Most Americans are devoting what attention they have available to give towards foreign affairs to following along with the decision to expand the military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). But on Thursday, the White House announced that a small number of troops had been deployed to a country whose security situation makes the struggle in the Middle East look almost easy in comparison.
In a letter to Congress, President Obama said that approximately twenty U.S. personnel had been deployed to the Central African Republic on Wednesday “to support the resumption of the activities of the U.S. Embassy in Bangui.” The Embassy in the CAR first closed back in December 2012 due to the deteriorating security situation there, which saw a rebel alliance known as the Seleka making their way towards the capital.
“As a result of this suspension of operations, the embassy will not be able to provide routine consular services to American citizens in the Central African Republic until further notice,” the State Department said in a statement at the time. “This decision is solely due to concerns about the security of our personnel and has no relation to our continuing and long-standing diplomatic relations with the CAR.”
That rebellion succeeded in overthrowing the government, leading to members of the group taking their promised pay by raiding and pillaging the Central African countryside. The situation only deteriorated from there as last December saw a massive surge in the clashes between militias siding with the two major religious groups in the country. On one side were mostly Muslim former members of the Seleka. On the other, members of the Christian-aligned anti-balaka — or anti-machete — movement that coalesced around the idea of defending civilians from the Seleka, but has since committed scores of atrocities of its own.
That fighting, which still doesn’t have an official death toll but has been estimated to be in the thousands at least. A new tally released on Friday from the Associated Press found that “at least 5,186 people were killed in fighting between Muslims and Christians, based on a count of bodies and numbers gathered from survivors, priests, imams and aid workers in more than 50 of the hardest-hit communities.” That number, the AP continued, represents “more than double the death toll of at least 2,000 cited by the United Nations in April.”
But now the Americans are finally preparing to return with the twenty U.S. troops that Obama announced leading the way. “This force was deployed along with U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security personnel for the purpose of protecting U.S. Embassy personnel and property,” Obama’s letter continued. “This force is expected to remain in the Central African Republic until it is replaced by an augmented U.S. Marine Security Guard Detachment and additional U.S. Department of State.”
Though the letter didn’t provide an exact date for the embassy’s reopening, the timing of the announcement coincides with one of the most promising developments in months: the deployment of a fresh wave of peacekeepers. The United Nations in April approved a force of nearly 12,000 to help tamp down the violence that has continued to simmer in the CAR. Since then, the U.N. has been working to take over from the African Union, European Union, and French forces currently on the ground and integrate them into the blue helmeted-force.