How Americans Can Stop Genocide

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Even if you sent a million soldiers to Darfur, that would not solve the problem,” a Sudanese minister recently taunted Western governments. The West could probably prove him wrong with a mere 20,000 troops, but, unfortunately, that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. It has now been four months since the United Nations authorized the deployment of peacekeepers to Darfur to stop the killing and destruction that has so far claimed 400,000 lives. During that time, the genocide has, by most accounts, accelerated. But the United Nations will not send peacekeepers to the region without Sudan’s approval, and Sudan’s genocidal leaders–eager to see the carnage continue–refuse to give their approval, so the U.N. force hasn’t deployed. And it probably never will.

The lesson of Darfur is clear: As we should recall from the Balkans, working through the United Nations is a deeply problematic way to stop an ongoing genocide. The United Nations moves slowly, and a slow response to systematic killing grants the perpetrators precious time to murder ever larger numbers of people. Moreover, even when the United Nations, or another group like nato, resolves to send forces, there remains that nagging little question of who will provide them–especially when time is short and the need for rapidly deployable troops is acute.

And so, if the United States and its allies want to prevent future genocides, we’re going to need a better response mechanism–one that allows us to deploy troops quickly in the face of mass slaughter. In short, we need to create a U.S. military division dedicated solely to the prevention of genocide. This new capability may not come soon enough for Darfur, alas. We should try to act quickly, perhaps in time to address the genocide in Sudan, but, in any case, before the next spasm of mass killing erupts in some forgotten corner of the world.

Clearly, U.S. forces will not remain in Iraq and Afghanistan in large numbers forever. Nevertheless, the overstretch facing today’s military is worth taking into account as we construct a plan for responding to future outbreaks of genocidal violence. We should never be in a position where we are hesitant to stop a genocide because our troops are otherwise occupied, but that is precisely the situation we face today. To saddle our ground forces right now with an additional mission would verge on unconscionable. As one retired four-star general put it to me privately, never has the nation asked so much of so few for so long. Many troops have barely seen their families since 2003. Already, the Pentagon has begun to face recruiting problems, and the modest troop increases President Bush is now preparing to authorize will likely be hard to achieve. Forcing the military to accept another mission–especially one not directly linked to our traditional national security interests–could make it even harder to keep enlisting troops.

A genocide-prevention division within the U.S. Army would circumvent this problem. Since its only mission would be to stop genocides, deploying the force would never require us to ask more of soldiers who already have their hands full with other conflicts. Moreover, those volunteering for the new force would know exactly what they were getting into and enlist specifically because they embraced the mission. These soldiers could be recruited from the ranks of idealistic college and high school students across the nation who have done so much to keep Darfur in the public eye.

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It’s difficult to say exactly how many soldiers would be needed for such a force–some genocides are more militarily complex than others–but 20,000 seems like a reasonable goal. That, after all, is the approximate number of troops that would be required to end the Darfur genocide. The figure may seem relatively small, but keep in mind that the perpetrators of genocide–like the Janjaweed in Sudan–are often not particularly sophisticated by Western military standards. In a situation like Darfur, soldiers would largely monitor villages and refugee camps. Their jobs would be somewhat dangerous and would require discipline and basic infantry skills–but they would not be extremely complicated. These soldiers would have to be well-trained and led by officers who had been part of the mainstream U.S. military. But they would not need to meet every standard we demand of main combat forces.

To be sure, in cases like Darfur, where the division is deploying in hostile territory, these soldiers could require backup from regular Army or Marine units. Depending on the particular circumstances, Air Force jets or Navy helicopters might be needed for some operations as well. In other words, we would be adding–though only modestly–to the burden faced by existing troops.

We would have to be especially careful about decisions to intervene in cases where the likelihood of escalation or extreme danger was high. As a result, such a force might not be able to stop every genocide. And, perhaps, some genocides would require more than 20,000 troops, or greater levels of assistance from other American military personnel, or troop contributions from our allies. Indeed, the most logical way to address Darfur would parallel Kosovo and involve pledges from our nato allies to deploy with us. In that event, 5,000 to 10,000 U.S. troops could suffice. But, whatever the specifics, it would be well worth our time to start working through them and laying the groundwork for a new kind of military force. Darfur, after all, has taught us that we need to confront genocides with more than diplomacy. Sudan’s government, emboldened by our inaction, now brags that its macabre plans couldn’t be blocked by a million soldiers. One thing is for sure: It certainly would take more than zero.