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    'Sometimes mistakes will be made, but in Sierra Leone it is much more than a mistake'

    Lt Gen Satish Nambiar

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    Lieutenant General (retd) Satish Nambiar, PVSM, AVSM, VrC, commanded the UN Protection Force in Yugoslavia in the early 90s.

    He refused an extension after his first year in the job. Though he had then said he was quitting for "personal reasons", it was clear that he was a victim of power politics. Here, in an exclusive chat with Josy Joseph, he elaborates on the reason for his move.

    Known for his military acumen and knowledge of international politics, General Nambiar today heads the United Services Institute of India, a tri-service think tank based in New Delhi.

    Why has UN peacekeeping suffered setback after setback in recent times?

    The most important factor in the post-Cold War scenario is that the circumstances in which peacekeeping operations are now launched have changed considerably. Today what you are dealing with are mostly intra-state conflicts. That means within a state, a civil war. Or where nation states have broken up and the constituents are fighting amongst themselves. This is what happened in the former Yugoslavia, where I had the privilege of commanding the mission. Some of these connotations were not taken into account fully by the Security Council before setting up the operation.

    In your case too the UN did not take into account all circumstances?

    In my case and in subsequent cases. Somalia is a glaring example. Rwanda had its own problems. Now Sierra Leone has its problems.

    What is the most glaring drawback?

    Many of these missions are set up without adequate preparatory work. Without full negotiations being conducted. [Without] full agreement between parties being achieved. And most importantly, [without] political support.

    Once the mission is set up, then the member states, particularly the members of the [Security] Council which has set it up, most importantly the P5, must fully support it. Then they can't have their own agenda and their own nuances to the operation.

    Now when you relate it to the present experience, I personally think that there is a serious flaw in the premise on which the operation was set up. UNAMSIL [United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone] has been set up to deal with problems between the government of the state and the rebel group. It was not a Somalia-type situation, where there was no established government even. That was bad enough.

    Here the moment you talk of introducing peacekeeping forces, the UN is placed in a peculiar position. It cannot but support the established government. It is a straightforward thing. That means if the rebels are not implementing their part of the agreement, you are fighting a war on behalf of the state. This is not how peacekeeping forces should be applied. The forces should have been introduced only after a certain measure of peace [was brought in].

    If you have to fight on behalf of the established government, you have to send in troops, which are ready to fight a war. You cannot send in peacekeepers and start dealing with a state of war. This is the unfortunate state in which Indian and other forces find themselves in.

    Maybe you placed too much reliance on the rebel forces, on the rebel commander. Not only one commander, there are any number of commanders. Each one is a law unto himself. It is very rarely that a single commander is answerable for what the forces do.

    In This Series
      Part 1
      'Our boys will get released soon'
      Part 2
      'Sierra Leone's more than a mistake'
      Part 3
      'Prevent, prevent, prevent!'

    The Security Council should have anticipated the situation -- that the peacekeepers would be expected to disarm the rebel troops. The moment you are talking about disarming rebel forces, [it means] demobilising a well-armed force.

    They have been fighting a very dirty war, a very savage war, I must say, for years now. These forces which were sent in should have been well equipped. They should have been prepared for the worst case scenario. That means there is no question of they being targeted and taken hostage, that means they should have been equipped as if for a war. That means they should have gone in with maximum equipment, tanks, artillery, and air support. Only then is it rational.

    Probably the UN was hoping that it would work out. But you cannot base these things on hope. You have to have some solid basis. I think the experience in the recent years have shown that your forces should be robustly prepared, to deal with a robust mandate.

    The mandate is important. These people are given a peacekeeping mandate, and when this sort of thing goes wrong, the forces are criticised. They say the developing nations are not capable of performing. It is utterly patronising and ridiculous.

    In fact, when you look back at recent operations, in Somalia the initial disasters were not under any developing nation, it was under the US leadership. Some tragedies there were under European leadership. The very patronising remarks put you off completely. Because it has nothing to do with the capabilities of the forces. I don't think anyone can question their capabilities.

    I can speak for our own forces and for our own commanders. I won't hesitate to say we are among the best in the world. But you have to cater to some of the situations. Unless you cater to them in terms of equipment, unless you have the wherewithal to deal with the situation, how do you expect them [the forces] to react to it?

    Is Major General V K Jetley, the force commander in Sierra Leone, in anyway handicapped because he has to take orders from New York?

    Orders from New York it has to be. He can't take orders from Delhi. Let us be quite clear on that. When he goes there as the UN commander, his orders have to come from New York.

    Having said that, one must also cater to the fact that individual countries would be concerned about their own contingents. To that extent, India must have a say. That is why people like us have always said that when decisions are taken in New York, when the Security Council mandates are decided, the representatives of the contributor countries must also be involved.

    Or when you are revising mandate, there must be constant consultations with the contributor countries. It cannot be some permanent members of the Council, or 15 members of the Council, none of whose forces are there, who should be taking the decision. The Security Council is the authority. I think the structuring of UN needs that much of flexibility and adjustment.

    Are all these sacrifices in alien lands worth it?

    It is worth it. We are a founding member of the United Nations. And I think we have a proud record of peace. If the United Nations is to survive as an effective international organisation, it is the only one we have today, it should receive unqualified support from member nations. To that extent, India has committed itself in the past and must commit itself in the future.

    Now you talk of dangers. We are men in uniform, we are trained to face dangers. That's part of our job. That is why military contingents are sent into situations such as this. As I said, it is not a nice situation, it should have been adequately prepared for. To that extent, we need to exercise our influence in this international body to prevent this sort of piecemeal approach. Sometimes mistakes will be made, but in this case it is much more than a mistake. It should have been a robust mandate.

    How do you react to the criticism about Major General Jetley?

    I don't know the full details. Our commander there has handled it well. In a situation like this you can't start fighting the rebel forces; you will take casualties. Now he is trying to work out compromises, negotiations. That is part of it. Peacekeeping effort is [all about] compromises. Because you are dealing with belligerent, recalcitrant elements. Very often you have to stretch your patience a great deal. I mean, none of them have been killed. Obviously that means the handling has been good. If this commander or a lower commander had decided to take action against the rebels, without proper equipment that is needed to engage in an all-out conflict, there would have been a lot of casualties. I think it is to their credit that it has been handled well.

    What exactly happened to you?

    There is no controversy about that. The controversy was built up by certain sections of the media, particularly the Western media. I was on a one-year contract with the United Nations. I fulfilled that contract to the day. It was a one-year contract, from March 3, 1992, to March 2, 1993. I left the mission area on March 2, 1993. Yes, I did not accept an extension.


    The UN wanted me to continue. There were two reasons why I did not accept an extension. At that point I did not want to make it public. Since I did not want to embarrass the UN I said it was due to personal reasons.

    The reason basically was that there were plans to restructure the mission. I was then number one in the mission, I was the force commander. I was also responsible for political and administrative matters. Now because of the size of the mission, a lot of political pressure was building up on the UN. I got to know that they were planning to restructure the mission. And as it turned out, it did happen. Fortunately, I had by then come back.

    The point I was making is that in the restructuring they were planning to bring in a civilian as the special representative of the [UN] secretary general. No ego problems or anything like that. But having been number one, I was not prepared to be number two, because the way in which you accept your tasks would get affected.

    The second reason was -- it was in a way linked to this reason -- that I could foresee the intrusion of NATO in the handling of the operation. And I was not prepared to accept that sort of thing. I could not have done that in all fairness to my commitment, which would have put me on a confrontation path with the big powers. Satish Nambiar versus the United States of America and United Kingdom and France did not stand a chance. And I don't think the Indian government would have been able to give me the kind of support I required.

    As things turned out, I was not wrong. My successor was relieved in three months, most unceremoniously, and they brought in a special representative.

    What was the Indian government's reaction to your decision?

    There was nothing wrong with it. I did it in consultation with the foreign secretary, the chief [of army] was out of the country at that point of time. The foreign secretary was [J N] Mani Dixit, I spoke to him, and he had no problem. I must say the government was quite [supportive].

    Indian forces in Sierra Leone Isn't there a racist attitude in peacekeeping? When there is a trouble spot in Africa or Asia, you don't find very many advanced nations ready to go over. When it is Yugoslavia, those powers are ready. And every time there is this criticism that developing nations are not well trained, not well armed.

    It is not true. In Yugoslavia I had a whole lot of countries from developing nations. Even under NATO command, as it later turned out, they did have contingents from developing nations. That is more as a gimmick.

    I agree with you that a lot of Western nations feel that they are better equipped, better trained, and the better people to handle all these. I had officers from several countries. In all fairness to them, I must say once I had established my professionalism, once they were convinced that I had the professionalism to deal with the situation, they were absolutely unreserved in their cooperation. I had no problem. Problems from the governments, that is different. That is because they were running their own agendas, but from my staff it was absolutely unreserved [cooperation].

    Again, you must give credit where it is due: I had full support from the UN headquarters in New York. There again, the chap with whom I was working was a Britisher, the under secretary in charge of peacekeeping. Whatever I did had his full support, and the support of Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. So my tenure there, I must say, was very, very satisfactory.

    British troops roam around Freetown in Sierra Leone, and the TV crews zoom in on them. Peacekeepers, including Indians, are there in tense regions, in forests and remote towns. But no one seems to care about them. Why is that so? A Western bias?

    This is something they have always done. Western countries, particularly the United States, Britain, and some others, they are good at that. Why not? That is what everyone should be doing. This aspect that they do not take part in this operation is all related to their national interests. I am amazed to hear that when the secretary general asked the United States for airlift, to take the Bangladeshi contingent to Sierra Leone, they made some fuss about it and wanted to charge three times the charge other chartered flights make. On the one hand they say that they are making a big contribution to the United Nations, and then they make a big fuss about it! But they make money on the contract. Someone should research how much of UN contracts go to developed countries and developing countries. It is well worth checking. How much of the contracts given by the UN for the running of peacekeeping forces go to the developed countries. I think it will be quite a substantial figure, which would more than make up for the contributions they make.

    There is this talk about the good pay that soldiers on UN duty get. Is that a major lure for taking up such contracts?

    Why not? If he doesn't go someone else would take it. You see, this is another thing I find very patronising in our civil society's approach to it. Your very question indicates that it's got a mercenary touch to it. Let us be clear about one thing: no one is doing the job he is doing, you or I, for philanthropic reasons. We are all doing it because we have to get certain earning.

    Now in the armed forces they don't jump at the opportunity, they are volunteers, and it is a good thing. I don't find anything wrong with it. They are going to do a particular kind of job, it has a certain risk to it, and it has this advantage. And why should we deny our people this advantage? If you don't take it, the Pakistanis will go, the Bangladeshis will go, the Nepalese will go. Someone else will take it.

    'If you have to have peace, then you have to start looking after it'

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    Photo credits
    Major General Nagra: Sondeep Shankar
    Others: Indian army

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