Julie Flint: This UN force won't end the tragedy of Darfur

On 1 January, the UN-African Mission in Darfur (Unamid) takes over from the bruised and battered African Mission in Sudan. After three and a half years struggling with the world's toughest peacekeeping task, Amis is passing the baton.

Forty-six African peacekeepers died in an operation that lost the confidence of the Darfurian people. A mission that began with the hope that Africans would solve Africa's problems ended with its troops sitting ducks, unable to protect themselves. How will Unamid do better? The first problem facing the new "hybrid" force is that most of its troops will be the old Amis troops, in new, blue hats. Western nations have not stepped up to the plate with the required helicopters and logistics, and it is unlikely that even half of the planned 26,000-man force will be deployed by the end of next year even without Khartoum's present determined and devious obstruction.

A vociferous international campaign has led Darfurians to expect that Unamid will secure every displaced camp, end criminality and disarm militias. It cannot. Fearing that disappointment will turn to anger, some advisers have suggested that Unamid begin with a show of force. This could easily drag the peacekeepers into a war they can't win. If they get into a battle with a militia, there can only be one result ignominious withdrawal and heartened opposition.

Even without a show of force, early armed confrontation is a very real danger for Unamid. Just as many displaced Darfurians hope the UN is coming to disarm the Arabs, so the Arabs fear this is exactly the UN's agenda. There's a desperate need for Unamid to begin confidence building with Arabs, a part of Darfur society that has been cruelly exploited by the government and ignored by internationals.

UN officers should be visiting Arab villages and nomadic camps, assessing their needs and their war losses, which are great, and offering assistance. This has become especially important since Darfur's most powerful Arab militia, commanded by Mohamed Hamdan Dogolo "Hemeti", took a huge shipment of weaponry from the government recently, and promptly, switched sides. Hemeti has signed a pact with the founder of the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement, Abdel Wahid Mohamed al-Nur, and is unafraid of any other force in Darfur, Unamid included.

Unamid's next priority must be neutrality. Nothing damaged Amis more than the perception that it was siding, increasingly, with the government. No amount of public relations could correct this perception because it was true. When Amis expelled from the ceasefire commission the representatives of rebel groups who refused to sign the Darfur Peace Agreement in May 2006, it lost its mechanism for interacting with the rebels and responding to their complaints. Until Unamid remedies this, it will also suffer from bias, with all that means for the safety of its men.

If Unamid is to have any chance of success, it is vital that the peace talks launched in the Libyan town of Sirte, in October, produce a new ceasefire agreement and a new ceasefire commission. But the Sirte talks are going nowhere, official hype notwithstanding. The rebel group with the biggest popular support Abdel Wahid's SLM is not represented. Nor is the strongest armed group, Hemeti's militia. Neither has the slightest incentive to sit down as equals with small rebel fractions, some of them little more than government-sponsored gangs.

Mark Malloch-Brown has called Unamid "the right plan" for Darfur. But Unamid was designed for a peace agreement which was stillborn 18 months ago. There is no ceasefire to police today and no separation of forces to monitor.

The only task that is still achievable is securing the perimeters of displaced camps. Security for the displaced needs a civilian police force inside the camps, which are armed and increasingly lawless. And the UN hasn't figured out how to do that yet.

Unamid was pushed by an international lobby that is crying "genocide!" almost three years after large-scale hostilities ended. At best, it is a blueprint that is no longer applicable. At worst, a template for what senior UN officials warn privately could easily become "the world's worst peacekeeping operation". But, as senior British officials say, "it is going to happen and we have to make the best of it".

Unamid has to smarten up. It has one chance to solve the conundrum of keeping the non-peace. This is to begin at the local level engage with communities, establish ceasefires and treat local populations with compassion and respect. Darfurians want Unamid to succeed. Unamid's best chance is to ask Darfurians to explain what they need, craft its plans accordingly and hope that protection will cut both ways.

The writer is co-author of Darfur: A Short History of a Long War