Monrovia, Liberia, August 5, 2003: General Cobra sat behind a wooden desk, bare but for an elephant carved from rosewood, a porcelain figurine of a bucking bronco, and an abacus. He sported a scarlet beret, gold-rimmed aviators, and an unkempt beard that lent necessary heft to his sunken cheeks. Grim lieutenants stood behind him, walls were dark and moist. A water-stained map of Denmark was the only décor in the commandeered office.

The American ambassador and the Nigerian force commander, General Festus Okonkwo, were ushered in. Discussion, such as it was, centred on the ambassador’s proposal that the rebels withdraw from the capital now that now that West African peacekeepers had come to Liberia, the rebels could cede the port to them, confident that government forces could not then reclaim it. The ambassador noted that rebel chairman Sekou Conneh had signed a ceasefire agreement, and as he understood it, the rebels wanted peace. It all seemed too much for Cobra.

“You negotiate with me,” he yelled, slamming his fist on the table. “Only me. I don’t take orders from Sekou Conneh. I command the army. I am going to take Monrovia and Taylor-men will pay in blood for what they have done. In blood. We have the tactics, we have the men, and nobody can come and save them. We will control the city and I will make the decisions.”

Cobra turned to the force commander. “I already know this man,” he sneered.

Peace in Liberia rested on a razor’s edge

It was meant as an insult. General Okonkwo rose. Cobra circled round… rebel and peacekeeper stood chest-to-chest, trash talking in mutually unintelligible dialects. It was clear that they had met previously and equally clear that it had not gone well. The Nigerian towered over the smaller, thinner rebel, but he was easily outgunned. A decade of international investment in training and equipment for regional peacekeepers; a peace conference four years in the making; a criminal indictment for a sitting African president; two months of intensive, senior diplomacy worldwide; a brutal, three-week siege of the capital: all crystallized at this moment. Sweat slipped along temples, mouths bent into scowls, eyes narrowed, and fingers crept to triggers… Peace in Liberia rested on a razor’s edge.

Nearly a decade and a half later, if recent rhetoric is to be believed, multilateralism is out of favour, meaning that peacekeeping operations may be harder than ever to stitch together – even as conflicts spread. International peacekeeping has a checkered history but over the past few years well-publicized scandals (most recently, Central African Republic), poor results (Darfur) and outright mission failures (Juba), whether due to ineffective mandates, inadequate planning or training, or negligence, have intensified scrutiny from those who hold the purse strings in troop-contributing countries and from human rights advocates.

The difficulty in organising a mission, whether at the sub-regional, regional or international level, cannot be minimized: Governments are asked to commit people, money and other resources to a collective effort that inevitably involves cultural, linguistic and other tough challenges in a situation where compatriots are killing each other. The bar to convince leaders that the costs of inaction outweigh the potential pitfalls is rising.

Conflicts cannot be sealed off

Furthermore, in the epoch of terrorism, peacekeeping has become immeasurably more dangerous. Preventing peacekeepers from being sucked into the conflict is imperative yet warring factions seek to do just that through direct attacks on them and on civilians. Financial conditions also have to be right: the donor world is grappling with slow or no growth coupled with domestic angst, making contributions more difficult to get. There also needs to be high-level concurrence on mandate, such as the scope of responsibility for civilian protection and essential tasks.  At the United Nations Security Council spheres of influence are shifting making agreement on intervention, even with the best intentions, all that much harder to forge.

The case for interventions, as just seen in The Gambia, is this: there are no alternatives. Countries in conflict cannot be sealed off. Traffic in weapons, drugs, resources (oil, diamonds…) and people fuels war; the inputs in most wars today are in substantial portion non-local, so solutions are also beyond local means. On the flip side, the effects of parochial fights are inevitably cross-border in nature: refugees, terror attacks, pandemics, trade disruptions and a host of other social, economic and environmental ills. International peacekeeping operations, imperfect though they may be, are still essential to re-establish regional stability, and thus global security. In their absence, or when it is too kinetic, you get Syria. But that is where we are: Syria drags on and on, and the risk is that it becomes the norm, not the exception.

Everything comes down to choices

The specter of a retreat from multilateralism is alarming because even the best operations rely on alchemy to succeed. Missions by definition start late as a reaction to crisis and even then the belligerents and their political masters still must cooperate with the intervention. Then, and only then, does the brief chance for peace open. At that point, everything comes down to the choices made by those with guns such as those in the commandeered office…

The siege in August, 2003 split the Liberian capital in two. People were dying on both sides from indiscriminate fire, malnourishment, and disease. President Charles Taylor was under indictment and set to step down and leave the country, but his forces were dug in and the rebels were prepared for another bloody assault. But the international community rallied to Liberia’s cause, high-level multilateral diplomacy paid off, and the Economic Community of West African States teed up a peacekeeping operation. Against this backdrop, the ambassador and the force commander crossed the front lines to try to work out a deal: to convince the rebels to quit the city and allow West African peacekeepers to separate the warring parties. The aim was to reunify the city, allow aid to come in and buy time for peace talks to yield a way forward. Now in a dank, stuffy room filled with soldiers, it looked like it all might come undone.

The ambassador jumped up and separated the two men with his hands. “Look,” he said to Cobra, his voice dry and one note from breaking, “I’m here to represent the American people to the people of Liberia. Not just one side, you know. I’m here for everyone. So that means I’m your Ambassador too.” Cobra eased off, and General Okonkwo did his part and stepped back.  The objective was to open up the port, and move the rebels out of the city. And despite the tense moments, reason prevailed. The mission succeeded. The international community’s investment in Liberia paid off.

Dante Paradiso is a career Foreign Service Officer the author of “The Embassy: A Story of War and Diplomacy” (Beaufort Books, New York (2016)) available on Amazon.com in hardcover and Kindle. The views expressed in this article are his own and not necessarily those of the United States Department of State or the United States Government.

The Embassy by Dante Paradiso.

In a distant war, in a city under siege, U.S. Ambassador John W. Blaney faced a terrible choice: abandon the mission or risk the lives of his team to give diplomacy a last chance… “The Embassy” is a graphic, cinematic retelling of the harrowing climax of the Liberian civil war and the U.S. and West African role in ending it. Through interviews with the Ambassador and key members of the country team, as well as with peacekeepers, U.S. troops, relief workers, foreign correspondents, senior Liberian officials and rebel leaders, Dante Paradiso reconstructs the violence and chaos of those times to create an enduring portrait of a U.S. embassy under fire and the kind of daring frontline diplomacy that can change the fate of a nation.  Available via Amazon.com in hardcover and Kindle. Link: https://www.amazon.com/Embassy-Story-War-Diplomacy/dp/0825308259

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