BERTIE AHERN’S impulsive decision to send Irish soldiers to Chad, where they were to head up the UE Force (EUfor) mission there, now appears to have been a reckless one, politically as well as in terms of Irish soldiers’ lives. Militarily, the Chadian situation is confused, unpredictable and dangerous. But politically, it was easy to see that the government of Idriss Deby was over reliant on the French; that the EU force – inspired, dominated and effectively led by Paris – was a transparent fig leaf for the French and that consequently, Irish soldiers were likely to be a target for rebel forces. That Bertie should make such a move as the electorate prepares for a referendum in which Irish neutrality and European militarisation will be key issues, is strange indeed.French forces saved Chad President, Idriss Deby from political and actual extinction in 2006 when rebels nearly overran and captured the country’s capital, N’Djamena. The French military have stayed in Chad without any legal endorsement or peace-keeping pretext and they are effectively the Praetorian Guard of President Deby whose tribal base amounts to two orthree per cent of the population. Chad, of course, has extensive oil deposits, as has the Sudan, which is now supported by China. Deby’s democratic credentials are nonexistent and he recently changed the constitution to allow him to run for the presidency for a third time, a measure now described as the final straw. His abuses include the recruitment of child soldiers and electoral fraud and his own defence minister became the leader of one of the main rebel forces, reflecting the situation of almost dual power – or civil war – that has existed in Chad.
Chad was for years a French colony and has been effectively a French protectorate since nominal independence in 1960 while today the French train its army and provide bodyguards for Deby.
Incredibly, Irish agreement to act as nominal head of the EUfor mission was first raised by President Sarkozy when Bertie visited Paris last September and was persuaded by the French leader to provide a
fig leaf for the French in Chad. Two days after Willie O’Dea and the chief of staff had pooh-poohed the rebel forces as being of no threat to Irish soldiers last November, one of the rebel groups warned it would fight EUfor as a "foreign occupation army" if it sided with Deby. A day later, the main umbrella rebel group, the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD) declared a "state of war" against the French and other foreign forces, with no qualifying comment about whether or not EUfor sided with Deby. A fortnight later, O’Dea conceded that the guys driving round in 4x4s sometimes took pot shots at the French with whom they had "issues".
If leadership, titles and gold braid have been ceded to the Irish, operational control is a different matter. Lieutenant General Pat Nash is the overall commander of the operation in Chad but is based at his HQ entitled Mont Valerien fort – outside Paris! And on the ground in Chad, the operation is to be based at Abeche where the EUforDeputy Force Commander, Colonel Derry Fitzgerald, will report to the Force Commander, Maj Gen Jean-Philippe Ganascia, whose nationality needs no introduction. Furthermore, an aircraft carrier with 600 French marines aboard will act as a back-up for serious combat when required.
It was possible to see before last weekend that the real danger for the Irish troops was that rebel forces simply would not buy the idea of the ‘neutral, non-aligned’ Irish and would instead see them, understandably, as proxies for the French. The precise mandate was to protect refugees, some of whom have fled from the Darfur region of Sudan.
Daniel Keohane, an Irish research fellow with the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris, described the EU mission as "undoubtedly the most dangerous ever undertaken by the EU" for the simple reason
that the rebels regard EUfor as a French proxy. The Institute is not some radicalized NGO but an EU think tank answerable to member governments and the EU's bellicose foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.
The rebels were bold and intelligent in the timing of their latest offensive, anticipating that the French would not protect Deby without the EU force in place – "led" by the Irish. Alternatively, if the French did act, the EU force would be discredited before it even moved into place. The question is: why did Bertie do such a quick deal with Sarkozy and allow Irish troops to be exposed to such potential danger? Other, more political dangers are that dead and injured soldiers could arrive home in the next few months in the lead-up to a EU referendum that will be focussed heavily on the militarisation of Europe. What did Sarkozy say to Bertie and could it possibly have some thing to do with Bertie’s"Well, it is a leap year!" future role in the EU?