During the 2007-2008 Presidential election campaign, both Barack Obama and his running mate Joe Biden expressed support for the imposition of a (probably NATO) no-fly zone (NFZ) over Darfur, much like the one maintained by Anglo-American air forces over northern Iraq following the Gulf War. In 2006 Obama co-sponsored a bill broaching a Darfur NFZ, and reiterated his call in May of 2007. The previous month, in April of 2007, Biden expressed disgust at the Khartoum government and stated that he would use “American force now,” and specifically American airpower, to resolve the conflict in Darfur. More recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that a NFZ over Darfur was a real possibility. But would the insertion of external military power in the form of a NFZ deter the government of Sudan and stabilize Darfur, or would it further intensify the fighting and erode any prospect for a negotiated settlement?
In a March 5 article that appeared in The Washington Post, Merrill A. McPeak and Kurt Bassuener argued that instead of “decisive action,” the international community provided Darfur refugees with “the palliatives of a sputtering aid effort.” Because air power –helicopter gunships, Fantan ground-attack jets and Antonov cargo planes improvised as bombers- is “central” to Janjaweed and government ground operations, McPeak and Bassuener urged NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Darfur that would operate out of Abeche, Chad. Equipped with fighter squadrons, aerial refuelers and command-and-control aircraft, the operation would quickly ground anything flyable west of Khartoum. With air superiority the West would be better positioned to negotiate a more effective peacekeeping mission. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times agreed, even suggesting that 10,000 Sudanese People’s Liberation Army troops could be moved into Darfur from the south.
Nicholas D. Kristof, “Watching Darfuris Die,” The New York Times, March 7 2009.
Merrill A. McPeak and Kurt Bassuener, “Grounding Sudan’s Killers, The Washington Post, March 5 2009.
One week after the McPeak and Basseuener article, Guardian journalist Micah Zenko pointed out that despite a comprehensive NFZ over northern Iraq, a Kurdish rebellion in 1996 was still crushed after five Republican Guard and regular army divisions marched into Kurdistan as Anglo-American warplanes watched from above. Zenko also wondered why clearing the skies of Sudanese military aircraft would necessarily translate into inactivity on the ground. In addition, a letter to the editor that appeared in The Washington Post argued that a NFZ would change the balance of power on the ground, emboldening the rebel groups to take the offensive (much as the Kosovo Liberation Army did in 1999 under the cover of NATO air power). Finally, injecting air power into Darfur, rather than increasing Western/United Nations leverage, could only further distance the combatants by picking sides. Considering political dialogue (or lack thereof) was a significant cause of the current conflict, armed intervention could have very serious repercussions for the foreseeable future.
Micah Zenko, “Say no to a Darfur no-fly zone,” Guardian, March 12 2009
Alan J. Kuperman, “No to a Darfur No-Fly Zone,” The Washington Post, March 10 2009.
Also see Agnes van Ardenne, Mohamed Salih, Nick Grono and Juan Mendez, Explaining Darfur (Amsterdam: Vossiuspers UvA, 2006): 22.
The debate around the feasibility of a Darfur NFZ has only been touched upon here, and a simple Google search will yield dozens of hits. So consider the different arguments presented in this entry, do some research, and post your thoughts on a Darfur NFZ here.
John R. Matchim