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New African Standby Force Faces First Test

The mythical island nation of Carana, off the east coast of Africa, is in a state of near-collapse, and African Union rapid deployment forces are battling to save it. That is the scenario being played out this week in a crisis-response exercise involving military, civilian and police units from across Africa.

Soldiers wearing the uniforms of six different African countries huddle around a map at strategic command post Carana. They are considering how to respond to deteriorating conditions in Carana, a fictional diamond-rich African island where regional stability is threatened by well-financed gangs challenging an unpopular government.

It looks and sounds real, but this strategy session is part of a training exercise designed to test newly created rapid-response forces in each of Africa's five regions. Two years of work is culminating this month in a combined operation involving 120 of the continent's best-trained crisis responders.

The scenario may be fictitious, but Sivuyile Bam, head of the African Union's Peace Support Operations Division says Exercise Carana draws on real-life conflicts.

"In Exercise Carana, it is about unstable government, a government that is unpopular, a government having challenges, security forces refusing to take command, security forces taking sides in the conflict, which is typical of most African countries when they have a conflict of this nature," Bam said. "We as the African Union are coming in to support this government and ensure it does its work."

The Exercise Carana scenario starts with a premise that A.U. peacekeepers have been deployed. But since the mission arrived four months ago, conditions have worsened. Criminal gangs have seized control of a strategic diamond mine. Hundreds of people have been killed, tens of thousands of others displaced, and rogue elements are said to be using rape as a weapon to intimidate locals.

South African navy Captain Kobus Maasdorp is part of a command-post team considering what components to include in a rapid-response mission.

"Conditions are really dire in Carana.," Maasdorp said. " One of the main rebel groups had gone into the political mainstream, but an offspring from the rebel group has now become radical and they are causing a lot of problems where the capability of the African Union mission is being stretched almost beyond their capability and we could possibly in the next couple days have to strengthen the mission in Carana in terms of feet on the ground and equipment."

Lea Barasa is a training officer in a civilian component of the East Africa Standby Force based in Nairobi. She says a multi-dimensional response is needed to head off Carana's escalating crisis.

"We are looking at peace support operations in establishing governance structures that will enable Carana to stabilize," said Barasa. "Especially the justice systems, human rights commissions being seen in Carana region, especially gender-based violence, the child protection issues and the whole situation where people do not feel safe any more."

In a speech marking the start of Exercise Carana, AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping said the regional standby forces give Africa greater ownership of peace and security on the continent. He said the need for a homegrown force was underscored by the world's inadequate response to crises in places like Rwanda and Somalia.

"The international community could not always be relied on to address all the threats to peace and security on the African continent. Indeed, Somalia and Rwanda were painful lessons for us all," Ping said.

Exercise Carana planner Kobus Maasdorp predicts Africa's rapid response units will be the model for global peacekeepers of the future.

"I am no prophet, but I can tell you this," said Maasdorp. "Once we have operationalized the African Standby Force and we have deployed, and people get used to the fact that we have this tool, the African Standby Force will become a global peace force. I can tell you that."

The exercise is set to conclude October 29th. Results will be presented at a joint African Union-European Union summit next month in Libya.