Conflict Prevention-Peacemaking-Preventive Deployment: A triangle whose time has come?
By Ali Ahmed
As the Ukraine War enters into its fifth month, it continues to show that the Charter-based international order requires bolstering. An idea whose time has come is in giving the peace agenda of the United Nations some teeth. One area that could do with strengthening is the triangular relationship between the three agenda concepts: conflict prevention, peacemaking and preventive deployment.
The phrases ‘a stitch in time’ and ‘prevention is better than cure’ are truisms. Rightly, conflict prevention has for long been a priority area for the UN. Conflict prevention through peaceful means - as against the leveraging force such as through deterrence, alliance building and posturing - is sought as the forte of the UN. Conflict prevention is enabled by peacemaking efforts as facilitation of negotiations and mediation and other peaceful means as arbitration and adjudication. Conflict prevention can be taken as peacemaking prior to the onset of violent conflict. In its wider interpretation it also includes preventing horizontal and vertical escalation. The advantage of an early bid for peace is that the cultural violence that attends direct violence has not congealed at that stage, making structural violence more amenable - through peacemaking - to mitigation. Even so, peaceful means – that disavow use of force – can be enhanced by the leveraging of force through preventive deployment. Preventive deployment can potentially stanch the impetus to violence, buying for conflict prevention-peacemaking the time and political space for effectiveness. This conceptual prelude shows the interlinked, triangular relationship between the three concepts: conflict prevention-peacemaking-preventive deployment.
The unfolding of the Ukraine War provides a setting to ideate on this triangle. The War’s outbreak was publicly predicted by the intelligence community of the West almost to the day, with informed speculation having it that the War’s D-Day was delayed by Winter Games held early this year in China. There was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy about the forecast. The international community remained stupefied in the run up to the War. No doubt weighty factors dissuaded conflict prevention, such as one of the potential belligerents being a Permanent Five member with the clout to halt any effort perceived to be against its interests. But, great power politics also played a part since certain other members of the Permanent Five may not have been averse to a War. Be that as it may, the UN was not quite to the fore in the run up to the War, with some critical commentary noting that it stood marginalized.
Using the triangle model, can it be counter-factually inferred that had the UN had a preventive deployment capability at hand, it could have been more forthcoming with peacemaking action for conflict prevention? Such a hypothetical scenario may have witnessed preventive deployment under UN aegis, perhaps partnered by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that had a Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) already in place in the sensitive zone. Such a preventive deployment, using troops from major power contributors as China and India that were acceptable for both sides – Ukraine and Russia – could have allowed conflict prevention to acquire teeth. It would have provided Russia with a reason to hold-out from attack, giving it scope for advancing its originally stated interest in implementation of the preexisting Minsk agreement framework. Ukraine, for its part, in according consent for the preventive deployment would have asserted its sovereignty and avoided the price it has paid in terms of suffering and possible loss of territory. Conflict prevented, momentum to peacemaking could have seen the two sides work out differences outstanding since 2014.
A second juncture offering an intercession opportunity in the Ukraine War was when Russia, having met a reverse in the initial phase of the War, redeployed out of the Kiev war zone to concentrate on the Donbas region. Yet again preventive deployment capability on hand for the UN may have been useful to insert into the conflict zone along the front lines, with both states onboard, so as to prevent the subsequent phase from playing out. Conflict prevention does not end with conflict outbreak but is also concerned with its persistence and escalation. While peacemaking is to contain conflict after outbreak, the Ukraine War continuing shows that it did not have heft, though there were peacemaking efforts by Turkey and France playing out. The discernible operational pause when Russia shifted gears provided a window of opportunity wherein a preventive deployment of forces from countries acceptable by both sides may have been possible. This presupposes availability of such professional forces at short notice and the capability to move these into the conflict zone timely. India is a candidate country with such a capability, both China and Western countries being ruled out at this stage of the conflict for partisanship respectively with the two sides.
Another counter-factual illustration is in order. Had a preventive deployment force been available for deployment to Benghazi in the stand-off between Gaddafi’s troops and rebels there in early 2012, the hands of the partner multilateral organizations involved in managing that Responsibility to Protect (R2P) crisis may have stood strengthened. With the preventive deployment, with consent of Gaddafi, the apprehended R2P threat would have been defused, making preventive deployment a preferred option couched in conflict prevention. It would have precluded the scuttling of R2P concept at inception and the violence that has plagued the country and the region ever since. Conflict prevention diplomacy that was undertaken by the regional organizations – the Arab League, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the African Union – would have gained time and efficacy thereby. Since the West would unlikely have received consent for deployment by Libya, other cogent forces – such as from India and China - could have been requisitioned for the limited purpose of a quick insertion, stabilization and retraction on abatement of the crisis.
Another counter-factual example to drive home the point that conflict prevention merely by the peacemaking route it seldom enough is the case of Afghanistan. It was patently obvious all along as the United States’ and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) prepared to depart the country that turmoil would follow. There was almost a two-year long peace process that could have been suitably taken advantage of to substitute the departing NATO with a potent UN peacekeeping force. The UN also appointed a former Secretary General’s Special Representative with its political mission in Afghanistan, Jean Arnault, for the talks’ process in Doha. However, the UN’s profile was debilitated by not having options to offer. Assuming it had a preventive deployment force from countries acceptable to Taliban – China and Turkey come to mind – the force could have deployed in anticipation of the departure of the Western forces. It could have partnered with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on this. Recall at the time the fear was a bloodbath in areas taken over by the Taliban as the NATO pulled out, especially in Kabul. President Ashraf Ghani cited this possibility in explaining his hasty departure, saying that he did not want to precipitate matters by staying on. A preventive deployment force, that also controlled the airport, and some prominent provincial capitals, may have proved useful in strengthening the mediation’s hand in the peace process. Conflict prevention purposes would have been served in that the UN presence in Afghanistan would have been enhanced by a preventive deployment, toning down the Taliban’s excesses - now visible - while enabling peacemaking between it and the former government, retaining the peacebuilding gains from the preceding period.
Counter-factuals are useful but not in themselves persuasive. Examples are however available from peacekeeping successes to help with visualization of the triangle and the need to upgrade conflict prevention-peacemaking with preventive deployment. Whereas preventive deployment had a salutary rollout in the UN’s Preventive Deployment Force (PREDEP) in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia of Macedonia, a less visible preventive deployment has been the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) between Sudan and South Sudan. This is arguably a successful case of preventive deployment as part of conflict prevention. UNISFA was intended to provide the stability on ground for peacemaking initiatives to play out. The outstanding issues from the secession of South Sudan were yet to be settled and the UN was supportive of the African Union on this score. UNISFA prevented the spill-over of the Sudan-South Sudan border war of 2012 into Abyei. The border has since been monitored by the UNISFA’s mechanism in support of the Joint Monitoring and Verification Mechanism of both sides. Peacemaking has however been in abeyance since the two sides have separately suffered civil conflict that has distracted them from settling their border issues. But the conflict prevention role of UNISFA has been in ensuring that the border issues do not aggravate their relationship, allowing both to be supportive of each other in resolving respective internal problems that otherwise provide scope for proxy war by the other side.
Realist discourse has it that diplomacy for effectiveness needs being buttressed with force, kept behind the curtains. While the UN’s peace agenda does privilege arriving at peace through peaceful means, preventive deployment already exists as a proven tool in the peace repertoire. Preventive deployment does not imply use of force, but follows peacekeeping principles. Such troops can serve as ‘embarrassing witnesses’, deterring violence. Containing violence can keep peacemaking underway from being more vexed than what it is. The role of conflict prevention - of keeping conflict confined even after outbreak of violence – is enabled. Other benefits from such deployment are self-evident: helping monitor a developing situation and protection of monitors and humanitarian actors. There may be a call on the force for facilitating humanitarian relief and assisting refugee flows. It provides stability on ground, lest instability infiltrate bottom-up into peacemaking conference rooms. It helps restrain spoilers and, where necessary, rein them in. It ensures an investment by the international community in the crisis, focusing minds on its resolution. It helps address the entire lifecycle of the crisis, visualized as a curve: when on the upswing, when it climaxes and - transforming into conventional peacekeeping – helping usher in and sustain the downward curve with peacemaking providing for an initial ceasefire followed by a final settlement.
Materializing the three peace agenda concepts as a triangle as against in respective silos requires corresponding capabilities. Preventive deployment is peacekeeping-on-the-quick, anticipatory peacekeeping with an admixture of robust peacekeeping. Quick reaction insertion into crisis zones, and where unavoidable into conflict zones, is necessary. Peacekeeping on the other hand is predicated on a modicum of peace to keep, brought about by a negotiated agreement minimally on a ceasefire and the role of peacekeepers on its sustainment. Preventive deployment as envisaged here is for creating the conditions on ground for arriving at such a negotiated agreement. Whereas earlier conflict prevention-peacemaking was without teeth, with an admixture of preventive deployment propagated here, a negotiated agreement to contain conflict is made possible. This means that preventive deployment would require insertion in a fluid situation, with outbreak of violence potent possibility irrespective of such insertion. The preventive deployment however increases the efficacy of prevention, in first place, and the limiting of violence subsequently. The force would require configuring as befits a violence-deterring mission in a visibly heavier than peacekeeping mode. This restricts the scope of contribution to such forces to very few countries, with professional militaries held at a higher degree of readiness. They must have self-protection wherewithal intrinsic, including military intelligence assets. The timelines of readiness will be subject to attenuation as the crisis heightens. Command and control arrangements would have to be with the UN and the UN a partner – if not lead – in the conflict prevention peacemaking that the deployment is facilitative of.
The triangle envisaged favourably depicts the relationship between the three peace agenda concepts: conflict prevention, peacemaking and preventive deployment. Conflict prevention and peacemaking are the pre-existing twinned lines of operation. A triangle emerges when preventive deployment is added as a third side. Preventive deployment in such a case differs from peacekeeping in that it is more visibly configured for conflict zones with impending or ongoing violence. It may eventuate in a peacekeeping operation when and if peacemaking it buttresses succeeds. This might involve substitution of troops involved that have a higher potency than necessary for a conventional peacekeeping operation. Such troops need not necessarily exit the theatre but may continue to be linked with the peacemaking in subsequent-to-conflict-outbreak phases: containing conflict (ceasefire) and terminating it (comprehensive settlement). They can in such an avatar take on an enforcement role, normally shunned by peacekeeping troop contributors.
This is not a new idea, dating as the discussion above does to the mid-nineties when standby readiness troop contribution and enforcement capability under the UN found mention. However, the rudimentary command and control capabilities of the UN back then stymied the discussion. The UN has come a long way since, beginning with the Brahimi report recommendation implementation and several iterations of reform till, recently, implementation of the Cruz report. The levels of professionalization of control and use of force in the UN peace agenda now enables revisiting the ideas and, going further, implementing them. The triangle model advanced here is a conceptual first step.
 Dr. Ali Ahmed, a former infantryman, has served as a UN political affairs officer.
 Dr. Ali Ahmed, a former infantryman, has served as a UN political affairs officer.