Sierra Leone is once again about to dissolve in violence. This time, however, it threatens to take the United Nations with it. A rebel leader bent on undermining a peace agreement faces a poorly organized, ill-equipped peacekeeping force that has been denied the political support that is critical to its success. If members of the Security Council do not muster the will to restore order, the credibility of the world body could be irreparably damaged.

There were no illusions about the situation in Sierra Leone when foreign troops moved in to help rebuild the country. An eight-year civil war had ravaged the country. The rebel troops of Mr. Foday Sankoh had first taken up arms to fight a corrupt and incompetent regime. But as the war continued, they committed horrific atrocities, killing thousands and hacking off the limbs of hundreds of defenseless civilians. Last July, African leaders brokered a peace agreement between President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and Mr. Sankoh. As part of the deal, the U.N. took over peacekeeping duties from a Nigerian-led West African group. Some 11,000 troops are supposed to police the agreement and complete the disarmament and demobilization of rebel groups in time for an election scheduled for next year.

If the contingent reaches full strength, it will be the U.N.’s biggest peacekeeping force. If it does not, it is sure to be the world body’s biggest headache. If the governments behind the deployment are not committed to keeping and enforcing a real peace, troop strength will be irrelevant. So far, that last ugly alternative is prevailing.

The situation began to deteriorate last week when the African peacekeepers pulled out of the country as scheduled, and the U.N. forces were to replace them. The rebels then seized U.N. soldiers after a dispute over disarmament. Up to 500 U.N. personnel, including peacekeepers, have been taken hostage; a number have reportedly been killed.

The chaos spread to the capital of Freetown after erroneous reports that the rebels were marching on the city. A rally against the violence exploded when rebel troops fired on demonstrators marching toward Mr. Sankoh’s house, killing several. The rebel leader’s whereabouts are unknown; reportedly he is under the protective custody of army troops. His troops control the diamond-producing areas of the country, which affords him and his supporters ready access to funds if they choose to resume the war. Britain has dispatched troops to evacuate foreign nationals, but the British government has said that it will not intervene in the fighting.

The unraveling of the peacekeeping mission would be a body blow to U.N. credibility. After the high-profile failures of peacekeeping operations in Somalia and Rwanda, officials from the U.N. and other permanent members of the Security Council — most notably the United States — pledged “never again.” Yet once again, peace is deteriorating and the political will needed to restore order is nowhere to be seen. The troop deployment is not at full strength, nor are the peacekeepers trained or equipped for their mission. The governments that have promised troops do not have the airlift capabilities to get them to Sierra Leone. U.N. officials this week complained of being forced to conduct “peacekeeping on a shoestring.”

This is inexplicable. The U.N. has invested considerable time and money in Africa. Thirteen of the 32 U.N. peacekeeping operations of the last decade were on the continent. The organization understood the stakes in Sierra Leone, and was well acquainted with Mr. Sankoh’s disdain for any restrictions on his freedom of maneuver.

While the immediate concern is Sierra Leone, the effects of the U.N. failure will be felt elsewhere. This crisis comes as the U.N. debates yet another mission in Congo. There, too, the signs are ominous. Earlier this week, Uganda and Rwanda signed an agreement to withdraw their troops from Kinshasa and permit U.N. forces to move in. The ceasefire was broken within 24 hours. It is only a matter of time before other groups will feel obliged to test the U.N.’s determination in other peacekeeping operations, such as those in Bosnia, Kosovo or East Timor. And the government of Lebanon has already asked the organization to help fill the vacuum when Israel pulls its forces from Southern Lebanon.

The U.N. has asked Nigeria, which led the earlier African peacekeeping force, to return to Sierra Leone and help restore order. It has not yet responded. But at a summit earlier this week, West African leaders warned the rebels to release the U.N. hostages or face unspecified consequences. They are likely to deliver; the U.N.’s determination is not as certain.

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