Conor Lally adds a considerable amount of detail to the Chad story. Not least he detecting a slight deflation in Defence Minister Willie O’Dea’s bluff confidence that Irish forces had fulfilled all of their mandate. Lally confirms that apologies were forthcoming from UNHCR in Chad, Dublin and Geneva. But also that the original complaint that Irish troops had failed to protect the UN compound until after the danger had passed was true. Despite the Minister’s assertion at the time, the mandate does cover UN personnel (as noted here last Thursday). As Lally notes, the Minister on Morning Ireland was less than candid: “A statement released to the media cited the worsening security situation. It neglected to mention that it is the Irish troops who are mandated to keep the camps secure.” In fact a tiny detachment of Dutch troops were first on the scene.
It is hard to exaggerate just how vast Chad is and how isolated the 400 odd Irish troops are. But as Lally also notes the terrain is both flat and open, and significant movement on the ground is relatively easy to spot. Ariel surveillance falls to the French, who it seems have not quite got the Irish on their radar yet. There have been a number of incidents since the first deployments in March:
The problems for the Irish haven’t been confined to maintaining security for those covered by their mandate. Last month 30 members of the elite Army Ranger Wing happened upon 200 rebels while on patrol in a village near the border with Darfur. The rebels were armed with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns.
Fortunately, they agreed to talks with the Rangers through the Rangers’ interpreters. To the outnumbered Rangers’ immense credit, they talked themselves out of a very dangerous situation in a remote region with no other Eufor troops to call on for back-up.
Similarly, the conventional troops who returned warning fire towards rebels near Goz Beida last Saturday performed commendably. They showed enough strength to deter an attack without inflaming the situation.
But both incidents raise significant questions about how well we are communicating with our European partners in Eufor, particularly the French. France, the former colonial power in Chad, has contributed more troops than any other country to Eufor. Its fighter jets fly surveillance missions daily over Chad, a country twice the size of France with less than 400km of paved roads.
Convoys of rebel vehicles can be easily spotted moving across the sands below the French jets. But it seems the Rangers had no warning last month that they were driving into a village where 200 rebels had set down for a few days. Similarly, it seems the Irish troops last Saturday in and around Goz Beida had little or no intelligence about unfolding events.
There are questions not simply over whether the numbers are sufficient, but whether the equipment is sufficient. Initial assessments identified that the rebels were poorly equipped. They may only have soft topped vehicles, but heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades can do a far amount of damage. Lally detects a ministerial ‘wobble’:
Six months ago O’Dea said the rebels were “not in a position to engage well-equipped, trained and organised” armies such as the Irish.After his visit to Chad this week he sounded slightly less sure. In the first signs of Government jitters about the mission, he made a point of releasing a statement saying the Government was committed to retaining troops in Chad “up to March 2009 only”.
That’s when the mandate runs out. But it is unlikely to have been the planned end of the deployment. It looks like the Minister of Defence may have some tough choices ahead. Not least, whether he has sent enough troops. And perhaps some tough talking to do with his French counterpart.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty