Unfortunately, AIDS hampers the ability of Uganda and other African nations to maintain not only their own security but also that of their neighbors. Asked to send troops to the troubled Darfur region of Sudan, South Africa couldn’t field a complete battalion of uninfected troops; an estimated 17 to 23 percent of its military is HIV-positive, and tests in 2004 on two battalions found infection rates as high as 80 percent. “They had to kludge together units to get enough healthy troops to send,” says Wald, who retired from his post at European Command in July. Because African Union members contribute 37 percent of all United Nations peacekeepers, the shortage of healthy manpower has rippled out through the world’s hot spots and is of growing concern to the United States, which leaves peacekeeping duties mostly to other nations. “AIDS is a readiness issue,” says Richard Shaffer, a retired Navy commander who runs the Defense Department’s HIV/AIDS Prevention Program. “It’s not just having your weapon. It’s not just knowing how to use it. It’s being healthy enough to use it.”
Perhaps the only thing worse than having few peacekeepers ready to send is the risk to those who actually go. Eighty-one percent of UN peacekeepers are on missions in Africa, home to 60 percent of the world’s people living with AIDS. A 1999 study by the head of Nigeria’s medical corps found that the longer Nigeria’s soldiers were deployed as peacekeepers in Sierra Leone, the greater their chance of contracting HIV. Infection rates increased from 7 percent after one year abroad to 10 percent after two years, and to more than 15 percent after three years.
It’s not hard to see why. During a short stay in the Congolese city of Goma last year, I was shown a dozen or so children allegedly fathered by soldiers from the UN mission, including two light-skinned boys whose fathers were said to be Moroccan. One visitor to Bunia, where the fighting is most brutal, said that she had seen women stripping in the headlights of vehicles of soldiers on night patrol. “The United Nations has helped me a lot,” Bibishe, a twenty-five-year-old prostitute, told me. “They bought me the mattress I’m sleeping on. They bought me clothes.” In the courtyard of her brothel waited a drunken South African sergeant. It was about ten o’clock in the morning.
Since its beginnings in 1981, AIDS has infected about 65 million people worldwide, and killed more than 25 million of them. Yet in parts of Africa, the first waves of death are just beginning. Andrew Price-Smith, a political scientist at Colorado College, cites Zimbabwe, where the epidemic accelerated a general slide into chaos, as a warning of what might happen in other countries. “We’ve already peaked in terms of infections,” says Price-Smith. “Now we’re starting to see the mortalities crest. The subsequent wave will be the wave of economic and political disruption that follows.” Nigeria is another focus of concern, not so much because of its infection rate (which, at between 4 and 6 percent, is relatively low) but because of its general instability and its importance as an oil supplier. “When AIDS affects a large portion of a population, that creates instability,” said General William “Kip” Ward, who took over Wald’s position. “That instability can lead to conditions that are right for terrorist exploitation as they seek to recruit new followers.” While the security threat that AIDS poses is for now largely confined to Africa and Southeast Asia, stirrings of epidemics in Russia and India (which happens to be the third-biggest contributor of UN peacekeepers) are, given their size, strength, and strategic importance, more worrisome still.