India is preparing to withdraw its four remaining Mi-35 attack helicopters from the U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo early next month, ending years of Indian air superiority in the war-wracked Central African nation, and depriving the U.N. of its most vital military asset as the country heads into a landmark presidential election.
The Indian drawdown will deal a blow to the U.N. mission, known by its French acronym MONUSCO, which has depended on Indian troops and aircraft to ensure it can protect civilians and conduct humanitarian operations in a sprawling nation the size of Western Europe, and one with few roads.
But it also points to a growing reluctance by states to supply complex U.N. peacekeeping missions in places like Congo and Sudan with necessary and costly combat aircraft and other advanced logistical and communications equipment .
As the United States and other Western powers have retreated from U.N. peacekeeping over the past decade, India and a handful of other developing and emerging powers have filled the gap, supplying the U.N. with the bulk of its more than 100,000 peacekeepers needed to run the world's second-largest expeditionary force, after the U.S. military. India, however, has stood apart from other developing countries because of its capacity to deploy combat helicopters and other advanced military gear in Africa and the political will to use them.
India's decision to scale back its military commitment in Congo comes as France is preparing to introduce a Security Council resolution calling on the U.N. peacekeeping mission there to play a greater role in ensuring the protection of civilians in the months leading up to the election. But the absence of combat helicopters will limit the mission's ability to carry out such responsibilities, and may even force the U.N. to close some of its more remote outposts in eastern Congo, according to human rights activists and U.N. officials.
"I am obliged to note that [the U.N.'s] military operations are being negatively impacted by the shortage of military helicopters," Roger Meece, the U.N. Special Representative in Congo warned the Security Council last week. "This problem will become worse absent new contributions."
India's international identity has long been shaped by its role in U.N. peacekeeping, with more than 100,000 Indian troops having served in U.N. missions during the past 50 years. Today, India has over 8,500 peacekeepers in the field, more than twice as many as the U.N.'s five big powers combined. In supporting India's bid for a permanent seat on an enlarged Security Council last November, President Barack Obama cited "India's long history as a leading contributor to United Nations peacekeeping mission."
For now, New Delhi remains committed to keeping more than 4,000 uniformed personnel in Congo through the November election. But Indian officials has bridled at the lack of influence its contributions have been able to purchase at the United Nations, where its bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council appears stalled and where traditional powers like the United States, Britain, and France make all the important decisions on peacekeeping missions and get the most influential U.N. jobs.
Earlier this month, India rejected a request by Meece to extend the helicopter contract when it expires on July 4. U.N. officials said India has claimed it needs the helicopters to battle a resurgent Maoist guerrilla movement in eastern India. "India cannot be the only place in the world with attack helicopters," Manjeev Singh Puri, India's deputy ambassador, said in an interview. "We have capacity restraints."
The Indian drawdown comes as a gathering of large troop contributors, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Uruguay, have reached a deadlock with the world's wealthiest donors over how much money is needed to run the U.N.'s 15 peacekeeping operations.
The budget standoff threatens to upend an informal arrangement that requires rich countries to pay most of the costs of peacekeeping, while poorer countries supply the troops. Uruguay, which already withdrew one CASA-212 fixed-wing airplane from Haiti in April, has threatened to withdraw nearly 1,300 troops from Congo, according to Security Council diplomats and U.N. officials.
"There is a huge mismatch between the mandates the Security Council gives the peacekeeping missions and the resources they are willing to provide: the rich countries are the worst offenders," Anneke Van Woudenberg, the senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Turtle Bay. "Where are the Europeans? Where is the United States? Where are the Canadians?"
The Non-aligned Movement (NAM), which represents the vast majority of troop-contributing states, is suggesting that countries that supply peacekeepers receive more money in the 2012 peacekeeping budget, including a 57 percent increase in peacekeepers' salaries. The increase, they note, would essentially reflect the increase in inflation since 1991, the last time peacekeeping rates were raised
But they have confronted resistance from industrial powers who say that the financial crisis has strained their national treasuries, making it impossible to consider raising salaries. The Europeans in particular have complained that emerging economic powerhouses like Brazil and India, who pay respectively 1.6 percent and .5 percent of the U.N.'s administrative budget, and even less for peacekeeping costs, should pay more.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, has sought to address Indian demands for more influence in top decision-making positions. One of his first appointments was the former Indian diplomat, Vijay Nambiar, as his chief of staff. More recently, the United Nations has appointed an Indian force commander, Lt. General Chander Prakash, to lead the mission in Congo; Indian Maj General Abhijit Guha was made the U.N.'s second rank military advisor; and a former Indian diplomat, Atul Khare, was promoted to spearhead the U.N.'s reform agenda. Ban also appointed an Indian national, Lakshmi Puri, a well-regarded U.N. veteran who is also the wife of India's U.N. ambassador, Hardeep Singh Puri, as deputy executive of the U.N.'s new super agency for women's rights.
The story of India's drawdown in Congo, documented in a series of previously unpublished U.S. diplomatic cables obtained through WikiLeaks, displays the newly ascendant power's heightened diplomatic sensitivity. India believes it is not accorded the respect it deserves on the world stage, and thinks its reputation has been tarnished in the Congo mission.
Indian troops in Congo have been accused of corruption, sexual misconduct, falling short in their obligation to protect civilians from violent militias, and showing favoritism towards anti-government rebels, according to the U.S. cables.
India's mission in Congo hit a low point in 2008, when a tipsy Indian military colonel, at the end of his deployment in the country, was tape-recorded delivering a farewell toast to Laurent Nkunda, commander of a rebel force that had repeatedly trounced government troops, but had been badly bloodied in confrontations with the Indian peacekeepers.
"Clearly elated over his return home (a state of mind undoubtedly made more intense by the many drinks he imbibed at the event) the colonel lauded Nkunda in his good-bye statement as a worthy opponent," according to the U.S. cable.
When the Security Council voted to increase the number of U.N. peacekeepers in Nov. 2008 -- a period marked by an upsurge in violence around the eastern Congolese city of Goma -- the Congolese government said it didn't want any more Indian peacekeepers, according to another U.S. cable and an Indian official.
Infuriated at the slight, India threatened to pull out all of its troops, as well as 23 transport and attack helicopters, a move that would have crippled the mission. The rift played into the hands of Congolese hardliners who used the controversy to try to force the U.N. out of Congo. At one stage, government officials paid crowds to hurl stones at the Indian peacekeepers, according to a U.S. cable.
"It seems the [Government of India] has determined it has no desire to continue placing its troops in harms way in a country where they are not wanted," said one U.S. cable "A withdrawal of Indians troops and helicopter assets would be absolutely devastating to MONUC ability to carry out its mandate."
In early 2009, the United States tried to coax the Congolese leadership to patch up relations with India, and to offer public expressions of appreciation for the role the Indians were playing in Congo. Finally, President Joseph Kabila wrote a letter to the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh thanking India for its contribution to peace and asking it to stay.
New Delhi dropped its plans to withdraw its troops, but Indian diplomats put the U.N. on notice that it would gradually withdraw its helicopters. Several countries, including South Africa, Ukraine, and Argentina, have expressed interest in providing replacement aircraft. But the U.N. has been unable to secure firm commitments, leaving the U.N. mission without its most powerful military asset.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.