What the Comoros Invasion Reveals

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Forces loyal to Anjouan's leader Mohamed Bacar rally as they wait for the assault by African Union troops in Ouani.

The Comoro Islands off the East coast of Africa are noted for their exquisite beaches, their turtle migration, and their violence. Since gaining independence from France in 1975, the tiny three-island archipelago with a population of 710,000 has suffered 19 coups or attempted coups, while also producing Africa's most wanted terrorist, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed — accused of masterminding the killing of 224 people as leader of the Somalia-based al-Qaeda allied group that bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. It might seem appropriate, then, at first glance, that the African Union on Tuesday responded with force to a threat by one of the islands, Anjouan, to secede. Comoran troops backed by an AU force composed of Libyan, Senegalese, Sudanese and Tanzanian soldiers invaded at dawn, under a barrage of mortars and gunfire, and by noon announced that they were in control. But despite the operation's apparent success, it raises as many questions as it answers.

African Union leaders might be hoping their readiness to use force will demonstrate that the continent is serious about policing itself. In reality, it may send the opposite message. That the AU feels comfortable, albeit after more than a year of diplomacy and sanctions, about attacking Anjouan's airport and roaring into tiny Moutsamoudou town — the entire island has a population of just 240,000 and its biggest claim to prominence is as the world's premier exporter of ylang-ylang flowers — only highlights how uneasy the organization becomes in the face of stiffer opposition.

Chrysantus Ayangafac, a Pretoria-based researcher from the International Institute of Strategic Studies, argued in a paper this month that even such a limited military intervention "will have high diplomatic, human and financial cost implications for the AU, which it can ill afford. Besides, any sustained military intervention in the country will have to be followed by a robust reconstruction effort, which neither the AU nor the [Comoran] union government can afford." Elsewhere in Africa, AU operations are far more limited, deploying small, ineffective forces in Somalia and Darfur. While the AU did lead efforts to stem post-election violence in Kenya in January, it does little to quell unrest in other areas, such as Congo, Mali, Niger, Nigeria or Uganda, or looming confrontation between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and its observers endorse corrupt elections from Nigeria to Zimbabwe. Kurt Shillinger of the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg says despite Tuesday's limited action, other events on the continent point to the AU's weakness. "Having stepped in to broker a solution and end the violence in Kenya, will it apply the same standards to monitoring Zimbabwe's elections (on Saturday)? Or will it wait to be embarrassed by election fraud and the resulting violence? In Kenya, the AU's credibility was on the line, and the problem was just manageable enough to raise sufficient will to see it through. [But] the big problems are just too big for the AU's limited capacity and will."

Of course, there's nothing unique about the AU's limited ability to enforce stability in trouble spots: The U.S. has not managed to bring peace to Iraq; NATO is deadlocked in Afghanistan; and the United Nations routinely falls short of its ambitions — even with the deployment of the world's biggest peacekeeping force in Sudan and Darfur. The same is true for eastern Congo, where fighting has continued despite the presence of what, until Darfur, was the world's biggest U.N. force. Ditto Rwanda 1994, when the major powers at the U.N. ensured that the organization remained paralyzed in the face of the genocide.

That bleak reality has some observers, such as Alex de Waal, program director at the Social Science Research Council in New York, wondering whether Darfur, in particular, will be a high water mark for the idea of an "international responsibility to protect." Says de Waal: "For complex peacekeeping operations to work — i.e. those that involve civilian protection, rebuilding governance structures — they seem to need such a high ratio of input to outcome that they are feasible only in small places like Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone ... and possibly the Comoros. Try doing it on a larger scale with a serious government in place and it's almost impossible. What is possible in cases like Darfur is more conventional peacekeeping based on an agreement between the parties, but trying to do peacekeeping plus protection plus justice is too demanding for the system to bear and it ends up succeeding at none of its goals." Others contend that in cases of humanitarian crisis, the moral imperative to intervene remains, but acknowledge Darfur has exposed shameful limits to international will, and unity, in the service of those concerns. "It's incredibly depressing," says David Mozersky, Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group. "The international system has failed."