Peacekeeping has become a catchall term used to describe any time foreign troops are sent to intervene in some local conflict. The reasons for these interventions vary from ending an ongoing war, the protection of civilians, or the attempt to impose order on a disintegrating society. Peacekeeping has become a 'catchall term', but really it describes one type of mission performed by military forces. This writeup will explain the difference, and show when peacekeeping forces can be profitably employed.
The classic definition of peacekeeping is when a military force is sent between two combatants in order to separate them, and permit the cessation of combat. A classic peacekeeping mission separates two combatants who would like to stop fighting for any number of reasons but are having a hard time doing so.
There are a lot of reasons why making peace can require a foreign force. Enemies in war rarely trust each other. In combat the person who shoots first survives more often than not. War makes people quick on the trigger finger, and almost any incident many will see as a deliberate provocation. And there will be provocations. There will be bad blood on both sides. Both sides will have their share of hotheads who aren't happy with the current situation and want more combat. For example, current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once fired deliberately upon Syrian positions for the express purpose of touching off another war.
Here a foreign force can do a lot of good. The best way to prevent incidents is for both sides to back off from frontline positions, but to do so invites attack. Withdrawal is one of the more difficult military operations. Withdrawing may make the combatants appear and feel weak. Withdrawing may weaken one side if the position to be abandoned is strong. A foreign force can take over both sides' positions without loss of face. A neutral force is not the enemy. There is little reason to attack them, no real reason to fear them, and if incidents do happen they can be investigated by a party who hasn't got a stake in the outcome. Both sides gain peace and an opportunity to cool down.
Peacekeeping jumped into the world's eye after the Suez Crisis in 1956. In July 1956 Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal which had previously been under British control. Britain and France reacted angrily, and thus cooked up a plan with israel, who feared Egypt's growing nationalism. Israel was already regarded as the dominant power in the Middle East and it attacked across the Sinai Peninsula, scattering the Egyptian defenders.. England and France used this act as pretext for a military intervention to 'protect' the canal. The US, then an oil exporter announced an oil embargo and otherwise pressured France and England to withdraw. The first UN peacekeeping force was authorized by General Assembly resolution 998 and sent to occupy the positions of Israel, England and France, allowing those nations to save face, and bringing the incident to a peaceful conclusion.
The peacekeepers were successful because all sides wanted peace. Israel, England and France did not want to defy the power of the US, or world opinion. And Egypt did not want to continue a war it was clearly losing. All sides got to save face, and peace was restored.
This sort of peacekeeping has served the world well for many years. Generally, a lightly armed force is sufficient and the primary requirement is that the peacekeepers be properly trained, professional and seen as scrupulously fair.
Peacekeeping ceases when one or more side does not really desire peace. In this case, the 'peacekeepers' are not welcome neutrals, but intruders where they do not belong. The mission here is not peacekeeping, but peacemaking.
Consider the case of the early NATO intervention during the Yugoslav Civil War that pitted Bosnian Serbs --abetted by a whole lot of Serbian Serbs and equipment--- versus Bosnian Muslims in a racial war characterized by repeated atrocities.
Early on the Clinton Administration sought a forceful intervention, but was blocked by his European NATO allies, who also saw the threat but were hesitant about both such a forceful response and by the fact that the US didn't want to commit any ground troops. They didn't want Europeans to do all of the dying. So the response was finessed, with small NATO forces inserted as 'observers', with the hope that the two sides would behave better with NATO troops about.
That strategy failed. The forces sent in were too small to forcefully protect themselves, much less interfere with the military operations of the combatants. In May 1995 a force of 350 peacekeepers was surrounded and taken hostage by Bosnian Serbs. Later on the declared 'safe areas' of Srebrenica and Zepa fall to Serbian troops despite the threats of NATO air strikes. These troops committed horrifying massacres of Bosnian civilians right under the noses of the NATO peacekeepers who had hoped to provide them succor. This was not the fault of the troops themselves, who were isolated and horrendously overmatched.
The reason this mission failed is that despite the fact that they were called peacekeepers, they were not. The Bosnian Serbs did not want peace, they wanted to conquer Bosnia and at the very least impose a local form of apartheid. Peace was not an enormous priority of the Bosnian muslims either, who had become so embittered by the conflict that many had begun to match Serbian atrocities with their own.
When your mission is not to keep the peace, but to impose it the force and rules of engagement employed must reflect the real mission. The ground forces employed were too small and isolated to effectively protect themselves, much less impose their will. NATO air power could have been decisive, but it was employed piecemeal until August 30, when an overwhelming air campaign was begun. NATO planes would attack and destroy a single 'demonstration' target in hopes that the Serbs would choose self-control. That strategy failed to deter the Serbs because the loss of a tank here or there amounted to nothing more than normal operational losses. Supplied by Serbia itself, which retained the bulk of the pre-war Yugoslavian Army, the losses were those the Bosnian Serbs could readily afford. The Serbs only showed interest in peace after heavy, continuous air attacks had seriously eroded the firepower superiority that allowed them to control the battlefield. The Serbs realized that if NATO kept this up victory might turn into defeat. So they agreed to make peace.
The early failure was not one of military power, but political will. The political leadership in NATO did not understand the Serbian determination to rule Bosnia. The early years were characterized more by wishful thinking than sober analysis, that the mere potential of NATO would be enough without a real, and credible threat of force. In addition, most Europeans and Americans were naturally reluctant to intervene. Years of watching repeated atrocities and defiance moved public opinion to the point were a forceful response was acceptable to the general public.
This leads to a second lesson: unless the combatants really think that the intervening force not only can, but will use overwhelming power, they are not likely to back down. The Serbs were not intimidated by either the presence of NATO troops or the odd smart bomb. It took steady, powerful attack in order to convince them that NATO meant business.
So the first question any policy maker should ask themselves is: What kind of situation will I face? If the answer is two sides who genuinely want to stop fighting, a lightly armed force with diplomatic specialists may do. If the situation is one where one or both sides is intent on a fight to the finish, division or corps sized forces equipped with artillery and heavy armor may be the only answer. An overwhelming force is harder to support politically, and more expensive, but that is the kind of force least likely to face combat.
Peacekeeping is an often misused word. It is applied whenever foreign troops are inserted into an ongoing conflict. But peacekeeping requires that there be a peace to keep. These days peacemaking is often the real mission. Peacemaking today is often not peaceful at all.