It’s easy — with the constant stream of news about Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, North Korea, and other troubled or troubling regions — to forget that issues of global security unfold on less-watched soil as well. The latest is the Central African Republic, where France has just announced it’s dispatching another thousand crack troops. The word from Paris follows close on the heels of a chilling warning from the United Nations deputy secretary general. This country, he warned the U.N. Security Council, is descending into “complete chaos.” Urgent action is vital.
“The CAR is becoming a breeding ground for extremists and armed groups in a region that is already suffering from conflict and instability,” says the U.N.’s Jan Eliasson. “If this situation is left to fester, it may develop into a religious and ethnic conflict with long-standing consequences, even a civil war that could spread into neighboring countries.”
What may be known is the scope of the killing fields that spread deep into the nether world of this vast, but sparsely populated nation of 240,000 square miles and 4.6 million people. One U.N. spokeswoman told the BBC that it is far too dangerous to access the remote regions of the interior where the vast bulk of the killing is under way. But it is clearly a threat to vast stretches of the heart of Africa.
Located in the already unstable geographic center of the continent, the CAR is surrounded by Cameroon, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo, most of which are grappling with their own problems of stability and conflict. Moreover, the CAR itself has a most unsettling history. Born out of the French colonial empire, it was ruled for much of the 1960 and 1970s by Colonel Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who proclaimed himself President for Life (and subsequently Emperor of the renamed Central African Empire).
The co-author of my book The Fourth World War: Diplomacy and Espionage in the Age of Terrorism, long-time head of French intelligence Alexandre de Marenches, knew Bokassa well. He was a “true megalomaniac,” Marenches told me, ruler of “one of the most deprived, backward nations on earth,” whose only real wealth was the quarter million carats of diamonds mined each year, with most of the profits going into the pockets of Bokassa himself. Eventually, Marenches and his forces of the DGSE engineered his overthrow after he threatened to hook up with fellow dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Marenches did manage to assure himself, however, thanks to one of his agents, that Bokassa (contrary to rumors) did not have human flesh in his refrigerator at the imperial palace.
All of which is only to suggest that this nation, almost since its creation, has served as a breeding ground for some of the most lethal, erratic and thoroughly toxic individuals on this planet. The current crisis erupted, as have most in this beleaguered nation, in the wake of the most recent coup. In March, the nation’s president, François Bozizé was overthrown and a new president, Michel Djotodia, was installed by an alliance of guerrilla groups known as the Seleka who converged on the capital of Bangui and then spread out across the country. They occupied themselves by wiping out entire villages, burning homes, torturing, raping and pillaging — often with the encouragement of government forces themselves. The Selekas, it should also be noted, are largely Muslims, and much of the countryside is Christian, so the battles have taken on the coloration of a religious war — particularly since many Christian villagers have organized defense forces, taking up arms themselves. In short, in vast territories, any semblance of governance, order or public safety has all but collapsed. Indeed, the Seleka have managed, in turn, to attract support from Muslim militias from a number of neighboring countries, raising the specter of a pan-African Islamic scourge and a breakdown stretching even beyond the CAR’s own frontiers.
“We cannot have a country fall apart like that,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe 1 radio. “There is the violence, massacres and humanitarian chaos. It will be a short mission to allow calm and stability to return.” Just how short this mission might be is unclear. Especially since France’s dispatch of 4,500 troops to Mali last January — also in the grip of an Islamic effort to extend its own branch of extremism throughout that former French colony — finds some 3,000 still in place in a nation also still teetering on the brink.
It might appear that France is transforming itself into a global policeman, a role once ascribed to the U.S. And it has become in recent months a resurgent advocate for military interventionism, pressing the Obama administration to strike in Syria—another French colony in a now distant past. And while the U.S. has offered some drones to patrol the Mali conflict, it has not been prepared to take on the boots-on-the-ground role of the French military.
Ostensibly, the French are in the CAR only as a bridge-holding role until a pan-African or U.N. peacekeeping force can be assembled. Should that fail to happen, or should its formation be delayed, France will be left standing at the bridge. At least until large numbers of French soldiers start returning home in body bags. That would quickly, we imagine, sour Hollande’s newfound appetite for intervention.
David A. Andelman is the Editor of World Policy Journal. Previously he served as Executive Editor of Forbes. Earlier, he was a domestic and foreign correspondent for The New York Times in various posts in New York and Washington, as Southeast Asia bureau chief, based in Bangkok, then East European bureau chief, based in Belgrade. He then moved to CBS News where he served for seven years as Paris correspondent, traveling through and reporting from more than 70 countries. He is the author of three books, most recently, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today. Twitter: @DavidAndelman