Lebanon News

Eastern UNIFIL troops to be put to test

French and Malaysian peacekeepers mingle during a handover ceremony at the French contingent. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

ADCHIT AL-QUSAYR, Lebanon: Down along the windswept hills and rock outcroppings of the southeastern border, 1,400 Indonesian peacekeepers patrol the Blue Line.

They monitor their small area of operations in vehicle convoys, driving slow, always smiling, always waving. And when it’s time to pray, the 90-percent Muslim force pulls off to the side of the road and turns toward Mecca.

For many Indonesians the chance to participate in one of the oldest and largest peacekeeping operations means more than just fulfilling an international obligation. They have trained for years to have the opportunity to take part in a mission to help preserve world peace.

“For us peacekeeping is an honorable mission,” says commanding officer Risa Satywan.

As a group of officers explain in the battalion’s mess hall, peacekeeping and working toward world peace is a moral value that is enshrined in their constitution and has been instilled in them since their youth.

“You create peace in another world,” Satywan adds.

As the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon’s largest contingent, the Indonesian peacekeepers are representative of a new force that is taking shape in south Lebanon led by major contributions from nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal and Ghana.

These eastern armies now make up 60 percent of the 12,000 man force, triple their size from when UNIFIL re-launched in 2006.

What that means depends on who you ask: Critics say a dependence on less powerful militaries in UNIFIL could mean a major reduction in important technological capabilities needed to keep the peace. Others say forces with a lower profile, who are better able to get in touch with southern residents, could be a boon for the byzantine peacekeeping environment.

This month the U.N. completed a strategic review of its forces with an eye on handing over more operations to the Lebanese Army. The review called for increased government involvement in the south as well as increased military capacity by the Lebanese Army.

From its inception in 1978 until the summer 2006 war, a handful of countries contributed several thousand troops to UNIFIL, similar to many other peacekeeping missions under the U.N.

That changed when UNIFIL resurrected its force after the 2006 war. Peacekeepers were drawn from over two dozen countries with an emphasis on European nations that are deeply invested in Mediterranean politics. France brought 2,000, Germany 1,500 and Italy led the force with 2,400.

That preponderance of European forces was unusual in the peacekeeping world where forces are usually led by Western nations but composed of peacekeepers from the developing world with the most to gain from U.N. force payments and training in semi-war environments.

It may seem that the European troop experiment isn’t going to last.

Bombings against the French, Irish, Spanish and Italian peacekeepers, the most deadly of which killed six Spaniards, have the Western nations reconsidering their role in UNIFIL.

Western forces made up nearly 80 percent of the force in 2006. Now they make up 40. The Italians have reduced their force contributions from 2,415 to 1,226, the Germans from 1,500 to 197 and after a bombing wounded six French peacekeepers in December, French officials have said they will reduce their force contribution by 400.

In its first years as a recast mission, some Western contingents such as the French demanded they be allowed to deploy as a sophisticated fighting force.

That kind of technology won’t be as available with a reliance on less well-equipped militaries. Bruce Jones, director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, says less technology will hurt UNIFIL’s peacekeeping abilities.

“You will see a UNIFIL that has substantially less intelligence and military capability,” Jones says. “That sort of brings it more in line with normal U.N. peacekeeping and that’s not necessarily a good thing.”

In peacekeeping studies, a number of theorists says that one of two preconditions must be met for a successful mission: an agreed framework between parties, or a substantial military advantage by the peacekeepers.

The U.N. framework, UNSC 1701, is panned by some as a facade of an operating agreement garnering only superficial compliance from parties. Peacekeepers are also at various levels of disadvantages to the armed forces along both sides of the line for technical and tactical reasons.

Jones says the new eastern face of the force will set UNIFIL even further back in establishing some sort of military respectability to keep the conflict from escalating.

“You can have 100,000 troops on the ground and if they don’t have any substantial military ability then what the hell they are doing,” he says.

Keeping peace may not have as much to do with technology advances as much as it does politics on the southern side of the border.

Keeping a large Western component in UNIFIL is crucial to make the Israelis think twice before striking in the south, says Timur Goksel who was a longtime spokesman for the peacekeeping force.

Goksel says he was hopeful when he saw the major western relaunch of the force in 2006 and is more concerned as they play less of a role along the Blue Line.

“Both Israel and Hezbollah will be careful with those countries. It adds political clout that UNIFIL never have had by itself with third world countries, with due respect, that’s it.”

But there’s another aspect to non-Western peacekeepers that isn’t flashy, yet could be a major boon to navigating the byzantine security environment south of the Litani River full of armed groups, and restricted sectors.

Nations like India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nepal don’t bring any historical colonialist baggage to their deployment in the south and their countriess don’t have world-spanning foreign policy campaigns in the balance.

Many Western forces have very strict operating procedures that limit their actions outside of the battalion headquarters because of security threats.

But along the eastern, mountainous end of the Blue Line, nearly 1,000 Indian peacekeepers have become part of life around their area of operations near Marjayoun for the past 15 years. They climb the northern face of snow covered Jabal al-Sheikh to patrol the Blue Line that stretches across the mountains.

The Indians are familiar with multi-sectarian environments. In a long barracks building in the battalion’s headquarters modest Christian, Muslim, Hindi, Sikh shrines are tucked along the walls. Soldiers from all denominations gather in the rectangular concrete block building to pray together every week.

Indian doctors and veterinarians offer clinics to villages in the area and are on call for emergencies.

The eastern forces have the advantage of simply being a friendly face that can go out and speak with the locals, but it will be challenged to keep the peace in the 30-year-old conflict.

For that, the Indonesians have a very simple approach. Speaking in the battalion’s small mess hall in Adchit al-Qusayr Indonesian officers explain their comprehensive approach to peacekeeping. In the end it boils down to one thing.

“The most important thing is you put yourself equal with the locals,” commanding officer Satywan says.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 29, 2012, on page 3.

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