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UN Attack Helicopters. Debate from Above!

Sometimes something unexpected pops up over the horizon, drops out of a clear blue sky. Something that stops you dead in your tracks.

The United Nations will be deploying attack helicopters to Darfur, with Sudanese approval.

Yeah. That’s right.

I never thought I’d see the words “United Nations” and “attack helicopters” in the same sentence, either.

Is it actually possible that UN forces might use attack helicopters to protect the Godforsaken people of Darfur from the Jangjaweed militias?

Let’s not get crazy.

Hovering arrays of Hellfire missiles and Gatling guns spitting fiery death from above could be highly effective against these genocidal hordes from another century. But if you plan to paint your airborne weapons platform white, with black UN initials on the side, you might as well keep it home and sell the fuel and the paint. Unless what you want is a good, safe position from which to observe rape, plunder, slaughter and slaving, well removed from the likelihood of being taken hostage or harmed oneself.

The plan to bring in a “heavy support package” was first proposed last August, subject to Sudanese approval. The Sudanese balked, but finally agreed when the UN allowed that the helicopters would not be used in offensive operations. Not entirely clear why that needed to be spelled out.

The history of UN peacekeeping operations should have removed any concerns the Sudanese government might have. There was the arming of Hezbollah and its attacks on Israel under the noses of UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon. There are the accusations of rape from Africa to East Timor. The oldest UN peacekeeping operation of them all, UNMOGIP in Kashmir, has watched armed forces and ordnance fly in both directions unhindered for 59 years, dutifully filing its reports and conveying complaints between belligerents who have managed to kill 60,000 people in the last 18 years of simmering conflict alone. There is torture Somali youths by blue-helmeted warriors in the early 1990s. There’s Srebrenica. While no exactly a peacekeeping operation, the bribes-for-oil program in Saddam’s Iraq was widly popular in some quarters.

A UN presence, if anything, puts a figleaf on your murdering, raping and plundering.

Presumeably the language of the latest agreement, if it rules out offensive operations, limits the helicopters to defensive operations in the Sudan. The news reports I saw were non-committal on this point. Are they to defend the people of Darfur? That would be a novel use of a UN peacekeeping force, usually relegated to watching as peace ebbs and flows, but mainly ebbs. The news reports seem to suggest the main concern is defending the peacekeepers, though the UN’s track record on that score is not stellar either.

The news reports, written in terms any diplomat could appreciate, leave these questions largely unanswered.

Answers, where attempted, are obliquely hinted at. The news reports don’t even say whose attack helicopters will be flying over Darfur, though the reports appear to suggest they may be African Union whirlybirds.

I always try to be optimistic.

I hope to read in the near future that blue-helmeted doorgunners hanging out of white helicopters of death, emblazoned with the feared initials “UN,” have mercilessly mowed down squadrons of camel-mounted murderers, halting their rapacious descent upon another village.

But I do not expect this to be surprised in this manner.

A force of 3,000 heavily armed blue-helmeted military police and six white UN attack helicopters to assist 7,000 beleaguered AU troops is, I suppose, better than nothing. But if, as Deputy Secrtey of State John Negroponte says, the force is to conform to “UN standards and practices,” then it won’t be by much.

Jules Crittenden is an editor and columnist for the Boston Herald.

Crittenden’s web page is at Forward Movement.