Saving Lives with Force: An Agenda for Expanding the ACRI

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Civil conflicts around the world remain numerous and deadly. At least several hundred thousand people lose their lives each year due to the direct effects of war as well as war-related famine and disease. This number has not markedly increased since the end of the Cold War, but nor has it declined. As of early 2001, major wars with very high casualty rates continued in Angola and Congo; serious if somewhat less deadly conflicts continued in Burundi, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Algeria, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Indonesia, Colombia, and elsewhere.

These wars have an obvious and tragic toll in lost human lives, with most of the dead being innocent noncombatants. They have other costs as well. They provide terrorist groups with havens, as in Afghanistan, and with motivating causes, as in much of the Middle East. They do much to keep large segments of Africa and certain other parts of the world mired in misery and economic stagnation. And they undercut the U.S. argument that democracies truly protect and promote human rights. In a world essentially run and dominated by the industrial democracies, their apparent indifference to many such conflicts weakens their moral authority and their international legitimacy as global leaders.

What can be done to reduce the prevalence and severity of such wars? Traditional peacekeeping in places such as Kashmir, Cyprus, and the Sinai has a role. So does a more comprehensive type of approach, involving not only peacekeeping but election monitoring, demilitarization, and state building, which has been applied in places such as Cambodia, Mozambique, Haiti, and the Balkans. Despite many assertions to the contrary, most or all of these missions have been at least partial successes in the sense that intervention made conditions better than they would otherwise have likely been.

However, missions in Angola and Rwanda were outright and major failures, in the sense that bloodshed intensified after the deployments of U.N. troops. Moreover, the world’s non-interventions in places such as Sudan and Liberia mean that the international community deserves no more than a low passing grade for its humanitarian military efforts of the first post-Cold War decade. The international community can and must do better. And the African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI) can play a meaningful role in helping it do so. That would be especially true if it were expanded to cover more countries and troops, and if it moved beyond exclusive focus on non-lethal Chapter VI peacekeeping operations to help prepare African militaries for Chapter VII forcible interventions and difficult peace operations as well.

Some doubt the need for military solutions to civil conflicts, preferring to focus on neutral peacekeeping, preventive action, economic aid, and other softer tools of policy. These all have important roles, to be sure. But they are insufficient by themselves. In some cases, wars are already underway, making it impractical to carry out preventive action or to provide much development assistance. In other cases, peacetime political and economic conditions are so poor that aid is wasted, misdirected, or ineffectual. Neutral peacekeeping does not always work either. Many advocate “separating militias” and “disarming combatants” as the way to reduce deadly conflict. In many if not most cases, however, militias and combatants will not wish to be separated or disarmed—and would not assent to such operations if asked. Their weapons provide routes to power and wealth, and they often have no interest in giving them up or in disengaging from combat operations.

If the global community needs more capacity for humanitarian intervention, should that job be given to the United Nations? Some would say yes. For example, it is commonly argued that a small U.N. standing force could make a meaningful difference in reducing civil conflict around the world. Proponents often cite a goal of 5,000 troops, motivated in large part by the claim of Canadian General Romeo Dallaire that such a capability, if added to his small U.N. force in Rwanda in 1994, could have stopped the genocide there. However, Rwanda is a small country that is not representative of many places where civil conflict breaks out. Second, although there is little doubt that General Dallaire would have used 5,000 more troops bravely and with some effectiveness, it appears a low estimate even for Rwanda. Third, had such forces run into trouble, the international community would have needed to bail them out. Fourth, in the event of two or more simultaneous conflicts requiring rapid attention, such a force would clearly be far too small.

Rather than thinking in terms of a 5,000-person U.N. force, the international community should develop capacity to deploy at least 100,000 troops abroad, above and beyond those forces already capable of doing so today. Standing up a dedicated U.N. force of this size would be very expensive, not to mention politically contentious. Fortunately, it is not necessary to do so. National armies around the world are already available, with many of their costs paid by their home governments. Building on this existing capability rather than creating a new one from scratch is almost surely a more efficient way to spend resources.

What is needed to realize this agenda? In the case of western allies, Washington simply needs to provide political encouragement—and to accept a greater global security role for the European Union, Japan, and other countries. In the case of poorer countries, notably many in Africa, the United States and its friends and allies should provide aid and technical assistance to national military establishments. Specifically, in the case of the United States, it should expand the ACRI to include more training and more equipment and preparations for operations that could involve the lethal use of force. In other words, ACRI should grow to resemble Operation Focus Relief, the training for muscular intervention provided primarily to Nigerian forces at present, and should not be limited to a small training program for relatively safe operations.

The Scope of the Global Problem

Precise estimates of how many wars may erupt in the future, and of how many troops it would take to quell them, are of course impossible. But recent history can provide a rough and useful guide. The weight of evidence suggests that it could be desirable to double the world’s capacity for humanitarian interventions and difficult peace operations. For that to be possible, various countries will need to improve their military capabilities. The United States can and should do more—but its other global military responsibilities preclude major expansions of its role in humanitarian missions. Other states need to assume the primary responsibility for expanding global capacities in this realm.

It is not appropriate to use force to settle every conflict in the world. Some conflicts might even be exacerbated by external involvement. Some might be so intractable as not to justify the investment in effort, dollars, and the blood of international peacekeepers that would be required to stop them. Others are not severe enough to warrant forcible intervention; while they might merit international diplomatic attention, and possibly the deployment of peacekeepers if ceasefires can be established, they cannot justify deployment of many thousands of troops in a muscular mission.

But the international community can generally do something about the world’s worst wars. That is not always the case, but it is true for most civil conflicts of the present and recent past.

No quantitative or scientific guideline for intervention can ever be reliable; every case must be assessed on its own terms, and in light of its own politics. But one useful rule of thumb may be to consider forcible humanitarian intervention whenever the rate of killing in a country or region becomes extremely high—regardless of the specific cause of the death toll, be it mass slaughter, genocide, or war-related famine. As former Congressman Steve Solarz and I pointed out several years ago, only a few conflicts in the world typically cause per capita death tolls several times greater than the annual U.S. murder rate of roughly 1,000 people per every 10 million.1 Even though one cannot make decisions on intervention based primarily on such quantitative metrics, the international community should in most cases seriously consider intervention when it witnesses extremely lethal conflicts.

Given the highly political and case-specific nature of military interventions, only a case-by-case analysis can resolve the question of when and how to intervene. To gauge the likely future need for such operations, it is useful to consider the recent past, since it provides a list of specific conflicts for consideration. Consider the period of the mid-1990s. There were about eight extremely lethal conflicts between 1992 and 1997: Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, and Angola, as well as Bosnia and Chechnya. These cases accounted for more than 75 percent of all war-related deaths in the world over that time period. The international community did intervene in a substantial way in Somalia and Bosnia. It also ultimately devoted some belated and limited effort to address the consequences of the 1994 war in Rwanda, helping refugees who fled to then-Zaire. What about the other cases? Should the international community have intervened to stop the killing and the dying in those wars?

There will be times when using force to stop genocide or other mass killing is not appropriate. Intervening to stop Russia from killing tens of thousands of innocent Chechens, for instance, would have risked a major-power war between nuclear-weapons states with the potential to kill far more people than the intervention could have saved. Invading North Korea to bring food to its starving people when famine was at its worst several years ago would probably have precipitated all-out war on the peninsula.

In Rwanda, by contrast, the sheer scale of the killing—nearly one million dead in several months’ time in 1994—meant that almost any timely intervention would have been better than standing aside, and could have saved a significant percentage of the total victims. The international community should have quickly sent at least 10,000 troops to defeat the genocidal Hutu militias that targeted Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Whether those forces then stayed on for years to help the country rebuild, or took the radical step of partitioning Rwanda, would in this urgent case have been a secondary concern.

In Sudan, the international community should also have intervened in the early 1990s. In fact, the case for doing so may become compelling again. The most natural solution to end the fighting and associated famine would be to partition the country into two parts: a predominantly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south. That would not please those who are only satisfied by the promotion of multiethnic democracies, but it could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives quickly, and at a modest blood cost to the United States.

In Liberia, the death toll during the early 1990s was much smaller than in Rwanda or Sudan. Nonetheless, the world should have intervened to stop the killing and help establish a coalition government and a professional military. Ethnic hatreds were less severe, and the violence more arbitrary and wanton, than in many other wars. Under those conditions, chances were good that the bloodshed could have been quickly stopped. Liberia’s modest geographic size is an additional factor that would have lent viability to a possible intervention.

In short, in my view the international community should have intervened in Rwanda, Sudan, and probably Liberia over the illustrative five-year period in question. In addition, it was right to get involved in Somalia and Bosnia (as well as Kosovo), even if the international community did so belatedly and with only modest success. In other words, actual interventions were about half as numerous as would have been ideal. Part of the reason for this mediocre track record was lack of political will; part of the reason was lack of military capacity among those states that might have had the political will.

How many military personnel would have been enough? It is difficult to say, absent a detailed study of each country’s geography and military balances. But several rules of thumb allow rough estimates. First, past experiences with counterinsurgency suggest that in difficult missions an intervening force may need several troops—and possibly even 10 or more౏for every 1,000 members of a country’s civilian population. In a country of roughly 10 million, that would translate into 50,000 or more troops.

Second, based on both military doctrine as well as political symbolism, intervening forces should generally be comparable in number to the largest likely internal foe they might face. With comparable numbers, as well as superior skills, mobility, and firepower, they would be well placed to dominate the ensuing battles.3 In most of the above conflicts, that would not have required more than 50,000 troops, but numbers could clearly reach into the several tens of thousands even by this second metric.

All told, an international community that averaged deploying some 50,000 peacekeepers around the world on official U.N. missions in the 1990s, and another 50,000 on average in the Balkans in the second half of the decade, could have needed twice as many troops for a more ambitious effort to mitigate the most lethal effects of civil violence during that time period. In other words, the typical deployment level of roughly 100,000 troops could have totaled 200,000, in rough numbers.

A survey of conflicts that have been underway in the 2000-2001 time frame produces a similar rough estimate. The international community continues to deploy some 50,000 troops in the Balkans. Elsewhere, its U.N. peacekeeping missions have become much smaller than in the early to mid 1990s, though the Sierra Leone operation has kept numbers in the vicinity of 20,000 to 30,000. But a major possible mission in Congo has not been seriously contemplated, the international community instead choosing to hope that a minimal observer mission rather than a muscular peace enforcement operation will suffice there. A serious mission in Congo could easily require 100,000 troops itself, using the force-sizing criteria noted above and making reference as well to the sheer enormity and challenging topography of that country. Possible operations in Angola and Sudan, to say nothing of a more effective mission in Sierra Leone, could push the total up further. Counting ongoing missions as well as hypothetical ones, total deployed troop numbers could again quite easily reach 200,000.

The Current Global Supply of “Projectable” Military Force

At present, unless the United States were to provide the bulk of the capabilities, the international community does not have the capacity to sustain 200,000 forces in the field over an extended period of time. Given normal troop rotation patterns, at least 500,000 troops would be needed to sustain up to 200,000 in the field over an extended period. As the table below shows, the international community falls far short of that goal.

To project military power, armed forces usually require three elements, above and beyond troops and combat equipment: strategic lift to move equipment, organic logistics assets that allow units to operate in foreign and possibly undeveloped regions, and military personnel who can be legally deployed under their existing national laws.

Sometimes a country can deploy forces abroad without meeting all three requirements. A country need not have long-range lift if its troops are deploying to a nearby location, if it has enough time to arrange transportation commercially, or if another country can transport its troops. Deploying forces may not need extensive logistics support if they are able to live off the local economy and get by with light equipment. And a given country may be able to deploy conscripts abroad, depending on its specific legal restrictions. But generally speaking, a military that might deploy abroad needs to meet these criteria.

Estimated Global Supply of Projected Military Force
United States 283 640 400 60
U.K. 37 120 20 15
France 38 190 15 8
Germany 31 220 10 5
Italy 22 175 5 25
Canada 7.5 21 5 25
Netherlands 7 25 1 4
Other NATO 43.5 980 20 2
Other Europe 13.5 296 3 1
Australia 8 24 5 20
Japan 41 150 2 1
South Korea 12 585 5 1
India 14 1100 10 1
Pakistan 4 550 2 0.3
Bangladesh 1 120 0.3 0.3
Sri Lanka 1 95 1 1
Malaysia 3 80 2 3
Singapore 5 50 2 4
Russia 56 355 35 10
China 40 1705 20 1
African neutrals 7 350 10 3
Argentina, Brazil, Chile 24 300 12 4
Non-US total 7490 190 3

An Agenda for Improving Intervention Capacity and the Need for an Expanded ACRI

To summarize, surveying the world’s conflicts, both those now underway and those of the recent past, it would be desirable that the international community be able to deploy up to 200,000 troops for military missions to quell them or at least to mitigate the human tragedy they cause. If up to 200,000 might be deployed at a time, a pool of at least 500,000 would be desirable, to provide a rotation base. A significant number, but not the dominant number, should come from the United States. Most forces should come from other countries. African countries, in particular, should be able to provide at least 100,000 of those troops, given the prevalence of conflict on their continent and their acute interest in controlling it.

African militaries are not generally well-suited to classic power projection operations. Focusing on those countries that are not themselves presently engaged in severe conflicts, those referred to as neutrals in the above table, they possess an ability to deploy and sustain no more than some 10,000 forces in aggregate. They could deploy more than that for relatively simple missions conducted with little equipment in large cities. But for missions designed to control large swaths of land, and missions that might entail combat and require the use of substantial numbers of military vehicles, African militaries are quite limited at present. And ACRI in its present form, despite its worthwhile contributions, is doing little to change that basic fact.

What would it cost to expand Africa’s collective capacity for power projection to about 100,000 troops? One way to estimate the cost is to use, as a guide, a country with a very capable military but a limited defense budget. Such a country can provide a good model for frugal but effective military planning.

Consider then the budget of South Korea. That country has, over the past couple of decades, averaged spending some $10 billion to $12 billion on its military, with about $3 billion to $4 billion typically going to procurement.4 With that budget, it fields half a million active-duty ground forces, most of them light infantry but with substantial numbers of armored and mechanized formations as well. In other words, South Korea’s forces are probably a good model for what one would want to create in the way of global intervention capacity, in terms of quality and character. Assuming that South Korea’s equipment inventories were built up over essentially a twenty-year period, given the normal lifetimes of most weaponry, and that some of its purchases clearly go to its air force and navy, its 450,000 ground troops might operate $45 billion worth of equipment in rough numbers. That translates into $10 billion of equipment per 100,000 troops.

Suppose that African states together sought to field 8 to 10 divisions, with about 100,000 associated personnel, suited for intervention abroad. The associated cost might then be $10 billion to $20 billion, depending on the quality of equipment procured. Poor countries, principally in Africa, might receive such equipment as aid; less poor developing countries might receive rebates or subsidies. In all, the donor community might need to spend $5 billion to $10 billion to make such an arrangement work. The U.S. share might be $2 billion to $4 billion, assuming that Europe would provide an equal amount and that countries such as Japan would contribute significant assistance as well. If provided during a five-year initiative, annual aid would be $400 million to $800 million for this purpose, more than ten times current spending for the Africa Crisis Response Initiative, but several times less than current U.S. military aid to the Middle East, for sake of comparison.

The virtue of providing this equipment to foreign militaries is that military manpower would not need to be increased or funded. Some funds for needs such as training, ammunition, and equipment maintenance might have to be provided on an annual basis. Scaling from the U.S. defense budget, it is possible that annual operating costs could be one-tenth the value of the capital stock of the equipment provided, necessitating an additional annual contribution of a couple hundred million dollars or so, for a total U.S. cost of roughly half a billion to a billion dollars a year.

Clearly, however, smaller efforts could be highly useful. As a practical matter, any such ambitious agenda would have to begin with smaller steps (please see my New York Times oped below for a suggestion). But ACRI should have a much broader mandate, and should be ramped up to cost at least ten times what it does today. As the world’s political leader, and as a country dedicated to human rights, the United States cannot in good conscience do less.

How to Keep Peace in Africa Without Sending Troops,The New York Times (1/08/01)