World Faces a Brutal Choice in Sierra Leone

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In Kosovo, the West went to war to stop ethnic cleansing; in Sierra Leone the international community appears unable to muster the will and resources to stop a ragtag guerrilla band that has already killed and mutilated tens of thousands more people than Slobodan Milosevic's forces ever did. The U.S. moved Monday to shore up the beleaguered U.N. peacekeeping mission to the war-torn west African country by offering to fly some 700 troops from Bangladesh into Sierra Leone, and also to provide logistical support should nearby Nigeria choose to resume its policing role in the former British colony. But another 700 troops is unlikely to make much difference to a U.N. force, which, by its very nature, is only designed to keep the peace between two sides who're committed to an agreement — which clearly isn't the case in Sierra Leone, where the guerrillas of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) plainly never had any intention of complying with the requirement that they be disarmed. Instead, the rebels simply began attacking the hapless U.N. contingents, composed mostly of troops from other African countries and from India, and took some of them hostage.

The only successful effort, partial at least, to keep peace in Sierra Leone came when a Nigerian-led force, known as ECOMOG, intervened two years ago to stop the rebels from overrunning the country. But the RUF controlled diamond fields that could finance a long-term insurgency, and when ECOMOG withdrew recently, complaining that the mission was too costly, the RUF became emboldened. The peace deal was supposed to mean giving up their control over the diamond fields, but that wasn't something an exceedingly brutal army — which had adopted systematic dismembering of the civilian population as a tactic of war — was willing to do.

The failure of peacekeeping, though, leaves the international community facing an ugly choice: Simply pulling out leaves Sierra Leone at the mercy of thugs far worse than Milosevic's, but eliminating the danger requires a military commitment far larger than anyone is prepared to make. Even if the cash-strapped Nigerians can be persuaded to send their ECOMOG contingents back, those were previously able to restrict the rebels' advance on the capital, but not to eliminate them as a fighting force. So even in the best-case scenario, now, Sierra Leone will go back to square one.