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Finishing tour, top UN military adviser sees rising confidence in peacekeeping

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The Military Adviser to the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), who is retiring today, said that coping with burgeoning new mandates in recent years has boosted the success of UN operations overall.

"Managing the surge, managing to sustain and increase the interests of peacekeeping, managing to maintain a strong relationship and understanding with a number of multinational and regional organizations," has resulted in "a greater sense of confidence in the legitimacy of peacekeeping," said Major-General Randhir Kumar Mehta of India told the UN News Service.

Since he began providing strategic advice to DPKO in early 2005, peacekeeping staff has grown from 60,000 to 100,000 with contributing countries increasing from 103 to 115, and new operations in Darfur, Chad and the Central African Republic in various stages of planning.

General Mehta said managing these complex tasks has required a rise in operational flexibility and innovative relationships with regional organizations and individual Member States.

Examples of these new arrangements include the multinational force led by Australia in Timor-Leste, the French force supporting UN operations in Côte d'Ivoire and the move toward a hybrid mission with the African Union in Darfur.

"Adaptability, creativity and flexibility - I'm very proud of it," he said.

The arrangements with other entities, he added, will only grow in importance, because experience has shown that long-term commitment to countries is needed to keep them from lapsing back into conflict.

On the military side that means training for security sector, as well as DDR - Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration of former combatants - which can take decades, he said.

Among other observations as he prepared to retire, General Mehta emphasized that gaps of communication in the UN system - between the Security Council and General Assembly Committees and various Secretariat departments - must be bridged.

In addition, he stressed that Council mandates must be more quickly translated to operational tactics - checkpoints, protection of convoys, patrolling, dominating areas of ground - within the political considerations that are always paramount.

He said learned much about working within UN limitations under high tension when he was assigned to his first UN position as a sector commander in Sierra Leone in May 2000, when 250 peacekeepers were being held under siege by rebels.

Making sure that the right resources were in place - including a pioneering use of attack helicopters with night time capability - he launched an operation in early July that year that rescued the peacekeepers with minimal loss of life, and "broke the back" of the insurgency.

The use of better enabling equipment, such as attack helicopters, and more robust mandates have helped bolster the effectiveness in UN operations in recent years, but the general principles have remained the same, he said: "We never forget that force must be applied only as a last resort."

In addition to his command in Sierra Leone, General Mehta said he was able to draw on the prodigious experience of the Indian military in peacekeeping operations, which dates from Korea in 1953 and includes seminal peacekeepers such as the advisor to former Secretary-Generals Dag Hammarskjöld and U Thant, Indar Jit Rikhye, who passed away earlier this month.

He said the top troop contributing countries - Pakistan, Bangladesh and India - have had extremely good coordination under the UN flag, despite their complex relations as neighbours.

He noted that soon after his arrival as military advisor, blue helmets in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were ambushed and Bangladeshi and Pakistani battalions were seamlessly supported by Indian helicopters.

General Mehta, who is retiring from the Indian Military after 41 years on the same day as he relinquishes his UN duties, is particularly proud of his country's recent deployment of the first-ever UN female police contingent, which he says are operationally proven and not just tokens.

"You know, in our legends, the male deities are occasionally defeated, but the female deities never are," he said.