West Darfur, Sudan - As a white foreigner visiting a displacement camp here, I was greeted with the chant, "khawaja no kwa." "The foreigners say no," they sang, meaning international intervention helped ease the suffering in Darfur. The song was a gesture of thanks and respect.
The wealthy world fulfilled the first part of its obligation to the people here when it finally started sending emergency aid over a year ago. The second part of that obligation - helping African Union (AU) soldiers provide security for the 2 million people driven from home - would consolidate humanitarian gains in Darfur and, as important, serve as a long-term investment in the stability of the entire continent.
In Darfur, the international community - specifically NATO and the United States - has a unique opportunity to help Africans provide security for their own conflict zones. Access for aid workers has improved dramatically in Darfur over the past year, but the countryside is now racked with lawlessness and warlordism. Neither the government of Sudan nor the rebel parties seem able to control the violence.
Within this challenging context, it is critical that Darfurians living in refugee camps start to go home and recover their lives. Peace talks between the government of Sudan and various rebel groups continue in Nigeria, but there is little hope of a durable political agreement in the near future. Meanwhile, the people of Darfur are stuck suffering between no war and no peace.
Their most basic needs are met in displacement camps, but the situation is unsustainable: The longer they are displaced the more expensive it becomes for the international community and the less likely it is that they'll ever get home to rebuild their own communities. Ask a Darfur refugee what she wants and inevitably the answer is "to go home, but only if there is security."
People will return to Darfur only when they have security assurances they see as credible, and that's where the AU force comes in.
So far, the AU mission in Sudan has surpassed expectations. Displaced women used to be terrified of leaving camps to collect firewood. Now, women can time their trips outside to coincide with AU patrols. This is a development of which the AU and its backers should be proud.
The problem is that there are currently only about 6,000 AU troops in Darfur, an area the size of Texas. The AU says it plans to ramp that number up to about 12,000 by 2006. That would be too little, too late.
In order to help get Darfurians back home and back on track in safety, the AU would need to hit that 12,000 as soon as possible and be prepared to send at least a few thousand more if necessary. The US and NATO are already providing important logistical and technical support for the AU mission, but standing up this larger force would require a speedy and substantial increase in their financial commitments. The US specifically needs to apply diplomatic pressure to ensure that our allies meet the pledges they have made to the AU.
That commitment is the least the world can do. Consider this comparison. Following the war in Bosnia, the international community secured the country - especially high refugee return areas - by providing more than 18 peacekeepers per thousand Bosnians. In Kosovo, the world came up with 20 peacekeepers per thousand people. In Darfur right now, there is one AU soldier per thousand people, spread over a much larger geographic area. That is disgraceful.
An increased investment in the AU's peacekeeping capability now would also advance a huge shared goal for Africa and the West: to help Africans protect Africans. Several of the continent's conflicts need sustained, legitimate, outside military intervention and history proves that the West is unwilling to commit its own troops in any meaningful way.
Some respected analysts have called for NATO to deploy its own peacekeepers to Darfur. That is an appealing idea, but the fact of the matter is that the government of Sudan will never accept NATO troops on its soil, and their presence could actually further destabilize the region.
An indigenous peacekeeping force legitimized by international support and conforming to international standards is critical to mitigating conflict, enabling humanitarian access, and easing human suffering in Africa.
Note: This article was orginally published in the October 25, 2005 edition of The Christian Science Monitor.