Op-Ed

Army Genocide Prevention Unit?

Michael E. O’Hanlon

For years, patience has been the world’s watchword as the Darfur tragedy unfolds. The United States, other western powers, and the United Nations encouraged and helped the African Union as it deployed 7,000 troops to the region last year. But additional action has not been forthcoming. With American troops so badly overcommitted in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with worries that any U.S. presence would give Osama bin Laden more talking points about ” infidels” purportedly invading Islamic lands and fighting Muslim governments, even American progressives have tended to shy away from recommending deployment of U.S. forces on the ground.

With last week’s signing of a peace accord in Sudan, it is time for a different U.S. approach. In fact, even if that accord crumbles, as it could, a more assertive American policy is needed. Whoever is most to blame – Sudan’s government, or the government as well as the rebels – it is the innocent people of the region who suffer, with some 200,000 believed to have perished in the last three years. The United States needs to make it clear its willingness to contribute ground forces to a peacekeeping effort in Darfur within months. Ideally, the peace agreement will hold and it will be able to do so with Khartoum’s blessing. But it is time to stop the genocide, regardless.

To make this possible, the United States needs a radical innovation in recruiting policy. We should create a genocide prevention division in the U.S. Army – a Peace Corps with guns – with individuals enlisting specifically for this purpose. There would be risks in such a venture, to be sure. But they are manageable and tolerable risks. By contrast, the Darfur genocide is unacceptable, intolerable, and a blight on our collective consciences.

Even if somehow this force proves unnecessary in Sudan – an unlikely proposition – there will be other conflicts for which such a force could prove very useful in the future.

The notion is this: of all those well-intentioned and admirable Americans rallying to call attention to Darfur and demand action, ask for volunteers to join a genocide prevention division for two years. They would begin their service with roughly 12 weeks of boot camp and 12 weeks of specialized training – and then go to Darfur next winter. They would receive the same compensation and health benefits as regular troops, given their age and experience; other incentives such as educational assistance would be made roughly proportionate to their length of service.

This training regimen would be modeled after standard practice in today’s Army and Marine Corps. To be sure, soldiers and Marines in regular units usually go beyond this regimen to have many months of additional practice and exercising before being deployed. Moreover, within their units, at any given moment most personnel are well into their first tour or on their second or third enlistments (the average soldier or Marine in today’s armed forces has more than five years of military experience).

By contrast, the genocide prevention soldiers would be much greener when sent into action. Some of them would have to be older and more experienced, however. For example, former military officers could volunteer and reenlist – taking positions of leadership within the new force structure. And a certain number of active-duty soldiers could be allowed to join (since retention numbers have been more than adequate of late within the Army, this should hardly cause a major strain on the active-duty force).

There are several reasons why the associated risks would be acceptable, however – even if the peace accord breaks down. First, those volunteering for the new division would understand the associated risks and accept them. Second, in regard to Sudan in particular, the Janjaweed in Darfur are not sophisticated. Soldiers in the new genocide prevention division would not need to execute complex operations akin to those carried out during the invasion of Iraq or current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They would largely monitor villages and refugee camps, inspect individuals to make sure they did not have illicit weapons, and call for help if they ever came under concerted attack. Their jobs could be somewhat dangerous, and would require discipline and reasonable knowledge of some basic infantry skills – but they would not be extremely complex. (This basic situation is similar in many other genocides, though admittedly not all – meaning that care would have to be taken in deciding when to deploy this force elsewhere.)

Third, the genocide prevention force would have some backup from standard U.S. military units. In other words, the mission would admittedly impose some slight additional strain on an Army and Marine Corps already heavily overdeployed abroad. But given the limited capabilities of the Janjaweed and any Sudanese troops who tried to join in the fray, such American main combat forces would probably not have to be larger than company-size formations – 200 to300 troops each. Assuming several such companies would be deployed, perhaps 1,000 American soldiers and Marines from existing units would be needed countrywide, to back up the 5,000 to 10,000 newenlistees in the dedicated genocide prevention force. In addition, American airpower in the form of Air Force jets or other assets could help back up the units, as might Navy helicopters (which are not being quite as severely stressed in the Iraq operation as are many other types of formations).

None of these thoughts are comfortable. A number of them would surely make American military professionals, who typically do not welcome interventions in Africa in the first place, shudder in their boots. But we are beyond the point of finding comfortable, standard solutions to Darfur. What the world has been doing isn’t working, and hundreds of thousands are dead or dying as a result. Moreover, even if this conflict in the end is resolved, other conflicts cry out for this type of capacity.

This idea could be implemented this summer on an emergency basis, taking advantage of interested individuals from the graduating class of 2006 (as well as many others, including much older volunteers) and trained in time to deploy to the Sudan this winter if necessary. Even if that did not prove practical, it could be debated now and authorized for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 – still quite soon.

Perhaps this initiative could be pursued in conjunction with two or three key friends with large Muslim populations – Turkey? India? Bangladesh? – to take some of the edge off the inevitable charges of infidel American imperialism that the idea would surely provoke. But one thing is clear: problems like Darfur only tend to get solved with American leadership, and America cannot truly lead on this issue while resisting any role for its own ground forces. It is time to recognize the contradiction of pretending otherwise, and get on with a solution.