Saturday, 15 June 2013

Crisis in Binni - Operation Succesful, Patient Deceased

Two weeks ago I joined in for Crisis in Binni, the megagame about humanitarian intervention in a failing African state (think of Somalia in the early 1990s) as the commander of the US contingent to the international force. I was going to write peacekeeping force, but then realised that was not our mission. Remember this, because it is important.

When the UN decided to intervene in Binni, there had been low level conflict in the country for some years, with the autocratic government of President Ancongo having suppressed rebellions in the north of the country. The direct occasion for action was a famine developing in the northern region.

While the security council (formed for this game of the US, Britain, France and Italy) worked out our exact mission, the commanders of the military contingents planned for their role, in coordination with the UN refugee commissariat and World Food Programme.

As US commander my aims were to keep the commitment of ground troops to a minimum, but to still be seen as the leading nation. I managed to circumvent this seeming paradox by providing the expensive HQ, airbase and transport and attack helicopters for the mission. A few marines were used for protecting the force HQ, airbase and UN depots in Binni’s capital, out of harm's way. And as the Security Council resolution that formed the basis for our deployment implicitly put the US in command, I just treated that as a fait accompli which nobody questioned.

My briefing material for the game, with extensive historical information

The UN military force got a very limited brief: to protect the aid workers and refugees under their care. This also meant very restricted Rules of Engagement, effectively to only shoot when shot at.

My next priorities were to establish a unified command structure and get men on the ground as soon as possible to get a feel for the developing situation. The first French troops were on the ground in a month, with other contingents following two weeks later.

By that time the north of the country had seen extensive ethnic cleansing, with several thousand refugees shot to encourage others to make a move. The smart warlords then corralled the refugees in their area into large camps and waited for UN officials to turn up.

This actually helped the UN aid operation a lot, because it allowed them to concentrate on a few locations. That also made the military mission easier. Part of the aid flowed through Binni’s northern neighbouring country, which was expensive, but saved us the costs and risks of a very long line of communications. We also established on refugee operation in the north based only on air transport to which the same applies.

As expected, the government tried to squeeze us for money, but I was determined to prevent outright bribes as much as possible. So when president Ancongo demanded money to supply his troops, I agreed to a convention that only committed us to paying government troops that would be used solely to protect our refugee camps. In that way I hoped to limit the amount of units we had to support and also gain some leverage over them should push come to shove.

This deal may however been the reason for government troops to try to forcibly take over protection of the refugee camp at Cleopatra from the local warlord. This resulted in a three week battle over the town which gave us some headaches. Mostly because our forces in the area were split: a single British company guarding the camp to the north of the town and a slightly bigger garrison of the UN depots to the south.

We were afraid some of the indigenous force would find the 90,000 lightly protected refugees as a far more alluring target than the opposition and turn on the camp. We solved this by having our Black Hawks flying constantly over the refugee camp to discourage such thoughts. The commander of the British contingent remained anxious and enquired when and how he would be allowed to pull out. Of course I wasn´t keen on UN troops running off from their primary mission when put to the test, but I also understood that a company would not be enough to hold against a determined attack. So I put a number of transport helicopters on call to extract his force when attacked in force and this seems to have been enough to assure him. Anyway we were lucky we weren´t attacked.

UN military personnel at the gate of Cleopatra Refugee Camp

But apart from this and a few pot shots taken at a convoy the game was rather quiet for the UN military. In this we were really helped by the ´constructive´ stance taken by the warlords and the government. As long as they could make some money from us, they had no incentive to create trouble for us. In all I think that the level of bribing in this game was probably lower than in reality, and it was definitely only a small part of our total expenses.

Meanwhile, another neighbouring country had decided to take advantage of the internal turmoil in Binni to invade a disputed region. The Ancongo government therefore kept holding its hand up for money, but the US Ambassador was eventually able to wrench a promise of elections from the president for it.

The Battle of Cleopatra also proved an incentive for the US president to take an interest in the operation, and the US ambassador managed to broker a ceasefire and peace talks. This resulted in a government of national unity and a photo opportunity for the US ambassador.

Of course these peace talks were mainly meant to allow the government to turn on the invaders, which they had duly expelled by the end of the game. On the other hand, the power sharing didn’t fare well with Ancongo’s other clan leaders and rumours were rife of a coup by that time.

Nothing of the sort happened

The generally cooperative behaviour of the warlords and Ancongo government gave the UN a relatively easy game. Those refugees that we got to in time were saved and the concentration worked to our benefit. However, outside UN reach the world was less safe. The Security Council whisked away independent reports on human rights violations by the Ancongo government and evidence of ethnic cleansing and death marches in the north in order to maintain a working relationship. Of course, that didn’t mean that by the end of the game Binni was in a better position for the future.

I think that the UN could have had a lot more criticism in how it dealt with the crisis: the limited brief, the bribes, the support for an autocratic government, no attempts to create peace or safety for ethnic minorities. From all sides there was a lot of Realpolitik and very little principled behaviour. I guess that is due to a general disillusionment with human intervention and what it can achieve in the long run. As far as I understand, UN forces in earlier games were more ambitious and ready to get stuck in. So after six runs of Crisis in Binni, maybe it’s time to shift the situation in Binni by 20 years as well.

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