Op-Ed: Blowback in Africa

New York Times
April 28, 2006

EVER since Chad gained independence 46 years ago, it has been a
world-class model of political dysfunction. In the 1970's, Chad's
president, François Tombalbaye, compelled civil servants to
renounce Western customs, undergo a tribal initiation rite known as
yondo and profess belief in a nationalist creed he called
Chaditude. He was executed in 1975. In the 1980's, a rebel leader
named Hissène Habré led an army to the presidential palace and
seized power. He became known as the "African Pinochet" and
murderously pursued opponents for nearly a decade.

In 1990, Mr. Habré was chased out by an armed faction led by Chad's
current president, Idriss Déby. Now Mr. Déby is facing his own

Americans might dismiss this numbing cycle of coups as esoteric
history belonging to a troubled and distant country. They
shouldn't. The C.I.A. armed Mr. Habré for years, and since 2003,
the United States military has been training and equipping
Mr. Déby's army, making his fight to stay in office our fight, too.

Last year, Chad took part in a vast, international military exercise
organized by the United States - the largest exercise of its kind in
Africa since World War II, according to the Defense Department. This
summer, American forces will continue to advise Chadian soldiers, and
Congress is expected to allocate $500 million for a five-year program
to train and equip several Saharan armies - including Mr. Déby's.

The military hopes these initiatives will help contain the threat of
terrorism by bringing order to the Great Desert and its
borderlands. For centuries, the Sahara has been a lawless realm, and
with millions of Muslims living across the region in isolated
communities, counterterrorism officials fear that Islamic militants
may seek sanctuary there.

But dispensing military aid to Chad now - with Mr. Déby fighting
hundreds of rebels backed by Sudan - seems reckless. It puts American
military equipment and expertise in the hands of a desperate
dictator. Worse still, it risks pouring additional fuel into the human
furnace of Darfur, and it may well come to impede the careful
diplomatic work required to solve that crisis.

So far, American officials have made much of Sudanese assistance to
the rebels, framing the recent conflict in Chad as an outgrowth of the
tragedy in Darfur. There is some truth to this. But the violence in
Chad also has its own political narrative. During his 16 years in
power, Mr. Déby has ruled Chad brutally. His security forces have
committed torture, rapes, summary executions and mass killings.

Mr. Déby is a member of the Zaghawa - a northern tribe making up
roughly 5 percent of Chad's population - and last year the State
Department described his regime as a Zaghawa oligarchy shielded by a
security and intelligence apparatus that violates human rights with
impunity. In 2004, Mr. Déby altered Chad's Constitution to grant
himself another term in office. Elections are scheduled for next
Wednesday. There is little likelihood they will be fair.

Only one compelling argument exists for giving Chad military aid, and
it follows from the logic of lesser evils. Many of the refugees
fleeing Darfur are Zaghawa, and Mr. Déby has taken them in. If his
regime collapses, tens of thousands of people will once again be at
the mercy of Sudan's janjaweed marauders, and the genocide may spread.

This argument, though, is complicated by another unsettling
development. In recent months, scores of Chadian soldiers have
defected to the rebel militias. If the defections continue, they raise
the horrific possibility that American military equipment and
expertise could end up going to men aligned with the janjaweed. In
that case, our military assistance to Chad, far from containing
political anarchy, would only add to it.

Raffi Khatchadourian traveled to Chad in 2005 for the International
Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced
International Studies.

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