Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to deploy troops to South Sudan and Somalia may mark a shift in British foreign policy but will likely have a limited effect on the ground.
In a move that may herald a major shift in UK foreign policy, Prime Minister David Cameron announced on 28 September that a contingent of troops will be deployed to Somalia and South Sudan in a bid to stem terrorism and migration emanating from the region. The commitment will see up to 370 British personnel assist in non-combat operations, including training, logistics, engineering and medical aid. The decision represents a notable increase in British participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations and should go some way towards countering detractors who charge that Britain is in political retreat on the world stage. Still, given the overwhelming challenges facing both Somalia and South Sudan, the deployment of only a few hundred troops will have a limited impact and, of itself, is unlikely to result in a marked improvement in the stability of the two countries.
Speaking at a recent UN peacekeeping summit, Cameron declared that the UK will send up to 70 personnel to support African Union (AU) forces fighting al-Shabaab Islamist militants in Somalia. A further 250 to 300 troops, he said, will be deployed in stages to South Sudan to assist UN efforts to alleviate the growing humanitarian emergency there. All troops will have non-combatant roles and will provide military training, medical aid and logistical and engineering support.
Cameron’s decision comes at a critical juncture for UK foreign policy. Faced with the effective collapse of Syria and Iraq, a migrant crisis in Europe and continued instability in parts of North Africa and the Horn of Africa, which threatens to export more terrorism and migrants across the Mediterranean, critics have been scathing of the Prime Minister’s response to date. Meanwhile, with operations in Afghanistan winding down, Britain could now have the capital to expend on peacekeeping and humanitarian missions.
This, along with pressure from Washington, has forced Mr Cameron to reconsider the UK’s position. Whereas Britain has long been a strong financial contributor to peacekeeping missions, it has provided far fewer personnel than other participating countries; its main peacekeeping mission is in Europe, where it has some 280 troops stationed in Cyprus.
It remains to be seen whether the move will signal a return to a more expeditionary UK foreign policy, however. Cameron’s decision to send 70 military advisors to assist AU troops in Somalia and 300 troops to join the 12,000-strong peacekeeping force stationed in South Sudan is a tepid reply to those, including President Obama, who have assiduously lobbied European states to shoulder more of the peacekeeping burden. According to a recent Foreign Policy article, European countries currently provide a total of 6,000 peacekeepers – just seven per cent of the world’s total.
Three hundred and seventy troops, though, is little more than a token gesture. The following day, 50 countries, in an acknowledgment that global peacekeeping operations are overstretched, pledged more than 30,000 troops to UN peace and policing efforts; China, not necessarily renowned for its peacebuilding efforts, promised some 8,000 peacekeeping troops and US$100 million in financial support, dwarfing Mr Cameron’s offer.
It is doubtful that the UK troop deployment is likely to achieve Cameron’s desired outcome of ‘less terrorism, less migration and less piracy’ in the region. Mareike Schomerus, a Visiting Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, claims that the idea that such deployments will lead to a significant drop in terrorism and migration is misguided. ‘This clear cause and effect that [if] the UK sends [more] troops to Somalia and South Sudan, there will be less terrorism and migration just does not exist,’ she says.
To be sure, more peacekeepers may improve the prospects for peace in South Sudan, where rival leaders recently signed a tentative peace deal, but it will do little to arrest the humanitarian crisis currently unfolding. The UN estimates that 50,000 children may die unless food aid programmes are dramatically increased, while one-third of the country remains food-insecure. Further famine will contribute to more migration and, potentially, more terrorism and undermine the efforts of peacekeepers, irrespective of their number or resolve. Although soldiers are good at ensuring peace, they may be less effective as development actors. Similarly, while additional military personnel will provide a welcome boost to the AU forces tackling al-Shabaab, the extremist organisation will continue to have appeal while Somalia remains fractured.
Donor countries, including the UK, must acknowledge this and seek other ways of helping South Sudan and Somalia that go beyond peacebuilding. Cameron’s pledge to increase UK peacekeepers is the type that attracts applause and praise at UN forums but may not, however, be what the two troubled countries really need in the longer term.
FDI Visiting Fellow