BOSNIA / History says keep out . . . but can we still stand by?: Brian Cathcart examines the record of armed intervention in other people's conflicts, and finds disaster far outweighs success

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IN JANUARY 1979, after several months of skirmishes along their mutual border, Tanzania invaded Uganda. Within a few weeks the Tanzanian army fought its way to the capital, overthrew the president and installed a provisional government composed of Ugandans friendly to Tanzania.

These events were greeted with jubilation in the West, and particularly in Britain. The Tanzanians had barely taken control before the Foreign Office recognised the new regime and reopened a Kampala embassy closed for years. British public opinion was no less delighted.

This was because the ousted president was Idi Amin, a grotesque, blustering dictator whose eight-year reign had seen human rights violations on a monstrous scale. Up to 300,000 Ugandans had been killed; internal opposition had been extinguished; religious freedom had been ended; tens of thousands had been driven into exile and the entire Asian minority had been expelled. Amnesty International called for worldwide condemnation, while the US Congress declared Amin guilty of 'the international crime of genocide'. But, thanks to armed intervention by Tanzania, a poor country without imperial aspirations, it was all over.

It was not, however, quite as simple as that. Other African countries were outraged that Tanzania's President, Julius Nyerere, had taken it upon himself to change the government of a neighbouring state. It was the first time, declared Morocco, that an African country 'had invaded its neighbour and taken its capital with impunity'. Mali warned that if borders were not respected, 'the invasions will never cease'. Many others struck the same note, and they were deaf to appeals of the new Ugandan regime that they should not 'hide behind the formula of non-intervention when human rights are blatantly violated'.

And that was not the end of the story. Although it would probably have seemed impossible when Amin fell, conditions in Uganda actually deteriorated. By the time the Tanzanian troops withdrew two years later there was chaos: three governments had come and gone; the army was accused of systematic massacre; bloody guerrilla wars raged in several regions; refugees were again fleeing the country by the thousand; and famine and disease were spreading. Not until 1986 was a measure of stability restored.

MEDDLING IN the troubles and quarrels of other countries is as old as politics and warfare. By supporting your enemy's enemy you may strengthen yourself; by helping a neighbour you may protect your flank; by undermining a neighbour you may create opportunities for aggrandisement. This is simple realpolitik. The idea that a country or countries may intervene in a conflict for no other reason than to protect the international order and prevent human suffering is something quite different, and is probably more modern. It is certainly, as the Government has repeatedly told us in the past week, some way from being an exact science.

British readers need not look far for an example of how good intentions can pave the way to hell. Northern Ireland may not be a foreign country, but to many British people and many British soldiers it seems that way. The troops were sent in to keep the peace and Stormont was abolished to permit reform, but almost 25 years on there is no peace and no local government, 3,000 people are dead and the British Army is stuck there.

Wider experience suggests that armed intervention is never a tidy business, no matter how selfless the motive or how odious the enemy that is challenged. The case studies of modern times provide ample evidence to support those who have dismissed Baroness Thatcher's pleas for action in Bosnia as hot-headed and short-

sighted. All too often, yesterday's helpless victims become tomorrow's bloodthirsty avengers, while yesterday's persecutors retire to nurse their new grievance for another day. The only thing everybody is prepared to forget is the short-term humanitarian cause that prompted the intervention in the first place. The intervener, in the meantime, usually becomes the enemy of all sides and the butt of international opprobrium.

International law provides very little help, for there is nothing so sacred to the nations of the world as borders. President Nyerere was assailed by the rest of Africa for violating a border without having acted through the proper channels, in his case the Organisation of African Unity. Since the OAU was dominated by dictators and human rights violators, it did not take a genius to see that the chances of them agreeing to get rid of Amin were nil. In law, however, the dictators and human rights violators had all the cards, and the argument of precedent they deployed is hard to answer: if Nyerere can choose who runs Uganda, then why can't Gaddafi choose who runs Chad, as he has several times tried to do? Tanzania, they said, had provided a licence for invaders.

That Nyerere got away with it at all he owed to the absence of any Cold War ramifications to his actions. The US and the Soviet Union had plenty of strategic interests in Africa, which they were quick to defend against any threat, but they didn't care about Uganda and it was left to sink into anarchy. No such indifference was extended to Cambodia.

POL POT and the Khmer Rouge have passed into modern legend for what they did to their country. Between 1975 and 1979, a million people died and half a million fled the country as a crazy, apocalyptic ideology was imposed. Children were brainwashed, armed and turned against their families; cities were forcibly emptied of their inhabitants; economic activity was brought to a halt, as the clock of development was turned back centuries; famine and disease were imposed as if by policy. It took some time for word of this to emerge, but by 1978 there was an international clamour for action.

Pol Pot's rule was ended (although, like Amin, he is still alive) by foreign invasion. After months of border skirmishing, the Vietnamese army swept into the country and captured Phnom Penh, ending the Khmer Rouge's barbarous experiment. Did the world applaud? No.

Western governments took a much dimmer view of the Vietnamese invasion than they had of Pol Pot's crimes. Vietnam was an ally of the Soviet Union and an enemy of the US. Its conquest of a neighbour disturbed the regional balance, offending China as much as it did the US, and its imperial intentions seemed to be confirmed when a puppet regime was installed and Vietnamese settlers began to move in behind the army. The Cambodians themselves showed no gratitude for the removal of Pol Pot, and the Khmer Rouge and its enemies actually united to fight the invader.

For a decade, Vietnam repeatedly announced it was quitting Cambodia but somehow never did, and it paid a high diplomatic and military price. When it finally did go, in 1989, a civil war ensued that demonstrated that 10 years of occupation had changed very little. Now the United Nations is toiling to engineer a peace that will not usher in another Khmer Rouge 'Year Zero'.

Intervention, of course, is not always the same as invasion. It can take many forms. No one invaded Spain in the Spanish Civil War, but it was much more than an internal Spanish affair. Hitler and Mussolini supplied weapons and troops to Franco's side - it was German planes that bombed Guernica - while Stalin armed the Republicans. The Western democracies of Britain, France and the US did nothing. Lady Thatcher, suggesting last week that the Western democracies should now provide weapons to enable the Bosnian Muslims to defend themselves, cited a different precedent. 'You must have Bosnian Muslims armed,' she said. 'It works because, after all, other countries armed the freedom fighters in Afghanistan and that worked and they saw the Russians off.'

This is one view of a conflict that others tend to see as a proxy war between the Cold War adversaries. It began in 1979, when 80,000 Soviet troops invaded the country - already under Moscow's influence, but divided and unstable - and installed a puppet regime in Kabul. Civil war continued, but the Soviet invasion had the effect of uniting the opposition, and almost from the start they received arms and money from abroad, notably from Arab countries and the US. British anti-aircraft weapons also found their way to the mujahedin insurgents. (Lady Thatcher was careful to say that 'other countries' supplied arms; she did not identify her own government. This was a covert intervention.)

If ever a war made strange bedfellows, it was this one, where the US and Iran found themselves backing the same side. In 1988 the defeated Soviet army withdrew and Western governments rejoiced. The victors, however, promptly fell out among themselves and an ethnic conflict of ancient origin continues - largely ignored - to this day. Worse, the war has left a dreadful legacy in Pakistan, which had been both the springboard for aid to the mujahedin and the basket for Afghan refugees fleeing the conflict. The flood of weapons, drugs, money and lawlessness washed back into Pakistan, aggravating its internal tensions and crippling its political system.

Afghanistan is a model to be accepted with caution. If the Afghan people benefited from the supply of foreign arms, they and others are now suffering from them. The real beneficiary of the covert effort was the West, which saw the Soviet state wounded and humiliated by its defeat. The empire was shown to be crumbling. As for the fate of Pakistan, what country in the Balkans would volunteer to play such a role in support of Bosnia?

THE BERLIN WALL had fallen and the Cold War was on its way into history when, on Christmas Eve 1989, Charles Taylor fired the first shots of his rebellion against the Liberian dictatorship of Samuel Doe. An ethnic conflict of appalling brutality ensued, plunging the West African country into anarchy and famine and driving as much as one-third of the population into exile.

The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) decided to intervene, sending an international force of 4,000 regular troops, known as Ecomog, to the capital, Monrovia. This was public, international action, legitimised by a consensus among regional governments that the bloodshed and the flight of refugees could not be allowed to continue. Taylor, however, resisted, and before long what had been intended as a peace monitoring force was fighting a full-scale war.

A ceasefire last year broke down and conditions are now as bad as ever. Ecomog, backed by the UN, the US and France and dominated by Nigerian troops, now has 15,000 men in Liberia, but its hopes of securing a lasting peace are small. Taylor regards it as his enemy, and its credibility has been damaged by excesses such as the use of cluster bombs against civilian targets. Even if Taylor is defeated, the country is economically prostrate and the forces opposed to him are well- armed and badly fragmented. It is hard to believe that another civil war would not follow.

The experience of another multinational force, in Lebanon in 1982-83, was quite different, but it is no less of a cautionary tale. After Israel had invaded Lebanon in an attempt to crush the PLO, and after the massacres that followed in the suburbs of Beirut, the Reagan administration and its allies decided to act in force to defuse the situation and bring order to the city. Six thousand men - Americans, Italians, French and 100 British troops - were sent in to keep the peace.

It was a humanitarian mission, and as they landed, the foreign soldiers were showered with rose petals and rice by the population of the battered city. Their arrival, however, did nothing to alter the fundamental causes of the conflict: they found a Christian-led government and tried to help restore its authority. By doing so, inevitably, they earned the resentment of many Muslims. Fighting among the various militias continued elsewhere in Lebanon and soon crept back into Beirut. The Multinational Force was drawn into it, becoming ever more identified with the Christians, to the point that it became a target. Two huge bomb attacks, claimed by Muslim extremists, killed 299 US and French marines. In 1984 they withdrew in disarray, leaving Beirut a battleground.

CAMBODIA, Afghanistan, Liberia, Lebanon: there is a pattern of unforeseen consequences and enduring misery. Try to solve the problems of another country and you will probably make things worse; at the very least, you will get your fingers burnt. But this is not entirely a catalogue of despair. Here are two quite different experiences that may be no less instructive.

Somalia had been falling apart for some years before the long- time dictator, Siad Barre, was toppled in 1991. Within weeks, anarchy reigned. The northern region seceded, while in the south at least four groups vied for power. Much of Mogadishu, the capital, was reduced to rubble.

Early last year the United Nations, moved by the need to bring food to the starving population, appealed for a ceasefire and dispatched a force to protect its humanitarian convoys. While the war escalated and refugees spilled out of the country, the UN succeeded in reopening Mogadishu harbour, and small quantities of aid got through. It was not enough. In December, after an outcry in the US, an American- led force of 25,000 was sent to impose peace, and it seems to have succeeded.

Faction fighting has been halted and a peace deal hammered out under UN auspices. With thousands of weapons hidden around the country, all sides were aware a paper deal would not be enough, so when the Americans, Canadians, Belgians and others pull out next month, they will be replaced by the largest-ever UN peacekeeping force, of 28,000 men. Whether the warlords will respect them as they have the Americans remains to be seen.

The other story is of a conflict in which the world, to its shame, failed to intervene. In December 1984, a day after US President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, ended an official visit to Jakarta, Indonesia invaded its small neighbour, East Timor.

A poor former Portuguese colony just emerging into the light of self-rule, East Timor was swamped by 25,000 well-armed troops. Parachutists landed around the capital, and there were naval and aerial bombardments of the capital, Dili. A reign of terror and a famine followed in which tens of thousands were killed, and East Timor was declared a part of Indonesia.

The Vietnam war was in progress and Indonesian support was vital to the Americans, so Washington did nothing. The UN Security Council called for withdrawal, but did nothing. Australia, likewise, did nothing. The repression of the East Timorese has continued ever since.

With intervention, you are usually damned if you do, but you can also be damned if you don't.

(Photographs omitted)