Special Dossier EUFOR Chad/CAR Mission
Information becomes crucial in times of instability
By Nicolas Gros-Verheyde in N’Djamena and Abéché, Chad | Wednesday 23 April 2008
Rumours are a fundamental element in the country, whether they be about strategic data (rebel attacks, desertions, refugee camps) or more everyday matters such as the arrival of the rain. And “even during the rainy season I’m not sure when it’s going to rain,” explained one soldier ironically. And from a security perspective, explained an information specialist, it is clear “we are sitting on a gunpowder keg. It could explode at any given moment”. “In these parts a simple road accident can turn a smiling hospitable people into just as many hostile individuals,” added a policeman. And we should not forget the ill-intentioned armed groups: regular soldiers that have been corrupted, rebels, bandits and often they belong to more than one group. All this makes it even more important for European forces to have their own strategic information. In the skies, EUFOR has at its disposal the French F1 Mirages (both tactical and reconnaissance) capable of covering the country very quickly and refuelling while in flight and a CL-289 pilotless drone, which is able to remain in the same place for long periods of time. On the ground, the leading teams made up primarily of special forces as well as the regular patrols and even civil-military cells are responsible for gathering as much information as possible. The information is then fed to Cell J2 (information), where it is cross-checked with information from other sources. The cell also has its own ‘sensors’, contacts in civil society responsible for keeping it up-to-date with the situation as it evolves either through everyday conversations over a drink in a discreet bar or café or swapping notes in the shade of a tree.
As with all multinational operations (NATO, the EU), each member state has its own National Information Cell (NIC), which can bring information to the attention of their high commander. In this way information gleaned on the ground can be passed on to Paris, Dublin, London, Warsaw or Stockholm. But, as pointed out by one of the agents in charge of this service, “a photo on its own means nothing. You need more than one with captions, the date and other information to know the truth”. And it is true that looking at the photos, an expert eye is required to be able to pick out that the tiny speck is in fact a “destroyed rebel” as indicated by the caption. The art of information is therefore knowing how to cross-check information from the skies with those obtained on the ground or by talking to people.
THE THREAT OF CONFLICT
Far from abating or even getting worse, the threat of military conflict is ever present. The Chadian government is ensuring that it is armed as well as supporting the Sudanese rebels based in its territory – or at least providing them with arms. The Sudanese government is doing the same with the Chadian rebels implying an arms build-up on both sides. Reinforcements are being brought in for the national army in Chad, including additions to the attacking helicopter fleet. “[Chad’s President Idriss] Deby has understood how useful they can be,” commented one of the soldiers present. Although it already owns several Mi35 and Mi171 helicopters, some of which are based permanently in Abéché, Chad is busy acquiring more. M124Ps (known as the ‘dragonfly of death’) and Mi27 helicopters with added arms from Ukraine notably. Negotiations about two other French Gazelles or Fennec are also underway. And on the other side, Sudan has not been idle either. According to witness reports, backed by photographic evidence gathered by Amnesty International, it appears that Russia signed an agreement to deliver 15 Mi17 helicopters in 2005 and 2006 and to provide 12 Mi24 attacking helicopters.
While the rainy season (between June and September) is a period of truce, rebel attacks tend to be concentrated in two specific periods – around November and April. The situation now is critical because it is more or less the last opportunity for the rebels to attack although after three consecutive defeats in November 2007 (in the Abéché region), in February this year (in N’Djamena) and in April in Adé (near to the Sudanese border in the heart of EUFOR territory) the threat is slightly less severe.
Nevertheless, “we need to remain vigilant,” confirmed a spokesperson for the French mission, Epervier, in charge of monitoring stability in the country and evacuating European civilians when necessary.
The government in Chad has several armed forces at its disposal, the ANT (the regular national army), an elite unit, the presidential guard, comprising soldiers loyal to the president whose buildings are guarded by very young soldiers, the national police force and the Nomad and National Guard (GNNT). The GNNT, made up of auxiliaries and former rebels, is changing continually with people joining then leaving before joining again, sometimes in return for financial benefits, and is highly disorganised. The rebel forces today are divided more than ever with different clans emerging. As a result, a breakaway group, consisting mainly of residents of Ouaddaï (in the Abéché region) the Union of forces for Change and Democracy (UFCD), has formed under Adouma Hassaballah coming between Mahamat Nourri’s UFDD (Union of Forces for Democracy and Development) forces consisting of Goranes (and Arabs and Tamas) and Timane Erdimi’s (Deby’s nephew) RFC (Assembly of Forces for Change) made up mainly of Zaghawas. Other groups such as the UFDD, the UDFF-F (the Fundamental UFDD) under Abdelwahid Abdoud Makaye and the FSR (Republic Salvation Front) under Ahmat Soubiane have joined to form a ‘National Alliance’.
By mid-April, there had been no incidences of direct confrontation between the EUFOR troops and the rebels. “Twice our men saw men (rebels or bandits) but they fled when we approached even abandoning their ammunition,” confirmed a senior member of EUFOR.
The protection and evacuation of European and international citizens (diplomats and NGO staff) is not meant to be the responsibility of EUFOR. It is entirely the responsibility of the French Epervier operation. A plan known as ‘Chari Baguirmi’ determines the different steps: registering the residents of each home, meeting at the specified points, evacuation via the Kossei camp and the airport in N’Djamena. This is not just a theoretical concept, as shown by events in February 2008, when approximately 100 men were mobilised to welcome the citizens.
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Neutral at all times
In its daily tasks, EUFOR is very careful to ensure that its neutrality cannot be questioned. The entire eastern region of Chad now falls under the command of EUFOR and the French operation Epervier, according to their leader, is no longer active. Information campaigns with the help of flyers are carried out in villages to explain the reason for the presence of the European troops, the meaning of the blue flag with 12 stars and the different elements from different countries. In their daily lives, EUFOR soldiers are careful not to offend, so for example they avoid wearing chechs (headscarves) so as not to cause confusion with the Chadian regular or rebel military troops who wear them regularly. In the same way, there are two roads leading to the military base in N’Djamena but the EUFOR troops are careful not to take the route which goes past the Chadian camp, although it is much quicker (the checks by the ANT soldiers generally being good natured) and prefer to go via the French camp. There are also three chaplains to ensure the spiritual well-being of the soldiers – a Catholic, a Protestant (in Abéché) and a Muslim (in Farchana). In a Muslim country, “the presence of a Muslim in our troops is an advantage,” explained one soldier. “It facilitates contact.”