With the international criminal court's recent decision to issue an arrest order for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for "being criminally responsible as an indirect (co-)perpetrator [and] for intentionally directing attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur", several policy-makers and human rights activists have re-suggested instituting a No-Fly Zone (NFZ) over Darfur to prevent government aircraft from bombing villages.
This proposal received various degrees of support from George Bush and Tony Blair (while they were in power); Prime Minister Gordon Brown ("if it were at all possible"); and repeatedly from President Barack Obama - back when he served in the Senate. In her confirmation hearings, secretary of state Hillary Clinton noted that an NFZ for Darfur was "under consideration". Last week, a former US Air Force chief of staff, General Merrill McPeak, co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post declaring that "establishing a no-fly zone remains the most promising initiative to halt the atrocities in Darfur."
While the desire to use airpower to halt the Bashir regime's atrocities is noble, the history of NFZs in Bosnia and Iraq demonstrates that they are poor military tools for protecting vulnerable populations. In addition, the use of ground power by Janjaweed and Sudanese government militiamen to kill civilians and force them from their homes suggests that an NFZ is not applicable to this ongoing genocide.
Over Bosnia and Herzegovina, in support of UN security council resolution 781, Nato maintained an NFZ against all military flights from October 1992 to December 1995. But the rules of engagement for the Bosnian NFZ were so severely proscribed that, with only one exception, Nato pilots were forbidden to shoot down Serbian, Bosnian Muslim or Croatian aircraft that flew in violation. As then-US ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, admitted: "We voted to enforce no-fly zones, but the Serbs violated them hundreds of times without paying a significant price." In practice, while Nato declared an NFZ, it lacked the political will to actually enforce it.
Furthermore, the worst atrocities against civilians - committed primarily by Serbian regular army and paramilitary troops - were conducted on the ground by rampaging armour, infantry and artillery forces. As such, many war crimes - including acts of genocide - were uninhibited by Nato's NFZ.
Over northern and southern Iraq, a more well-known NFZ was the US-led effort that lasted from the early 1990s until the start of the war in March 2003. In this instance, an already hobbled Iraqi Air Force was successfully deterred from bombing the suspected Shia or Kurdish enemies of Saddam Hussein's regime for over a decade.
On Iraqi soil, however, the NFZ was useless against Saddam's ground forces. In the south, for years after the failed Shia uprising in 1991, Hussein initiated a brutal counterinsurgency campaign. His assault included building roadways into the marshlands to bring artillery within range of Shia insurgents, conducting cordon operations in suspected rebel areas and draining marshes to eliminate places to hide from the Iraqi troops.
In the north, in August 1996 after a short-lived Kurdish uprising, Hussein marshalled two Republican Guard and three regular army divisions to form a battle group of 40,000 troops, 300 tanks and 300 artillery pieces. As US and British warplanes - charged with enforcing the NFZ - were circling overhead, the Iraqi ground forces crushed the uprising in under a week. As a US official noted at the time: "We've not demonstrated a lot of courage. Our actions have not left the region any more secure - Saddam has gotten away with it."
Throughout the past five years in Darfur, the government in Khartoum has repeatedly used combat aircraft and helicopter gunships against innocent civilians. Though logistically difficult, the United States and Nato could impose an NFZ over Darfur. However, aggressors who are prevented from using coercive airpower will simply redirect their attention and resources to ground options.
Protecting vulnerable Darfuris from one tactic of oppression while allowing equally lethal attacks on the ground is ultimately a counterproductive and demoralising strategy. Preventing the use of airpower by the Sudanese government will have no lasting effect, since Janjaweed militiamen already employ trucks, horses and camels to terrorise and displace villagers. If the goal of the international community is to stabilise the security situation, prevent further killings and allow the displaced to return home, they will need to introduce ground forces to make an enduring impact. As US Rear Admiral Joseph Wylie stated: "The ultimate determinant in war is a man on the scene with a gun." Circling above atrocities being committed on the ground in Darfur just won't cut it.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.