Wednesday, May 25, 2005

UN blue helmet forces using tougher war tactics - and a media double standard on criticism

The Monday, May 23, 2005 New York Times carried a very interesting front page story by Marc Lacey, "U.N. Forces Using Tougher Tactics To Secure Peace." Here, reg. req.

The article describes how the UN, responding over the course of a decade to criticism of its inability to prevent slaughters in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Somalia, has allowed its blue helmets to engage in far more robust military operations than before. The trend is especially noticeable in what has been the worst conflict in the world during several years, the multi-party war in Congo. It has the largest UN troop deployment in the world ... "Peacekeepers in armored personnel carriers, facing enemy sniper attacks as they lumber through rugged dirt paths ... are returning fire. Attack helicopters swoop down over the trees in search of tribal fighters. And peacekeepers are surrounding villages in militia strongholds and searching hut by hut for guns."

Sound familiar? Sound a little like Afghanistan and Iraq in terms of combat troops dealing with irregular fighters?

The article quotes a Bangladeshi colonel, "If we hear they are somewhere, we move in," he said. "We don't get them all the time, but they have to run. Their morale is shattered, and from a military point of view, that is everything."

Sound familiar?

"As they root out the insurgents ... United Nations soldiers ... have at their disposal tanks, armored personnel carriers, Mi-25 attack helicopters, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers - all of which are getting heavy use ... In March, after an ambush that killed nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers, the United Nations raided a crowded market near Loga to root out fighters preying on the local population. The peacekeepers also conduct what they call 'cordon and search' operations, which are essentially hunts for weaponry in remote villages."

Sound familiar? Lacey is fond of characterizing the insurgents as "preying on the local population" - he does it twice in the article, and while it is true, it is also true that the incident described above could be described as UN troops raiding a market after an attack on their forces, not the local population.

Who are these UN soldiers? In 1998, the article notes, "about 45% of peacekeepers came from Western armies. The figure is now less than 10%; most now come from the developing world. In Congo, most of the peacekeepers are Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Nepalese."

It is a very good article. If the NYT's articles showed the same general benefit of the doubt toward US military forces in its wars, the NYT would be a more credible paper. The difference between Lacey's account and the usual NYT reporting on Iraq is a pervasive difference in acceptance of the legitimacy, at bottom, of the war. Lacey's reporting carries no sense - as there is in so much Times reporting on Iraq and Afghanistan - that the true purpose of reporting on the actual, on the ground conduct of forces, is actually driven by a second agenda, viz., to de-legitimize the conflict itself. Lacey comes across, if anything, as a little too credulous about the UN - he doesn't really question it except in the accepted terms of moral failure in Rwanda and Bosnia which it is progressively moving to remedy. It is the NYT's sacred "UN=Progress even when it screws up and allows child rape" narrative at work here.

Nor does Lacey adopt, in his assumptions about the UN military mission, the usual NYT strategic premise about Iraq, viz., that insurgents cannot really be defeated by conventional military forces. Instead he quotes a positive-thinking UN colonel in Congo about how his forces are defeating the insurgents' morale - but does anyone think the NYT would run an equivalent story on Iraq and simply leave it at that?

So where is the media scrutiny of the tactics and strategy of these UN forces from the standpoint of the laws of war? Does anyone besides the NYT or MSM really think that the national militaries making up the peacekeeping troops pay anywhere near as much attention to law of war issues in the planning and execution of military operations as the US does in Afghanistan or Iraq? Where is there any media attention to this question? Or is it the case, rather, that the fact that these soldiers happen to wear blue helmets confers a sort of media-immunity on them, at least until something comes out that especially shocks sophisticated Western media consciencies - the sexual abuse of women and children? The questions of collateral damage that might occur when you surround and search a village or neighborhood or crowded market that so preoccupy Western media in Iraq and Afghanistan do not seem to be on anyone's minds in reporting on Congo - exempt from criticism, as it were, because of the UN stamp of legitimacy in the minds of the media.

Lacey makes one reference to a local NGO, Justice Plus, which raised questions about collateral damage - according to the NGO, civilians died in the market incident, but Lacy does not follow it up, does not tell us how many died, nor does he tell us any other facts about an operation that might plausibly be characterized as a response to an ambush against UN forces and in which revenge might at least figure as a possibility. Instead, he immediately drops that in favor of telling a story about a girl horribly abused by militias two years before. It is a horrific and important story.

But let's be honest here. Would the typical NYT story on combat in Iraq have skipped the details about civilians deaths in a US operation that followed on an ambush of Americans, and instead immediately followed it up with a story about atrocities from two years before by Saddam's regime? Hardly.

My point, then, is that Western media has a double standard as between US forces and UN forces. It is not that Lacey's article is wrong - it is that it is nowhere as critical or questioning or skeptical as the equivalent MSM article on US forces in Iraq or Afghanistan would be.

(I should add that I support the UN's deployment in Congo, and the robustness of the engagement, very strongly. It is doing a generally good and necessary job. My concern is, rather, with the media double standard in coverage of these different conflicts.)

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