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1960 - 2010: 50 Years of Austrian Participation in International Operations

50 years ago, Austrian soldiers took part, for the first time, in international operations, which calls for a short review and the attempt to draw conclusions from these five decades of international operations "in the service of peace".

Today, participation in international operations definitely passes as one of, if not the, major task of our Armed Forces. This was not always so. Until the end of the Cold War, large parts of the military establishment were not pleased to undertake international operations. United Nations Operations were regarded as a well-paid holiday or beach keeping beneath palm trees rather than as a task for Austrian soldiers.

Today, this has changed: The Austrian Armed Forces regard themselves as an operational army with a strong professional component. Participation in international operations is by most soldiers regarded as self-evident, and, in many cases, forms the basis for a good career. Experience abroad and foreign language skills are slowly gaining the same importance in the AAF as they have always had in civilian life, in private industry, and in academia.

What are peace support operations?

In this context certain terms are repeatedly used, however, they are often received in different ways. However, there are no generally valid definitions in the first place. For example, some regard peacemaking as diplomatic efforts to mediate, for others it means combat operations. Even the existing definitions by the UN, NATO, and others are not interpreted equally by everyone.

One model is as follows: Peace support operations mainly include three types of operations:

  • "traditional peacekeeping” is carried out between states or territories (e.g. the UN Force UNDOF on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria). With the agreement of the conflicting parties, a ceasefire is observed. The UN Force is not able to stop the attack by one side - this is not its task, either. Its mission is rather to build confidence through international presence and to prevent small incidents from escalating without anybody’s intention. These troops are often only lightly armed, military observers are usually totally unarmed (except for self-protection).
  • "wider peacekeeping” is, like traditional peacekeeping, consensual, i.e. based on the consent of the conflict parties, however, in an internal conflict. Although there are no ceasefire lines in this scenario, the international presence is to support a peaceful development. In the foreground are the (re-)construction of stable structures, the holding of elections, the creation of a reliable police and justice system etc. - thus the term "wider”. The military is to create security, which is only one of many components, though. Besides the military, police observers and civilian experts are becoming more and more important for the stabilisation of the area of operations. An example of such an operation is the EU force (EUFOR ALTHEA) in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • - "robust peacekeeping” - sometimes termed "enforcement” or "peace enforcement” - is similar to "wider peacekeeping” but based on the assumption that not all conflicting parties support the ceasefire or peace agreements and that force has to be employed against them. In a certain way, the EU-led operation in Chad tasked with the protection of refugee camps was an example of "robust peacekeeping”. The borders between "wider” and "robust” peacekeeping fluctuate in practice. Especially in internal conflicts, where the central government (if there is one) is often very weak, warlords and gang leaders act on a lower level, benefitting from the instability and not caring about whether or not a state authority has agreed to the deployment of international troops.

In the books these three types are sometimes labelled "generations”. However, this is not correct, since they represent three types of international operations, which exist side by side. Moreover, the second and third types have existed longer than the first one.

The aim of all three operations is to stabilise conflict regions. However, stabilisation is not yet a solution - conflict solution can always and only be reached by the conflicting parties themselves. The international community can support it and create the necessary conditions.

The beginning of Austrian participation in international operations

The tasks of the Austrian Armed Forces are clearly regulated in the Defence Act and in the Constitution: military national defence (at the beginning it was named border protection), and the national assistance operations, be it to maintain quiet and order or to help in case of natural catastrophes.

In 1960, five years after the signing of the State Treaty and Austria’s accession to the United Nations, these tasks were complemented by another one - participation in international operations mandated by the U.N. or by other international organisations.

At the beginning, it was by no means clear, whether international operations could be a task for the Austrian Armed Forces at all. The idea to participate in the United Nations Operation in the formerly Belgian Congo (today Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1960 came from the then Foreign Minister (and later Federal Chancellor) Dr. Bruno Kreisky, and not from the military. This participation was to strengthen Austria’s position within the international community on the one hand, and to win the United Nations’ support for Austria’s stance in the debate over more rights and autonomy for the German-speaking population of South Tyrol, on the other hand. (This approach was successful. It paved the way for the "South Tyrol Package” of 1969 and for the official declaration on dispute settlement by Austria and Italy towards the United Nations in 1992. This, in turn, was a precondition for Austria’s accession to the European Union in 1995.) The idea to participate in the UN’s Congo adventure did not come from the Ministry of Defence, and - with only few exceptions - the military was little pleased with this task, since both personnel and means were lacking. Besides, a legal basis for deploying units of the Austrian Armed Forces abroad had only existed since1965. For this reason, the UN Medical Contingent of the Republic of Austria, as it was finally named, was not formed as a part of the Austrian Armed Forces. The participants were sent on leave and, at the same time, newly employed by way of special contracts. It was only in 1965 that the formal requirements for such missions were established in the Federal Constitutional Act on the Deployment of Austrian Units for Aid Purposes Abroad upon Request by International Organisations (a.k.a. Deployment Act). Since 1997, the Federal Constitutional Act on Cooperation and Solidarity in Deploying Units and Individual Persons Abroad (KSE-BVG) has been in force.

In the Ministry of Defence international operations were long regarded as a task of less importance. In view of a permanent shortage of personnel and funds, many leading personalities were sceptical of a participation in international operations. Only slowly the conclusion was reached that these operations could well be regarded in terms of indirect profitability and that, by taking part, the Austrian volunteers would gain international experience concerning the operational environment. In addition, there were four other factors: The Austrian Blue Berets were indeed acting as advertisers for Austria and Austrian products. One example: The fact that numerous armies, from Ireland via Oman to Australia, are equipped with Austrian assault rifles (Steyr AUG/StG 77) was mainly due to the contacts abroad which were formed during peace support operations.

Austria and the UN:

Austria became a member of the UN in 1960 and, since then, has participated in international peace support operations. For Austria this entailed international recognition. From 1972 to 1981, an Austrian, namely former Foreign Minister and later Federal President, Dr. Kurt Waldheim, was Secretary General of the UN. So far, Austria has been a non-permanent member of the Security Council for three times (1973/74, 1991/92, and 2009/10). In its function as a seat of the United Nations, Vienna became more and more important and, since the handover of the "UNO-City”, is deemed the third "UN capital” after New York and Geneva. (Now, with Nairobi, in 1996 a fourth city has become official "UN seat”. Various Austrian officers have commanded UN missions since 1974.

Expansion of Austrian peace support operations

The participation in international operations was a step-by-step process: In 1960, it was the already mentioned medical contingent in Congo, which was deployed - in five rotations - until 1963. In 1964 followed another field hospital for Cyprus and, apart from that, up to 50 policemen, or rather, gendarmes.

In 1966, a United Nations reserve battalion was formed on the basis of the 1965 Deployment Act, which - upon request by the UN - was to be made available as a "stand-by-unit”. This unit, however, was not used for the time being. Instead, observation officers were deployed to the Middle East region as of 1967 and later on to other crisis regions too. In 1972 followed an infantry battalion for Cyprus, in 1973 another one for the crisis area Middle East, which has been deployed on the Golan Heights since 1974. Thus, within thirteen years, the Austrian participation in peacekeeping operations has increased, from formerly forty-five members of the first field hospital in 1960, to 950 troops at the end of 1973 (at twenty-fold augmentation, approximately) - since then, Austria has been ranking among the most important troop contributors within the United Nations.

The Austrian soldiers have stood their test in operations (this is true for the police as well as the gendarmes and civilian specialists, who, time and again, played an important part). This was - and still is - recognised by other states, leading Austria to a better self-assessment through international comparison. This seems especially important for a country which - due to the exceptional conditions of its neutrality during the Cold War - had been "isolated” for a long period of time.

The step-by-step increase of the participation in peacekeeping operations - from the field hospital in 1960 through policemen in 1964 to military observers in 1967 and the two battalions from 1972/73 - contributed to its comparably high acceptance by politicans and the public. This was by no means self-evident - for the first deployment took place only 15 years after the end of World War II, and numerous newspapers and parties commented the plans to send "our boys” to Africa very critically.

Not least because of this, the principle of voluntary deployment to international operations prevailed. Nobody was to be forced to participate against their will in an operation which, apart from the dangers in the area of operations, often causes extraordinary stress, due to the separation from one’s family and the accustomed environment. While there continued to be critical voices questioning the purpose and the legitimacy of such operations - which must and should not be denied at this point - the positive assessment of the Blue Berets always trumped the negative ones. This was also the case in 1974 when, at first, during a mine-related accident on the Golan Heights and, later, during the fights on Cyprus the first Austrian casualties had to be mourned.

All in all, almost 50 Austrians (out of 75,000 so far) have paid with their lives doing their duty "in the service of peace”. Numerous others were wounded or suffered for years from malaria and other insidious diseases. This sharply contrasts with the often cited but false image of the well-paid holiday mission, and the occasionally overstated reports of scandals related to alcohol and drug abuse in the area of operations. Due to the voluntariness and the high percentage of reserve personnel Austrian soldiers were and still are somewhat older than the young career soldiers of other armies. For this reason they had, and still have, more life experience, and prove especially successful in operations. Particularly in peace support operations patience, negotiating talent and improvisation skills are more crucial than the pure martial qualities. This does not mean that Austrians have not been successful in more robust operations like in Kosovo, Afghanistan or, more recently, Chad.

Until the end of the East-West conflict in 1989/90 the numbers of troops deployed to United Nations operations remained on approximately the same level as in 1973: two battalions (one on Cyprus and one on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights), and some military observers, i.e. 850 soldiers, all in all. The Austrian police contingent on Cyprus was withdrawn in 1977.

The new world order after 1989

In 1989 new framework conditions were introduced. The previous division of the globe during the Cold War transformed into a (not always frictionless) cooperation of the powers, in terms of a new world order, as it was proclaimed by the then U.S. President George Bush in 1991. Surmounting the previous division would - hopefully - lead to justice, fairness and the protection of the weak, being the new guidelines of international politics. The United Nations Organisation, marginalised over four decades by the East-West conflict, was to play an important role again.

Unfortunately, these hopes, as is known now, turned out to be way too optimistic. However, it was possible from 1989 to act and intervene internationally (instead of bilaterally), and within a far bigger area than ever before. The successful United Nations assistance with the transition of the former German colony Southwest Africa or Namibia to independence (1989/90) and the UN-mandated campaign to liberate Kuwait (1990/91) were only the beginning of a hardly manageable multitude of operations, from Cambodia to Haiti, from Yugoslavia to Ruanda, and from Somalia to East Timor. Critics soon called this development "mushrooming” - the rapid growth of new missions, similarly to the sprouting of mushrooms after rain. Finally, this led to a strain of resources. The number of Blue Berets deployed worldwide increased from about 10,000 during the Cold War period to 85,000 around 1995.

However, not all of these operations were successful. On the contrary, the general appraisal of the UN "recipe for success called peacekeeping” quickly changed into condemnation of the world organisation, which seemed to fail at whatever it did. Both assessments, however, were overrated. On the one hand, there had never been a "recipe of success called peacekeeping”, because the international presence was able to defuse conflicts, but unable to solve them. On the other hand, the success of international operations always depended on the political will of the international community to react correctly and to supply the necessary means and mandates for a long enough time. However, much too often many governments were not prepared to act, or only hesitatingly, or only within certain limits. As a consequence we saw catastrophes like the one in Somalia or in former Yugoslavia. Above all, however, the UN as a rather inflexible institution, due to its structure, showed little ability to lead in more robust peacekeeping or even combat missions.

As a consequence we saw a distribution of missions - besides the UN-led peacekeeping missions and transitional administrations there were more robust operations, which should have been conducted by NATO or ad-hoc coalitions. Other organisations, like the CSCE/OSCE (Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, since 1995 Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, with its head office in Vienna) or the European Union, took over international crisis management tasks, often after consultation or together with the UN and NATO. From 1996 the number of Blue Berets in UN missions decreased to 14,000, but - due to numerous operations in Africa - has increased again to over 100,000 persons.

International operations cannot solve conflicts - this can only be accomplished by the conflicting parties themselves. The international community, however, can help by stabilising the situation through troops and international presence, thus enforcing the end of combat actions. The hope to be able to enforce a solution to conflicts must remain an illusion. However, much has been accomplished if international intervention prevents a conflict from spreading and, at least, succeeds in containing fighting, massacre, murders, rapes and devastation.

Austria’s involvement in international operations after 1989/90

For Austria the development of peacekeeping operations after 1989/90 entailed a new challenge, namely to become more strongly committed, while maintaining a clear balance between setting its priorities, on the one hand, and being present in as many missions as possible, on the other hand. This did not always prove an easy task. Since the mission in Southwest Africa/Namibia in 1989/90, there have been - alongside the soldiers - more policemen in operation. Since the observer missions in Nicaragua (1990) and in support of the peace process in South-Africa (1994), civilian specialists have participated as well. In addition, the missions in Ex-Yugoslavia (since 1994), Albania (1997 and 1999), and Kosovo (since 1999) showed a clear geographic focus on south-eastern Europe - the nearer neighbourhood, so to speak, of the "Alpine Republic”.

A certain limitation (not always understood internationally) of the Austrian commitment resulted from the still valid provisions of the Neutrality Act of 1955. Therefore, Austria did not participate in armed conflicts, like the UN campaign to liberate Kuwait (1991), the NATO air-campaign against Yugoslavia (1999), or the war on Iraq (2003), even if it supported these operations politically, to a certain extent.

Through its accession to the European Union (1995) and the requirements of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, or rather, the European Security and Defence Policy (CFSP or ESDP), Austria became, more and more, a partner in the common European security policy of the EU. Accordingly, Austria also participated in the stabilising operations that followed the abovementioned wars/conflicts by using its military, police, and humanitarian assets. Austria’s participation in the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP, since 1995) is an important contribution to security and stability. International exercises and common standards continually improve cooperation among the states during peace support operations.

In view of the new conditions, the military leaders, too, realised the growing importance of international operations. Now such operations constitute, without any doubt, one of the most crucial tasks of the Austrian Armed Forces in general. Consequently, the Austrian Foreign Operations Command, established in 1987, was transformed into the Austrian International Operations Command in 1999 (at first in Götzendorf, since 2002 in Graz) and re-valued. In 2007, it was merged with the three other higher commands (Land Forces Command, Air Force Command, Special Operations Forces Command) in the Joint Forces Command (Graz and Salzburg). The Joint Service Support Command as well as the Joint Command Support Command are also incorporated into international operations.

Formation of the contingents for international operations

At the beginning of the first missions, the identification and preparation of the volunteers for international operations took place in a rather improvised manner. With the formation of the UN Reserve Battalion (1965), the subsequent linking of the contingents for international operations to existing units and, finally, the creation of a special command, identification and preparation became better organised. However, due to the principle of voluntariness, Austria could, as a matter of principle, not deploy any existing units abroad. Instead, special contingents were formed for each new operation and renewed through regular rotations, whereby - according to possibility - only half a contingent is replaced in order to guarantee continuity in an operation. Although this principle has proved successful in practice, it makes reaction to new challenges difficult.

To guarantee the improved and accelerated provision of troops for international operations, various models have been developed. In the mid-nineties these were the "Austrian Armed Forces Prepared Units” (VOREIN), which could be configured for specific operations in a module-like way. Certain national units were functioning as "home-base units” for the contingents during operations preparation. It was also with a view to Austrian participation in EU-led operations that the system of "Forces for International Operations” was developed. Because of the voluntary enlistment of longer-serving soldiers for international operations it became possible to create the so-called "Stand-by Forces for First Missions”, i.e. rapidly deployable forces with a short lead time. Already this system proved successful at the rapid relocation of re-enforcements for the peacekeeping troops in Kosovo during the riots in March 2004.

However, the means for expanding these operations quickly turned out to be insufficient in view of the traditionally under-endowed budget of the Austrian Armed Forces. With the transport unit in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1996 to 2001) and the battalion in Kosovo (since 1999), in addition to the two UN battalions on Cyprus and in Syria, the contribution had, within a few years, increased from two to three and a half battalions. Therefore, the operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Cyprus (except staff personnel) were terminated. Apart from these bigger operations, contingents of company strength were operating in Albania in 1997 as well as in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2005. Numerous monitoring and humanitarian operations are to be added.

Since 1995 Austria has integrated contingents from neighbouring countries - such as Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Germany, and Switzerland - to be part of the battalions on Cyprus, in Syria and Kosovo. In 2005/06 Austria was the lead nation of the brigade-strong Multinational Task Force Northeast in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina; in 2008/09 followed the lead of the Multinational Task Force South in Kosovo (see TD 1/2009, "The Lead of MNTFS/KFOR”). At the end of 2009, the Austrian Major General Bair took over the command of the EU-led unit (EUFOR ALTHEA) in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Humanitarian operations and civilian experts

Austria has a long tradition of participating in humanitarian operations and of sending civilian experts abroad. This started with the assistance operation after the earthquake in Skopje in 1963 and the dispatch of medical teams to Nigeria between 1968 and 1970. In addition, die Austrians were in the lead concerning the development of appropriate international structures, especially after the devastating earthquake in Armenia in December 1988, which brought to light the existing deficiencies of leadership in international disaster relief. This operation eventually became the starting point for the creation of a disaster relief unit of the Austrian Armed Forces, namely the "Austrian (Armed) Forces Disaster Relief Unit” (AFDRU), under the command of the NBC Defence School in Vienna (now in Korneuburg). Assistance operations like, for example, during the floods in Poland (1997) and Mozambique (2000), after the earthquakes in Taiwan and Turkey (1999), in Algeria and in Iran (2003), as well as after the tsunami in Southeast Asia (2004/05), have been conducted by this unit.

Law enforcement operations gained in importance, too. Especially regarding stabilisation after internal conflicts and civil wars, policemen are as important as soldiers - both fulfil different tasks that are complementary to the other. Apart from that, Austrian experts were also involved in the UN special committees tasked with the search for and destruction of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after 1991.

In the field of arms control, verification, and confidence-building, Austria can contribute with its many years of experience. During the past years, in particular, humanitarian and economic aid measures (key word: CIMIC = civil-military cooperation) have become a crucial element of international peace support operations. What is important in this context is the link between the stabilisation of crisis areas and economic reconstruction. Thus, the economic effort is particularly important. Therefore, functioning economic relations are by no means immoral (as it is maintained by some), but, on the contrary, an indispensable prerequisite for a lasting peace process. On this basis a special CIMIC-Centre was created at the Joint Forces Command in Graz.

From Congo to Chad

After having taken part repeatedly in operations in Africa since the 1990s - if only with some military observers or policemen - Austria participated in the EU-led mission in Chad, which was transferred to the already existing U.N.-led operation there in 2009. The aim of the operation was the protection of refugee camps, especially for refugees from the neighbouring Sudanese province of Darfur. Since 2003, there had been continuous acts of serious violence committed by mounted militias against the local population. For the first time since 1960, heavy national political debates concerning this operation set in, in which the point and the purpose of this mission were questioned as well as the ability of the Austrian Armed Forces to conduct such a mission. Indeed, the deployed contingents proved successful, especially that of the Special Forces. This EU-led operation undoubtedly contributed to the fact that security in this region was at least at times increased.

Five criteria for peace support operations

The three types of peace support operations have five criteria in common:

  • an international mandate (usually by the UN Security Council, the body exclusively entitled to order the use of force);
  • the multinational character of troops or the personnel;
  • the purpose of preserving or re-creating a state of affairs (e.g. monitoring the disengagement of troops) or of enabling an orderly transition (e.g. to lead a former colony or province into independence - as it was the case in Southwest Africa/Namibia or East Timor-Leste);
  • the operation is based on the agreement or, in any case, happens in the interest of the host nation - i.e. no conquest of foreign territory is included; and
  • limitation of damage ("minimum damage”), thus with the lowest possible and adequate level of force ("measured force”).

Petersberg and other operations:

At times, terms like "Operations Other Than War” (OOTW), "Crisis Response Operations” (CRO), "Peace and Stability Operations”, "Petersberg Tasks”, etc. are used. Although all of these terms also include peace support operations, they refer to such operations as the fighting of militia, hostage liberation, and humanitarian operations of various forms, which certainly cannot be grouped among peace support operations in the narrower sense. For example, the NATO air-campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999 (Operation "Allied Force”) was labelled a "Petersberg Task” (humanitarian tasks, rescue operations, peacekeeping tasks as well as combat operations in crisis management including peace enforcement measures) - however, this was certainly not a peace support operation. All in all, it can be said that these terms rather cause confusion, since they do not refer to a specific type of operation, and should be avoided.

At one glance

Although it is difficult to indicate exact figures, it can be assumed that about 75,000 Austrians have taken part in peace support and humanitarian operations since 1960 (this figure relates to completed operations, not to individuals). This is remarkable for a small country like Austria.

For the Austrian Armed Forces international operations now represent one of their most important tasks. This must not be regarded as a contradiction to the mission of national defence. Especially in terms of a comprehensive interpretation of security, the participation in peace support operations is not only an element of foreign politics, but also a considerable contribution to stability around the world - and thus a quasi pre-emptive contribution to European and Austrian security. This can, in some cases, happen in a very direct way (e.g. south-eastern Europe) or also indirectly in other cases (e.g. East Timor, Afghanistan or Chad). These operations are also part of the responsibility that Austria, as a stable and comparably wealthy country, has towards the rest of the world.

Even if the threats and dangers have changed their face in the course of the past two decades, and have to be met accordingly, certain principles are still in force. This also involves the realization that such operations cannot be completed within a few months but require the readiness to stay longer, often for decades, in the host nation (e.g. UNDOF/AUSBATT). Since peace building is a long, strenuous, and painful process. The alternative, namely the eruption of further combat actions, would cause the victims even more pain, and thus would even less contribute to a permanent solution.

Unfortunately, there are no signs that international peace support operations will become superfluous - on the contrary: For Austria, the participation in UN-led operations since 1960 represents a crucial element of its foreign policy, and there is no reason to change this principle.

During the last decade, Austria has been increasingly committed to operations in south-eastern Europe. It will be the future task of the Austrian foreign and security policy to determine the parameters for further participation in peace support operations, while taking into account Austria’s special obligations due to its EU-membership as well as the necessity to participate in higher-risk operations, in view of international solidarity.

From the increase of international tasks for the Austrian Armed Forces results the imminent challenge to supply financial, material, and personal resources to a clearly higher extent than so far in order for these guidelines to be observed.

By: Dr. habil. Erwin A. Schmidl

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