite a lot of them — look at the UN flag, they also look at the national flag, and it’s a combination of the two flags that really sends the best political message. When they see that that combination represents a wide array of countries around the world, our political hand is considerably strengthened, because the message then is clearly sent that the international community at large does care, and we need that when we need to press the issue.”

Fourthly, Western armies can provide much needed force enablers and niche capabilities. The provision of much needed force enablers such as logistical support (heavy airlift), intelligence, field hospitals, attack and utility helicopters affords peacekeepers greater mobility and enhanced deterrent capacity.

The argument for a return to peacekeeping is not an argument for a Western domination of UN Peacekeeping, as this could allow certain countries to play out their neo-colonial aspirations. It does, however, mean that UN Peacekeeping should be balanced and representative of the wider membership.

What are the benefits to Western countries?

Deploying troops, materiel and niche capabilities also serves to benefit Western militaries. Firstly, after Afghanistan, most Western militaries will have limited overseas opportunities. Countries get important overseas operational experience through peacekeeping. Soldiers, logisticians, and specialists get an opportunity to apply their skills in complex mission environments, while the UN receives the benefit of highly trained personnel.

Secondly, since the global financial crisis and the subsequent austerity drives by Western governments, defence forces have faced considerable budgetary pressures. In the current climate it is conceivable that defence chiefs might be forced to consider deploying as part of peacekeeping operations in order to ensure future funding — a case of ‘use it or lose it’ budgeting.

Although troop numbers of ISAF can change daily, the latest ISAF Key Facts and Figures (as of 1 December 2013) reported 84,271 troops including Canada (620), Germany (3,084), Italy (2,822), Australia (1,043) and the UK (7,953). Many at the UN hope that at least a portion of ISAF troop numbers and capabilities will be migrated across to peacekeeping. Even if this migration does not materialize there are other options. As Paul Williams and Alex Bellamy suggest in the conclusion to their edited volume Providing Peacekeepers, Western governments can still play a vital role through useful partnerships.

Overall, UN Peacekeeping and Western governments should be encouraged to enter into a mutually beneficial arrangement, which serves the needs of international peace and security, and allows the UN to continue tackling the challenges of peacekeeping in its 15 missions across the world.

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After Afghanistan: A Return to UN Peacekeeping? by Peter Nadin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Peter Nadin is an independent researcher based in Sydney, Australia. He has worked previously as a research assistant at the United Nations University, and interned with the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. His research interests include the politics of the UN Security Council and UN Peacekeeping Operations. Peter holds a Bachelor of Social Science/Arts (Hons) and a PhD from the University of Western Sydney.