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Europe’s Peacekeeping Nightmares

How will Europe react to the changing nature of its peacekeeping role?

March 28, 2007

How will Europe react to the changing nature of its peacekeeping role?

If you were a European military planner, your nightmare would look like this. Say you are responsible for large numbers of heavily armed and well-trained peacekeepers in some small and dangerous place: Kosovo, perhaps, or southern Lebanon.

On the streets, public protests are escalating into riots — and in the hills, sporadic guerrilla activity is morphing into an insurgency. International troops and civilians will be targets.

The various European contingents deployed have different rules on using force. Tough-minded governments are accusing the more cautious ones of undermining the mission.

You know that you are going to need to send reinforcements soon. However, you are struggling to find the force you need because you're not facing one crisis — but two or three at once.

It's a grim scenario, but it may be reality soon. Last year saw a run of large new European troop deployments, defying clichés about the continent's lack of military reach.

The number of European troops in Afghanistan climbed from 12,000 to just over 20,000 (supplemented by 12,000 Americans), although NATO generals kept on asking for more.

Meanwhile, the UN force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) surged from 2,000 troops (of which a third were European) to 12,000. While the new force includes personnel from as far off as China and Indonesia, three-quarters come from EU members. And EU governments have also maintained nearly 20,000 soldiers in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Compared to the U.S. forces in Iraq, these are relatively small numbers. But while speculating about different "drawdown" scenarios is the toast of Washington, European leaders may wonder how long they must stay on in Afghanistan, Lebanon or the Balkans — or wherever a crisis will strike next.

Predictions of a new Taliban offensive in Afghanistan already seem to be coming true. And if Kosovo has often seemed stagnant compared to the Middle East, that could be about to change.

Radical Kosovar Albanians responded to proposals for the province's future by rioting in its capital, Pristina. The UN and NATO shot back, killing two.

And while European troops in Lebanon have yet to become ensnared in a shooting war, strikes, demonstrations and riots in Beirut have raised fears of a civil war between Hezbollah and government forces. And while UNIFIL is mandated to back the government, Hezbollah's Iranian backers are engaging in an acrimonious exchange of rhetoric with the West.

In a multi-center crisis, serious violence could flare up in Kosovo and Lebanon simultaneously — while fighting in Afghanistan pins European troops down there. With the United States in its Iraq surge phase, European forces would have to hold on and find reinforcements.

On paper, they have the capacity. In the Balkans, NATO's Kosovo force can be reinforced by the 5,000 EU troops based in Bosnia. And this year, the EU has brought online its "Battle Group" concept, by which two brigades of 1,500 troops each are on standby to respond to crises.

Indeed, the very fact that European forces deployed to Lebanon at speed in 2006 shows that they are not as inadequate as some U.S. critics had claimed.

Indeed after the EU's recent internal political difficulties, these shows of strength have been timely successes for the European project, now fifty years old. When the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, it deliberately had no defense element. Now, the EU is beginning to look like a military player.

But hard questions remain over how European troops would perform in a crisis. The last time sustained violence broke out in Kosovo — March 2004 — some contingents retreated to their barracks as villages burned nearby.

Last year, German journalist Ulrike Putz reported that while the new UNIFIL included elite well-armored units "trained to show massive strength," many would not risk patrolling at night, lest they provoke militias.

It has even been reported (but not confirmed) that UNIFIL troops have retreated from Hezbollah on coming across guerilla patrols. Some observers have contrasted this degree of caution with the increasingly aggressive tactics of Indian and Pakistani UN troops in Africa. Those "blue helmets" are happy to use attack helicopters in the eastern Congo.

And just as international police were facing down the rioters in Pristina, Brazilian-led UN forces were going on the offensive against gangs in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince.

There is an irony here. Many senior European officers, recalling the UN's restrictions on the use of force in Bosnia in the 1990s, still refuse to believe that the organization will ever allow its peacekeepers to get tough. But now that UN headquarters is ready to contemplate robust action, European governments and commanders are suddenly wary.

Not, of course, that a measured approach to using force is a bad thing. European publics are sensitive to any warning signs that their armed forces are getting out of control — such as reports of torture by British troops in Iraq, or civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

But while it is one thing for voters to demand restraint in periods of (tenuous) stability, how will they respond to a new crisis in Kosovo or Lebanon? In 1999, when Serb forces were killing Kosovar Albanians, a poll found that 87% of Britons thought there was a moral duty to respond.

But 56% did not feel that the crisis warranted the loss of one British life. How would Europeans respond to troops dying in new, morally murky civil strife?

That could be among the hardest questions EU politicians have to face this year. 2006 was the year that Europe showed it was willing and able to get troops to trouble-spots impressively fast. If Europe is to be a credible player in world affairs, 2007 must not be the year in which we find out how quickly, and under what pressures, those troops will evacuate.