Special Report

A Mission That Was Set Up to Fail

How Washington turned its back on a foreign-policy triumph and let Darfur descend back into chaos. Part 3 in Foreign Policy's exclusive investigation of the U.N.'s peacekeeping debacle in Sudan.

Blood Oath: Inside the United Nations' Darfur Debacle

Part 3



A decade ago, Darfur, a distant expanse of territory in western Sudan, became a household name in the United States and posed a stark moral question for American policymakers, generals and diplomats: should Washington risk American lives to try to prevent genocide in a remote backwater that had no obvious strategic value to the United States?

The answer, in part, was a clumsily named peacekeeping mission, the African Union/United Nations hybrid operation in Darfur, or UNAMID, that the United States helped create in 2008 to offer peace and security to the more than 2.7 million people driven from their homes in a government-sponsored scorched earth campaign. Then-President George W. Bush's top Africa diplomat, Jendayi Frazer, hailed the deployment of this "large, robust peacekeeping force for Darfur" as a triumph of American diplomacy. The United States, she vowed, would be "watching closely" to ensure the government of Sudan extended "nothing less than full cooperation."

Blood Oath: Inside the United Nations' Darfur Debacle

Part 1:
'They Just Stood Watching'
Part 2:
'Now We Will Kill You'
Part 3:
A Mission That Was Set Up to Fail

That, to put it mildly, never happened. The United States and its allies flatly ruled out the idea of sending Western military forces to Darfur, leaving the mission in the hands of under-equipped, badly-trained, and vastly outgunned African peacekeepers. Khartoum never cooperated with the mission and in many cases directly threatened the peacekeepers. Washington, London, and other major powers, meanwhile, focused most of their diplomatic firepower on South Sudan's independence drive and largely abandoned efforts to enforce the raft of U.N. sanctions they had devised to compel Sudan to stop abusing civilians in Darfur. "The United States stepped back from Darfur," said Enrico Carisch, a former chief of the U.N. sanctions panel for Darfur. "The sanctions started to fade from everyone's attention."


The violence in Darfur began in early 2003 when two rebel groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, took up arms against Sudan's Islamist government, citing political and economic discrimination against the region's Fur and Zaghawa tribes. Khartoum responded by recruiting, arming, and supporting local Arab militias known as the Janjaweed. Backed by Sudanese airpower, the militias burned and plundered hundreds of villages and killed tens of thousands of people suspected of sympathizing with the rebels. Roughly 200,000 people died in Darfur as a result of violence and disease, and 2 million more were driven from their homes.

In September 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the violence committed by the Sudanese government, and its Janjaweed proxies, amounted to genocide -- an extraordinarily powerful charge. "When we reviewed the evidence compiled by our team, we concluded -- and I concluded -- that genocide has been committed in Darfur...and that genocide may still be occurring."

In response, the administration pushed through a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibiting arms transfers into Darfur, barring Khartoum from using its air force for attacks against targets on the ground, and requiring that perpetrators of the worst crimes in Darfur be held accountable. After initial resistance, the Bush administration signed off on allowing the International Criminal Court to investigate mass atrocities in Darfur, a probe that would end with the court issuing an arrest warrant accusing Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of genocide. The Bush administration began sinking hundreds of millions per year into relief efforts for Darfur, making Washington the largest single international donor. In July 2004, the United States also began to underwrite a 7,000-man African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur.

By 2007, though, it was painfully obvious that the African peacekeepers -- poorly equipped and trained, often unpaid, and severely demoralized by a lack of firepower -- had failed to protect the citizens of Darfur. Facing frequent attacks by armed groups, the African peacekeepers effectively halted their patrols of Darfur's refugee camps, leaving residents vulnerable to robberies, rapes and other crimes. Leaders from across the globe began calling for the creation of a full-fledged U.N. peacekeeping mission for Darfur.

Khartoum rejected a U.N. Security Council plan to send in a large contingent of blue helmets, but it agreed to allow in a hybrid force of A.U. and U.N. peacekeepers. The compromise was brokered with the assistance of China, which feared that ongoing violence in Darfur would tarnish its standing on the world stage on the eve of Beijing's 2008 Summer Olympics. American policymakers thought the new force would be a massive improvement over its predecessor. It would have 20,000 troops at its disposal, triple the size of the initial force. Wealthy countries like Norway and Thailand promised to contribute advanced weaponry. The detachment would be funded and supported by the U.N., which had senior officials who had spent decades overseeing peacekeeping missions in far-flung places.

Washington hoped the new force would succeed where the other had failed.

The new force, though, was hobbled from the beginning by a serious flaw. The U.N. had always managed its own peacekeeping missions. This time, however, the world body would share control with the African Union. That created parallel command structures that sometimes issued conflicting orders and rarely seemed to be on the same page about the proper strategy for Darfur. The peacekeepers were unable to protect ordinary Darfuris. In several cases, they weren't even able to protect themselves from attacks by the Sudanese military.

Six and a half years later, Darfur is again engulfed by violence, with Sudanese troops and their Arab allies brazenly flouting the previous U.N. sanctions and renewing their air and ground attacks against villages across the region. More than 500,000 Darfuris have been driven from their homes so far this year. "The suffering of Darfur's civilians at the hands of the government seems to never end," Daniel Bekele, Human Rights Watch's Africa director, said in a recent statement.

John Prendergast, who has spent years publicizing the carnage in Darfur, said the violence was as bad as it had been before the U.N. intervention. "We are edging back to a 2004-2005 scenario, where government-backed Janjaweed militias, now incorporated into various paramilitary entities -- are again attacking villages as a means to clear areas of population potentially sympathetic to the rebels," he wrote in an email exchange. "It is a classic 'drain the water to catch the fish' counterinsurgency campaign to displace the people, obstruct humanitarian aid, and clear areas from government-controlled urban centers. The humanitarian results are catastrophic."


Top peacekeeping officials recently completed a strategic review that highlights the Darfur mission's shortcomings, including a reluctance to confront challenges and a deep pessimism over the mission's feasibility. Deliberations at the U.N. over its findings come as Foreign Policy has been publishing a trove of internal UNAMID documents highlighting the blue helmets' struggles to protect civilians. But the U.N. Security Council appears unlikely to shutter the $1.3 billion-a-year mission and declare defeat, reasoning that even a weak mission still provides some measure of deterrence against attacks on civilians.

Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping at New York University's Center for International Cooperation, recalled an argument he had with a U.N. official about Darfur. "I said this situation has become so bad and in many ways is such a disgrace that this is one case where the U.N. should declare defeat and go home," Gowan said. "The response from the U.N. colleague was that 'we would love to declare defeat but we can't. We have to accept this as a quagmire.' There is a very strong sense within the U.N. that this was a mission that was set up to fail."

Michael Gaouette, a former U.N. official who led the U.N. peacekeeping department's Darfur team in 2008, said that many of the new forces' shortcomings were foreseeable and inevitable. The notion of a peacekeeping mission as the solution to Darfur's ills became part of the message tirelessly promoted by foreign governments, humanitarian groups, and well-intentioned celebrities like George Clooney. The problem, he said, was that none of the conditions necessary for a successful peacekeeping mission -- a ceasefire, a viable political settlement, or true consent from the Sudanese government -- were in place. Darfur also held "zero strategic importance" for the few countries, including the United States, with the military capability to deploy an effective expeditionary force in a place like Darfur, Gaouette said.

"This all begins with this problem being insoluble in the short term, which was an unacceptable admission. Something had to be done right away," he said. "It was mind-bogglingly ridiculous to propose that peacekeeping would be the key that unlocked the door to the Darfur solution. And yet peacekeeping was graspable, peacekeeping in its most simplified, misunderstood form -- sending soldiers to a place in trouble."


U.S. policymakers knew that the new force would be attacked, but they hoped UNAMID would respond with force to show that it was there to stay and ready to fight. In reality, the peacekeepers -- who lost seven soldiers during a bloody July 2008 ambush -- never seemed prepared to engage their enemies or make a real attempt to defeat them. It was also never able to win the cooperation of Khartoum, which hadn't wanted peacekeepers within Sudan's borders in the first place and was willing to do everything in its power to ensure their failure.

The pushback began early and never really stopped. Khartoum rejected U.N. plans to deploy advanced military units from countries like Norway and Thailand, threatened the peacekeepers, and imposed a raft of Orwellian bureaucratic obstacles, including the routine denial of visas for UNAMID personnel, that have undermined the peacekeepers' abilities to do their jobs.

The United States and other governments that professed a commitment to preventing Darfur from sliding back into chaos, meanwhile, failed to adequately equip the peacekeepers. In a prescient warning delivered before UNAMID forces had even arrived in Darfur, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the U.N. Security Council that the failure of Western governments to supply the new force with a fleet of two dozen attack and transport helicopters would make it impossible for the peacekeepers to patrol a region nearly the size of Spain. "While helicopters alone cannot ensure the success of the mission, their absence may well doom it to failure," the newly appointed U.N. chief wrote the council in 2007. It is time for key governments, he said, "to walk their talk." Still, Ban's persistent U.N. requests for transport and attack helicopters to enable the mission to confront armed challenges went largely unanswered.

Sudan has used a variety of tactics to stymie the UNAMID peacekeeping mission, including the denial of access to areas where abuses occur, intimidation, and in some cases actual armed attacks against the blue helmets.

Scott Gration spent more than two decades in the Air Force before retiring as a two-star general. In 2009, Obama tabbed Gration to be his first special envoy to Darfur. When he first visited Sudan, Gration was dismayed to find out that UNAMID forces were taking it on the chin.

In a meeting with UNAMID's Rwandan commander, Lt. General Patrick Nyamvumba, and other UNAMID officers, Gration advocated a far tougher approach.

"I was less than impressed; I felt that they should have done night patrols and they should have been taking a more proactive stance," he said in a recent interview, recalling an incident in which an armed group ambushed the peacekeepers, and stole their guns, ammunition, and clothes without the peacekeepers firing a shot.

"This is why God gave you bullets," he told the UNAMID commanders. "Use them."

Nyamvumba turned the tables on Gration, a son of African missionaries, recalled Cameron Hudson, who advised Gration on Darfur. "His point was 'if we shoot back there is no cavalry, no helicopter gunships, coming to save us. We are exposed and you Americans aren't there to pull our backs out of the fire,'" Hudson recalled. "He had a point."


But perhaps nothing has eroded morale as much as the mundane bureaucratic impediments that have severely restricted every aspect of life for the peacekeepers.

A trove of internal UNAMID documents shared with FP by a former spokeswoman for the mission, Aicha Elbasri, highlights the myriad ways that Sudan has undermined the mission's effectiveness, providing a kind of playbook on how a country can foil efforts by international peacekeepers to do their job.

Sudan routinely arrested and harassed UNAMID's Sudanese employees, denied flight clearances for the force's aircraft, and imposed chronic delays on the issuance of visas, according to a confidential list of Sudanese restrictions compiled by the mission. In September 2012, Sudanese customs officials went so far as to impound a U.N. diplomatic pouch, without providing so much as an explanation for its actions. That was a brazenly illegal act, but there were no consequences.

Frustrated by Khartoum's obstructions, a top UNAMID official, Mohamed Yonis, used a December 2012 meeting with key Sudanese leaders to complain that the delays were adding up. Sudanese customs officials, he noted, had failed to approve 1,515 visa applications, most of which were for UNAMID police, according to an internal UNAMID cable describing the meeting.

UNAMID officials also voiced concern that delays in customs clearances were holding up the delivery of armored personnel vehicles for Bangladeshi peacekeepers and weapons for Nigerian and Gambian contingents, contributing to "a security vacuum" that "seriously hindered the ability to secure [peacekeeping outposts] and conduct scheduled humanitarian, administrative, and logistics patrols," according to a UNAMID report.

Sudan had also imposed delays on the delivery of critical items, including equipment spare parts, food rations, medical supplies, blood, and reproductive health kits, according to the report. Its impediments "hampered" U.N. efforts to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV-AIDs, and contributed to the waste of food and medicines. The report also cites other bureaucratic impediments with "life threatening consequences." One entry alleges that Sudanese authorities refused to allow Medevac helicopters to transport the sick and wounded to camps with better medical facilities. "No reason is given for refusal verbally or in writing," according to the entry.

Even the simplest activities, like drawing water from a well or obtaining toothpaste, led to threats by government security forces or got mired in bureaucratic red tape, sapping morale among the peacekeepers. Last April, two armed, plainclothes Sudanese intelligence agents and three Sudanese soldiers threatened to kill villagers from the town of Zalingei in central Darfur if they drew water from a local well and gave it to a Rwandan peacekeeper. Two containers of electronics, toiletries, tobacco, and perfumes for the peacekeepers were held up at Port Sudan for eight months and then shipped back to Haiti and Liberia. The delays were "severely hampering" UNAMID's operations in Darfur, according to an internal cable. They were also encouraging foreign staffers to take jobs elsewhere, leaving a staffing gap. The mission's chief communications official, Michael Meyer, left the United Nations recently to take a teaching job after failing to secure a visa to work in Darfur.

UNAMID's complaints to top Sudanese officials didn't work. When the U.N. complained about bureaucratic snafus, a senior Sudanese Foreign Ministry official, Rahmatalla Mohamed Osman, threatened to further curtail his government's cooperation with the peacekeeping force, according to an internal UNAMID cable describing the session.


Long before he launched his campaign for the American presidency, then-Sen. Barack Obama took a personal interest in Darfur, writing eloquently about the need to use international soldiers to protect Darfur's civilians. In December 2005, Obama and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) wrote a joint op-ed alleging that President Bush's Darfur policy had gone "dangerously adrift" and calling for a U.N. or NATO peacekeeping force. But Obama's proposed solution to Darfur's problems mirrored Bush's in its reliance on international peacekeepers, backed by international pressure and a viable peace process, rather than on the use of American troops. "It has become clear that a U.N.- or NATO-led force is required, and the administration must use diplomacy to override Chinese and Sudanese opposition to such a force and persuade outside troops to join it," the two senators wrote.

As he explored a presidential bid, Obama turned to two foreign-policy advisors, Susan Rice and Samantha Power, who had each spent years focusing on Darfur. Rice, who had previously served as the State Department's top Africa official during the Clinton administration, had been advocating while outside government for a tougher approach to Darfur, including the imposition of a no-fly zone over Darfur and the establishment of a humanitarian aid corridor. Power, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, had written a wrenching dispatch on the plight of Darfur's victims before joining the administration.

Once elected president, Obama faced an early test of his commitment to hold Sudan's feet to the fire in Darfur. In March 2009, shortly after the ICC issued an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan expelled an array of international aid agencies, claiming they were engaging in spying.

Gration, Obama's new Sudan envoy, secured an agreement to permit some humanitarian aid workers back into the country. But the message had been sent: Khartoum was prepared to withstand international condemnation associated with tossing foreign aid workers out of the country. "It was an early shot across the bow; and it showed how precarious the situation was in Darfur," said Cameron Hudson, who served as an advisor to three special envoys on Darfur. "They held all the cards in Sudan."

Gration saw UNAMID as one of a series of half-measures the international community had embraced to stanch the bleeding in Darfur, and he had little hope it could resolve Darfur's fundamental challenges. "His assessment was we can't keep putting band aids on this, we can't spend ten years chasing helicopters for the U.N.," Cameron recalled. "We have to find peace."

That didn't involve threats. "We've got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries -- they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk engagement," he famously told the Washington Post's Stephanie McCrummen.

In a telephone interview from Nairobi, Gration said that quote has been harnessed for years by critics to simplify and caricature his approach to Sudan.

Every major diplomatic challenge in Darfur -- including negotiating peace between Sudan and Chad, brokering a settlement between Darfur's warring factions, and paving the way for South Sudan's independence -- required Khartoum's signature. He said he was successful on a number of those fronts.

But ultimately, peace wasn't in the cards.

Following Gration's departure, Princeton Lyman, his successor, was appointed to focus on the creation of South Sudan, one of the most important U.S. political initiatives in Africa. The tedious work of pursuing a peace deal in Darfur was delegated to a less high-profile American ambassador, Dane Smith. Washington's shift away from Darfur, and its lack of interest in UNAMID, were deeply frustrating to those who had spent years documenting the atrocities there. Enrico Carisch, a former Swiss journalist with considerable experience in Darfur, brought his concerns to Congress.

The United States and other countries that crafted sanctions against Khartoum "now seem unwilling to fight back," he complained in testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in December 2009. "Increasingly, it looks like the poorly understood and under-enforced U.N. sanctions are being sold out in favor of mediation whose success is at any rate far from being assured."

The failure "to stand on the principles previously decided and adopted is sending a very loud signal to the Darfurians," he added. "The Security Council and member states, including the United States, are not coming to help."

In an interview, Lyman said the United States imposed tougher sanctions on Khartoum than any country in the world. The problem with the U.N. arms embargo -- which allowed Sudan to import weapons into the country, but not to ship them into Darfur -- was that it was "unenforceable." Any hopes of strengthening sanctions was rendered impossible by Chinese and Russian opposition. "We could have beaten the drum and yelled and tried to get a veto," he said. "But the fact was that we assessed it over and over again and the assessment was that the Russians and Chinese would not allow it."

In a recent interview, Carisch said that there were steps, short of a new sanctions resolution, that Washington could have taken to tighten enforcement of existing sanctions. It was America's unwillingness to do so that had driven him to address Congress. The last straw, he said, was a meeting he'd had with Sudan's top liaison to the United Nations, Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi. "Al-Dabi would tell us it's better to talk with Gration; he understands us," Carisch recalled. "At one point he told us outright that Gration is telling him not to be too concerned about U.N. stuff. We were never really able to recover from that."

Gration said that he did not recall making that remark to al-Dabi. But he said the "reality was that it is very naïve to think you could shun, or shut off, Khartoum," he said. "So, yes I had to negotiate with the north, and frankly they were very helpful in resolving a lot of problems. They could have not let NGO's [aid workers] back into the country, they could have not let the South go. That's what negotiations are about. The reality is I had to do it."

Alvaro Ybarra Zavala/Agence VU; Scott Nelson/Getty Images; MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images; (3 OPT) ANTHONY MORLAND/AFP/Getty Images; Alvaro Ybarra Zavala/Agence VU; Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Special Report

'Now We Will Kill You'

Part 2 in Foreign Policy’s exclusive investigation of the U.N.'s peacekeeping debacle in Darfur.

Blood Oath: Inside the United Nations' Darfur Debacle

Part 2



Last April, in the dead of night, five men dressed in Sudanese military uniforms and armed with AK-47 rifles swaggered up to the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping outpost in the East Darfur town of Muhajeria and shot open the front gate's padlock.

As they entered the darkened compound, the intruders opened fire, unloading several rounds through the wall of the base's military briefing room, spilling a handful of hot spent cartridges on the ground as they advanced. A lone Nigerian peacekeeper standing sentry at the compound's entrance returned fired as a second Nigerian soldier entered the fray, scuffling with one of the assailants in an attempt to wrestle him to the ground. The attackers finally retreated as reinforcements in an armored personnel vehicle rolled toward the compound, ending the firefight before anyone got seriously hurt.

Blood Oath: Inside the United Nations' Darfur Debacle

Part 1:
'They Just Stood Watching'
Part 2:
'Now We Will Kill You'
Part 3:
A Mission That Was Set Up to Fail

But the night was just getting started. One of the armed intruders shouted out a chilling threat as he walked through the facility, which was operated by an underfunded force called the African Union/United Nations hybrid operation in Darfur (UNAMID). "UNAMID was observing while our people were getting killed -- now we will kill you," he said, according to one of multiple confidential accounts of the incident obtained by Foreign Policy.

The infiltrators were apparently on a scouting mission, seeking to relay intelligence back to their colleagues about the layout of the compound. "It seems that the troops came to test the waters in a bid to observe the strength and alertness of our troops, as an advance for an impending assault," UNAMID's sector commander warned the Nigerian officer in command of the Muhajeria compound. He was right.

About four hours later, at 1 a.m., a larger contingent of Sudanese troops and pro-government militiamen, armed with Browning machine guns and AK-47 assault rifles, mounted a full-scale attack on the compound, killing one Nigerian peacekeeper and wounding three others. When the sun rose, one Sudanese soldier was also lying dead outside the compound.

On April 17, one day before the initial attack by the five men on UNAMID's compound, hundreds of Sudanese troops in armored tanks and gun trucks had rumbled into Muhajeria, retaking the town from a faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) led by Minni Minnawi, a powerful Darfuri rebel leader from the dominant ethnic Zaghawa tribe. One of the assailants who attacked the compound the following day expressed outrage that peacekeepers from UNAMID hadn't come to the Sudanese military's aid during an earlier gun battle with the SLA that had left several Sudanese soldiers dead. That comment led several U.N. officials to later conclude that the attackers were members of the Sudanese military.

From the U.N. police report and other internal reviews, it looked like an open-and-shut case of Sudanese government complicity. As the firefight unfolded, Sudanese officials had refused to respond to UNAMID's calls for help, dismissing the attack as a squabble between local tribes, wrote Landing Badjie, a Gambian peacekeeper, in an internal UNAMID report. "I called the [Sudanese government] security chiefs [and told them] I will hold them accountable for allowing such incident to take place right under their nose," Badjie wrote.

Multiple witnesses, including an Egyptian peacekeeper, confirmed the assailants wore government uniforms. The following morning, Lt. Ibrahim Abu-Bakr Abdallah, a Sudanese officer, arrived at the compound with uniformed soldiers and demanded that the U.N. compensate the family of the Sudanese soldier who was killed during the firefight. "He insisted that UNAMID should immediately pay blood money to the family of the dead soldier," a U.N. policeman wrote in an April 19 report. "Moreover, he threatened that if UNAMID failed to pay they will vacate the area or something terrible will happen to them."

But UNAMID's top brass was reluctant to blame the government. Following a pattern that marked the U.N.'s long-standing response to suspected attacks on its own peacekeepers, U.N. headquarters never pointed its finger at the Sudanese government, instead issuing a noncommittal statement that scrubbed any reference to possible Sudanese complicity. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's statement blamed "unidentified armed assailants," the standard moniker used in a long list of unsolved attacks and ambushes on U.N. personnel over the years. The only detailed public reference to the case is contained in a report by an independent U.N. Security Council panel, which characterized Sudanese government involvement in the attack as "highly probable." The report, which states that the attack likely involved members of a government-trained militia, noted that Sudanese authorities have never even launched an investigation into the incident.


The U.N. Security Council established UNAMID in the summer of 2007 to stanch the violence that has made Darfur one of the world's bloodiest killing fields of this century. The mission -- which formally began its work in January 2008 -- replaced the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS), which had been plagued by a lack of resources.

At the time, UNAMID was the world's largest and costliest peacekeeping mission. Its planners hoped that the mission's sheer size would send a message to armed elements that it was too dangerous to challenge. But the mission -- which is currently composed of about 20,000 mostly African peacekeepers -- has been on the defensive since its birth and has struggled to protect its own soldiers, let alone Darfuri civilians.

The fate of the mission also has important foreign-policy implications for the United States, which played a critical role in creating the force and covers more than 27 percent of its $1.3 billion annual budget. Washington has long pointed to the peacekeeping force as evidence of its commitment to addressing the suffering of Darfuris. A collapse of the peacekeeping force would ratchet up pressure on the United States, which is unwilling to send its own troops into the country, to do more to stop the killing, potentially through the use of air power or CIA operatives.

When the UNAMID operation was launched in 2008, Darfur seemed to be emerging from the darkest years of a government-orchestrated campaign of genocide which raged between 2003 and 2005 and led to the deaths of more 200,000 civilians. The mission's first leader, Rodolphe Adada, a politician and diplomat from the Republic of the Congo, declared in 2009 that Darfur's war was effectively over. But the upbeat appraisal proved illusory as Darfur descended into successive rounds of violence. It also belied the grim fact that Darfur was gaining the distinction of becoming the deadliest place on Earth for a U.N. blue helmet.

During the past year, unidentified fighters carried out major strikes against UNAMID troops, killing seven Tanzanian peacekeepers last July in an ambush on a road west of Khor Abeche and three Senegalese peacekeepers last October outside Geneina. Neither case has been solved.

As of Feb. 28, 2014, a total of 191 U.N. peacekeepers have died in Darfur since January 2008, when the U.N. and African Union jointly took charge of the operation in Darfur. Only a handful of U.N. operations since the 1960s -- including the original Congo operation (249) and those in Lebanon (303), the former Yugoslavia (213), and Sierra Leone (192) -- have exacted a higher toll.

Sixty-two of those 191 deaths were a result of violent attacks, including ambushes, carjackings, and robberies. Sudan's special prosecutor for Darfur has opened numerous investigations, but as of today, not a single person has been held accountable for killing a UNAMID peacekeeper.

"Peacekeepers are killed every other day, and no investigation seems to go forward. The government promises to go deep and investigate and prosecute, but we don't see anything coming out," Olivier Nduhungirehe, a senior Rwandan diplomat, told Foreign Policy. Briefings by Ban and other senior officials provide few clues. "We are never briefed about anyone who was held accountable," Nduhungirehe said.

While suspicion has primarily focused on Sudanese-backed forces, the African peacekeepers have also faced attacks by bandits and rebel forces who stole UNAMID vehicles, communications equipment, and other gear. In fact, the sole international prosecution for attacks against peacekeepers targeted a rebel group, not Sudanese government troops. In 2007, the International Criminal Court prosecutor launched an investigation into allegations that Sudanese rebels had killed 12 Nigerian peacekeepers in the town of Haskanita. One Darfuri rebel is set to face trial in The Hague later this year.

On Dec. 20, 2012, a delegation from the SLA faction headed by Minnawi paid a visit to the UNAMID outpost in Khor Abeche, where the delegation acknowledged that the faction had occasionally fired on UNAMID troops, saying these incidents were accidents. "They admitted that sometimes they open fire on UNAMID -- mistaking them for [Sudanese government] convoys," according to the report. "They also accused UNAMID of not sending enough reports of the facts and happenings in Darfur (such as burning of villages and murder cases) to higher authorities." UNAMID, they noted, "was supposed to be a neutral body."

Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, recently voiced frustration at Sudan's failure to adequately investigate crimes against peacekeepers, and she prodded the U.N. and African Union to share their own internal investigations with her office. "Attacks on peacekeepers appear to have become the norm with a record number of 57 killings," Bensouda told the U.N. Security Council in December, noting that attacks against peacekeepers are a crime under the Rome Statute, which established the court. "Sadly, not enough seems to have been done to identify those responsible, despite the repeated insistence of the United Nations and the African Union that the government of Sudan must duly investigate."


Assaults on UNAMID peacekeepers date back to the mission's earliest days. Sudanese government forces, as well as their proxies, are suspected of carrying out several of these attacks, according to internal UNAMID documents. But the U.N. has been reluctant to disclose its suspicions, presumably out of fear that Sudanese forces would react even more violently or that Sudan would expel the peacekeepers from the country, a move that would expose Darfur's civilians to even greater peril and mark the utter failure of the international peace strategy in Darfur. Instead, UNAMID has routinely said it is simply impossible to know with any certainty who was behind any of the attacks.

On Jan. 7, 2008, a week after the U.N. and African Union assumed joint control over the mission, elements of the Sudanese armed forces opened fire on a UNAMID resupply convoy near the town of Tine in North Darfur state. Sudan's U.N. envoy denied it at the time, but the Sudanese commander admitted his troops had fired on peacekeepers, though he claimed it was an accident.

From there, the attacks only escalated.

On July 8, 2008, a group of 200 fighters on horseback, reinforced by more than 40 vehicles mounted with machine guns, carried out a deliberate and well-organized attack on a smaller UNAMID convoy, killing seven peacekeepers, most of them Rwandan, and wounding 22 others, according to a confidential briefing to the U.N. Security Council by the U.N.'s then outgoing peacekeeping chief, Jean-Marie Guéhenno.

In his briefing -- a copy of which I reviewed at the time for the Washington Post -- Guehénno strongly hinted that Sudanese government troops participated in the attack. The ambush, which targeted the convoy's communications, occurred on Sudanese government territory and involved the use of powerful weapons not previously used by Sudanese rebel groups.

It was the closest a top U.N. official had come to blaming the Sudanese government for killing U.N. blue helmets.

"I was never a fan of that mission," Guéhenno recalled in a recent interview. "It was not born under the right star."

Guéhenno said that the Rwandan force commander "believed" the Sudanese government was behind the attack. "The commander had a tough call to make," he said. "The government, of course, had infinitely superior firepower, and it could have been suicidal to retaliate. It was the first of many where the weakness of UNAMID was tested. I think the mission has never recovered."

Guéhenno said the refusal to engage the attackers reflected a deeper flaw with the mission. While the Sudanese government had been forced to accept the peacekeepers, it had never committed to seeing the mission succeed.

Khartoum blocked U.N. efforts to deploy advanced military contingents, including better-trained and better-equipped Norwegian soldiers and Nepalese Gurkhas, insisting that only peacekeepers from friendly African governments that wouldn't challenge the Sudanese government could serve.

"It wanted the mission to be as weak as possible," he said. "[Sudanese President Omar] Bashir never accepted the notion of losing any control in Darfur. He could not prevent the deployment of peacekeepers, but he had to make sure the mission would not have any decisive influence on the situation."


Darfur's violence roared back to life in 2012, when several Darfuri rebel factions, backed by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, established the Sudan Revolutionary Front, inflicting heavy losses on government forces and putting the government on the defensive. According to U.N. analysis, 362 Sudanese troops died in 2012, up from 160 the previous year.

Sudan has responded with a counterinsurgency campaign that bears many of the hallmarks of earlier operations -- aerial bombardment of villages combined with a ground assault by Sudanese forces and Arab militias.

"The last quarter of 2012 saw [Sudanese] forces losing out in almost all the land encounters they had with the [Sudan Revolutionary Front] and this is weighing heavily [on] the morale of the troops," reads a Jan. 13, 2013, memo drafted by the Joint Mission Analysis Center, which provides mission analysis to UNAMID's top brass. "This has made [Sudanese] forces [retaliate through] the use of its air power." In the rebel stronghold of Jebel Marra, indiscriminate air bombardment raids have caused "widespread collateral damages and large scale displacement," according to the report.

Khartoum has effectively blocked UNAMID from investigating reports of abuses carried out in the course of the conflict by blocking access to the scene of fighting or, in some cases, threatening UNAMID peacekeepers. Peacekeeper deaths, meanwhile, have crept steadily higher. The death toll from violent attacks has increased from five in 2010 and nine in 2011 to 12 in 2012 and 16 in 2013.

In one recent example, UNAMID peacekeepers came under fire on Oct. 25, 2012, while on patrol near the town of Abu Delek, the scene of fighting between government forces and rebels from the Sudan Revolutionary Front. At the time of the attack, UNAMID was trying to assess the impact of the fighting -- which led to heavy losses on the government side -- on civilians.

As the UNAMID convoy neared the village, warning shots rang out. Minutes later, two Sudanese military Land Cruisers mounted with 12.7 mm machine guns bypassed the patrol team and disappeared without saying a word. Shortly after they left, the mission came under fire from surrounding hills. "The gunfire is suspected to have come from the [Sudanese] military, who did not want the team to proceed further for fear of interaction with the locals," noted an internal U.N. police report.

But the U.N. leadership has routinely withheld information linking Khartoum to threats -- let alone violence -- against UNAMID personnel.

In the case of Abu Delek, any suspicion of Sudanese government complicity was scrubbed from the account that UNAMID relayed to headquarters in New York. Ban's report to the Security Council on the incident made no mention of the peacekeepers' suspicions that Sudan's forces shot at them. It simply noted that the UNAMID team had "encountered gunfire by unidentified assailants in the surrounding area. Unable to assess the security situation ahead, the patrol was aborted."

The United Nations has also never publicly acknowledged that the Sudanese Air Force threatened in September 2012 to bomb a U.N. convoy transporting a U.N. investigator probing reports of government airstrikes against a village in Kushina district. Shortly after the convoy headed out, UNAMID's military headquarters radioed the convoy commander, warning that Sudan had threatened to bomb the convoy unless it stopped immediately.

As the convoy awaited further instructions, two Sudanese attack helicopters swooped over the convoy at low altitude, a violation of a U.N. Security Council ban on offensive flights in Darfur. In this case, the U.N. did protest the flights. But it scrubbed any reference to internal reports claiming that the Sudanese government had threatened to attack the convoy.

In October 2012, UNAMID received reports that the Sudanese Air Force had bombarded the rebel-controlled town of Hashaba during a clash with the Sudan Revolutionary Front, killing 70 to 100 civilians. Arab militias aligned with the government reportedly looted the town and carried out atrocities against local civilians suspected of supporting the rebels.

Sudan's government initially blocked UNAMID from conducting a fact-finding mission to Hashaba, saying it was too dangerous. The government relented after UNAMID's acting force commander, Tanzanian Maj. Gen. Wynjones Matthew Kisamba, a stout 61-year-old officer, arrived in the area to personally lead the investigation. But shortly after departing for Hashaba, the team was blocked by members of an Arab militia, forcing the blue helmets to travel along an alternate route that traversed a parched, low-lying river bed. They were ambushed by unidentified assailants perched on high ground and armed with heavy weapons -- including mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and 12.7 mm high-caliber rifles -- not previously used by Darfur's militias. UNAMID officials said that only the Sudanese army had been known to be using such heavy weapons.

"It is likely that the attack was perpetrated by the Arab Militias probably with the support of [the Sudanese] military as the militia until then had not employed 12.7 mm caliber weapons or mortars in their operations," noted an internal UNAMID report. "It is pertinent to mention that earlier attempts by UNAMID to access Hashaba was consistently refused by [Sudanese] authorities with the excuse that the area was not safe due to the presence of uncontrolled armed factions."


Perhaps the most perplexing question surrounding Sudan's alleged role in attacks is why the United Nations, the African Union, and the U.N. Security Council have responded so feebly.

Attacks on U.N.-sanctioned peacekeepers constitute an international crime, prosecutable by the International Criminal Court. But no credible prosecutions have been carried out against the Sudanese government for alleged crimes against UNAMID peacekeepers. And neither the U.N. Secretariat nor the U.N. Security Council has asked The Hague-based prosecutor to investigate.

The U.N. and African Union leadership -- perhaps fearful that accusing Sudan of wrongdoing could provoke an even more violent response or get them thrown out of the country -- have downplayed the significance of evidence suggesting government responsibility for such attacks. And UNAMID-sanitized public statements on such incidents rarely assign responsibility. "The Sudanese government has found an effective form of deterrence; if you accuse Khartoum of complicity in these attacks it may well respond with a larger scale of attacks," says Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping at New York University's Center on International Cooperation.

Whatever their motivation, UNAMID bureaucrats have exercised a kind of self-censorship when it comes to confronting possible Sudanese government responsibility for attacks. In the case of Muhajeria, a series of internal email exchanges sheds light on how the U.N. bureaucracy came to scrub Sudan's role from its public statements on the incident.

The morning after the attack, UNAMID's chief of staff, Karen Tchalian, moved quickly to make sure that as few people as possible knew about the attack. Tchalian advised the head of mission not to include any references to the Sudanese military in the public statements, even while harboring suspicions that the Sudanese government had concocted a cover story -- that the peacekeepers in Muhajeria had been caught up in intertribal fighting -- to conceal its own role. "At this point we need to release a one-two sentence initial, holding (feed the beast) statement describing two things: the attack on the TS [team site] and our losses," Tchalian wrote. "A few days later, when we have clarified the picture to our satisfaction (something that in this moment's fog-of-war situation has not yet been done) we can issue a fuller report. Let's not jump the gun. It's too early to let it all hang out."

A U.N. spokeswoman, Aicha Elbasri, made the case for disclosing more details, arguing that UNAMID had an obligation to do so and that its reputation could be damaged by withholding critical details. She appealed for backup from UNAMID's communications director, Michael Meyer, a former Newsweek correspondent who had previously served as Ban's communications chief. Meyer had experienced his own difficulties with the Sudanese government, which had declined to grant him a visa to work in Darfur, forcing him to operate out of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Meyer agreed with Tchalian that it was wiser to limit the disclosure of critical details from the incident, saying, "I would beware of publicly describing the people who broke into the base as wearing GoS [government of Sudan] uniforms. Anyone can secure those, bona fide or not."

At the same time, Meyer was mindful of the political ramifications, conceding Elbasri had a point. "Aicha is right as well: word of the initial [report] WILL leak. If we do not deal with it straightforwardly, it will once again appear as though we are covering up. Not good for our credibility."

Top to bottom: Albert González Farran - UNAMID; UNAMID; Albert González Farran - UNAMID; AP Photo/UNAMID, Albert Gonzalez Farran; Albert González Farran - UNAMID