As the residents of the shellpocked Chadian capital of N’Djamena struggled through a cheerless national holiday that marked 23 years of precarious independence for the former French colony, transistor radios crackled out the fateful bulletin last week. President Hissène Habré’s government forces had been routed from the strategic oasis of Faya-Largeau, 800 km to the north, after an unrelenting three-day bombardment by Libyan planes and tanks backing the rebel troops of former president Goukouni Oueddei.
What caused the resentment was the fact that, after six weeks of refusing to intervene, the French reluctantly decided to send 500 paratroopers as “instructor-advisers.” But the help was too little and too late. Indeed, the greatest irony of the latest conflict involving the 4.6 million impoverished inhabitants of the Sahara wasteland is that, by seizing on Chad as a symbol of the West’s determination to stop Libya’s Col. Moam-
mar Khadafy, Washington and Paris may have painted themselves into a diplomatic corner. Committed now to ensure Habré’s ultimate victory or lose face, the two powers risk becoming disastrously embroiled in a complex and apparently insoluble internal feud that French governments have failed to heal since granting Chad independence in 1960.
Certainly the biggest loser in Chad last week was not Habré but French President François Mitterrand, who was engaged in the first military operation of his two-year-old regime. It was a humiliating, no-win situation for a leader who has long prided himself on his Third World sympathies, who once berated his predecessors as “pyromaniae firemen” for similar interventions and who vowed that he would never play Africa’s gendarme. For years France has carefully avoided squabbling with the mercurial Khadafy, who is not only one of its leading arms customers but also one of its main oil suppliers. And for days Mitterrand balked at being cast as Washington’s surrogate
in the dispute with the Libyan leader. But the most influential figures of francophone Africa—President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of the Ivory Coast, Abdou Diouf of Senegal and Lt.-Gen. Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire—have pleaded Chad’s case in Washington in recent weeks. Mitterrand finally realized that what was at stake was no longer his own principles but nothing less than France’s prestige among its former African colonies.
Indeed, as diplomatic observers stressed, without its web of alliances in Africa, France would be just another European country, stripped of its claim to influence on the world stage. Still, Mitterrand may have reached his decision too late to preserve the credibility of the French defensive umbrella among moderate African leaders who fear—even more than Libyan expansion-abandonment by their main trading partner and source of aid. By initially refusing to send troops along with its $40 million in military supplies to Habré, the French government seemed to be paralysed by indecision. Even
worse, by dispatching the first of its 500 red-bereted paratroopers to N’Djamena as instructors, not combatants, and with no accompanying air cover, France not only assured Habré’s defeat at Faya-Largeau but appeared only half-committed to Chad.
Not only that, but the arrival of France’s crack combat regiments in N’Djamena’s blistering 49°C heat sparked outspoken criticism from Mitterrand’s Communist partners in government as well as discreet disillusionment from Third World idealists within his own Socialist Party. As one Socialist official, who requested anonymity, said: “If you have to cast aside the alibi of nonintervention, then you have to act effectively and, clearly, action has been taken too late. The result is a catastrophe for France’s image.”
But France was not alone in suffering a tarnished image. President Ronald Reagan’s near-intervention at times threatened to transform Chad—a rectangle of desert—into a stage for another superpower struggle. By sending four AWACS electronic spy planes with F-15 fighter escort to the area and the carriers Dwight D. Eisenhower and Coral Sea toward Libya’s Gulf of Sidra along with $25 million in emergency aid, Reagan not only angered Mitterrand but at least one general within his own military establishment. Last week army Chief of Staff Gen. John A. Wickham Jr. protested that the country’s defence resources were being stretched too thin. At a time of mounting criticism over U.S. intervention in Central
America, The Washington Post editorialized that most Americans could not even find Chad on a map.
Nor were Reagan’s actions given concrete support by Egypt, a country that the president says is threatened by Libya’s moves. Although Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has sent arms and supplies to Habré and branded Khadafy’s invasion as “monstrous,” he has refused to send troops. Indeed, the Egyptian press carefully played down the presence of 5,500 U.S. troops and two AWACS last week for the annual defence manoeuvres (codenamed Bright Star), denying any connection between the radar planes and the conflict in Chad. That appeared to be the reason that two other AWACS were sent to Khartoum in neighboring Sudan. While violently opposing Khadafy, Mubarak does not want to confront him directly, provoking the renewed wrath of other radical Arab states and endangering his own carefully nonaligned policy in Africa.
Late last week, however, after taking FayaLargeau, Khadafy himself appeared to be ready to compromise. Libya’s official JANA news agency issued a series of invitations to a peaceful solution, an indication that Khadafy was having second thoughts about staking his pres-
tige on the country where he has been disastrously embroiled before. Three years ago then president Goukouni Oueddei invited him to take over the defence of the country. But Khadafy was only too happy to withdraw his 10,000 troops under combined French and Chadian pressure after less than a year. The unpopular campaign had sapped Libyan army morale. Its ranks were rife with horror stories of Chadians cutting off Libyan ears. Moreover, the administration of a landlocked country that has no mineral resources or industry and one of the world’s lowest per capita incomes proved to be so difficult that by the time the Libyans pulled out, Khadafy had been unable to pay civil service salaries or prevent the water, electricity or phone systems from collapsing.
Indeed, former French foreign trade minister Michel Jobert, for one, insists that Chad is ungovernable and “does not exist” as a political entity. With the nomadic Moslem desert tribes of the north historically hostile to the Christian cotton farmers of the south, no government has ever been able to control the entire territory. That makes it highly unlikely that either France or the United States can succeed where the nation’s own leaders have failed.
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