With the European Union focused on the crisis in Ukraine, plans to deploy an EU military force to help end ethnic violence in the Central African Republic (CAR) are looking decidedly uncertain. EU foreign ministers on March 17 underlined the “need to speed up work on the preparation” of the mission but with key equipment and personnel still lacking, the expected launch of the mission has now been set for late-April. Don’t hold your breath, however.

The delay is tragic for CAR where the ethnic conflict has already claimed thousands of lives and EU troops are desperately needed to help African Union and French forces struggling to prevent a full-fledged civil war.

It is also undeniably unfortunate for the EU’s much publicized hopes of establishing its credentials as an international security actor. France has justifiably accused its EU partners of not living up to their word and shirking responsibility for global security. General Philippe Ponties, head of the planned EU military operation in the CAR (EUFOR), says it is the political crisis in Ukraine which is distracting EU governments.

Although France, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Portugal and Spain have agreed to contribute to the mission, Ponties has warned that the launch still needs logistical support of about 100 soldiers, ranging from medical to logistical needs. The EU plan agreed in January – following a United Nations Security Council resolution in December 2013 – calls for the dispatch of 800 to 1,000 soldiers to join 6,000 African and 2,000 French troops who are struggling to stop the ethnic cleansing of CAR’s Muslim population. The EU force would focus on providing security in the capital Bangui and at Bangui airport, where around 70,000 people who have fled the violence are living in dire conditions.

It’s not just the crisis in Ukraine which is responsible for the EU’s slow response to the humanitarian tragedy in CAR. Undoubtedly, it is the ghosts of the last ten years that are haunting Europe’s response to the crisis. Since 1991, European nations have undertaken multiple interventions in the world’s trouble spots, with varying degrees of success. The last ten years in Afghanistan and especially Iraq have been a humbling and deeply disturbing experience, producing a reluctance to ever again send large, expeditionary forces overseas. As a result, in the streets of Bangui, the ghosts of Rwanda are coming face to face with the reality of the challenges in Afghanistan.

The overthrow in March 2013 of President François Bozizé by majority Muslim Séléka militias was the catalyst for the recent wave of bloodshed in CAR. With the state increasingly fragmented and a cycle of violence developing, people’s identities increasingly came to be defined by ethnic and religious differences. By December last year, terms such as genocide were being used as Christian ‘anti-balaka’ militias, eager for payback following Bozizé’s ouster, ethnically cleansed the Muslim neighbourhoods in the capital of Bangui and in the wider countryside.

The French-African Union intervention faltered not long after arriving. The limited force levels soon proved problematic, with foreign forces disarming militias where possible but unable to move into the countryside, where the greatest numbers of atrocities were occurring. The number of peacekeepers involved in Operation Sangaris is not enough to stabilise Bangui and the surrounding areas. Even before the intervention force arrived, 70,000 Muslim refugees had taken shelter in the French base at Bangui international airport, one million more were on the move internally and starvation threatened over half of CAR’s 4 million people.

Thus almost twenty years after the international community’s failure in Rwanda and the Great Lakes, a small number of international peacekeepers are once again protecting limited safe areas, surrounded by escalating violence they cannot control, in a society at war with itself.

In fact, EU battle groups which have been on standby since 2007, were created for such a circumstance, to deploy under a legal United Nations mandate to protect civilians and avert another humanitarian tragedy in the heart of Africa. The battle groups, however, are not being sent or even considered. This leads to the assumption that smaller, more targeted interventions, are likely to be the trend of future Western military operations. Clearly few in Europe or North America wish a repeat of the last decade when thousands of troops on the ground engaged an enemy that does not wear uniforms.

The current climate is very different from the mood in the 1990s when arguments for humanitarian intervention were at their strongest and large Western-led multinational forces sought to help rebuild failed states. The moral certainty the West displayed in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and Sierra Leone has been replaced by a hard-learned realism and a hesitancy to place boots on the ground. In CAR, an increased EU security role beyond logistical support is unlikely and a major ground deployment is largely unthinkable.

Europe will therefore very likely accept a far lighter military footprint and focus on financial and humanitarian efforts in countries like CAR. The EU has just agreed to give 81 million euros in humanitarian assistance to the country. Such assistance is vital. But as EU and African leaders are likely to underline at the EU-Africa Summit in Brussels, on April 2-3, the security situation in CAR means it will be difficult, if not impossible, to ensure the distribution of the aid. Past conflicts have also shown that providing humanitarian aid keeps refugees from starving, but does not halt ethnic cleansing.

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