Foreign Policy Blogs

The Democratic Republic of Congo: When All Else Fails, Try Counter-Insurgency


Last March, after seeing its nearly 20,000-strong peacekeeping force embarrassed by Congolese rebels in armed clashes outside of Goma, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) second biggest city, the U.N.  Security Council decided unanimously to deploy 3,000 troops to act as an “intervention brigade” in the eastern part of the country. The intervention brigade was given an unprecedented mandate to undertake offensive operations alone or in concert with Congolese troops in order to defeat the more than 30 armed rebel groups operating near Lake Kivu.

This mandate could be a defining moment in the history of U.N. peacekeeping operations.  The U.N.’s blue helmets are rarely given the authority to engage armed groups without being fired on first, let alone tasked with finding and eliminating armed groups, and the brigade is the first such unit ever created under the aegis of a U.N. peacekeeping force. In essence, the U.N. has signed off on a counter-insurgency operation in one of the most troubled spots in the world, entrusting its troops with the responsibility for ensuring the safety of local civilians and for establishing conditions that will allow for the DRC government in the distant capital, Kinshasa, eventually to regain control of the region.

While Africans across the continent have seen their living standards rise and economies grow, life for many in the DRC remains grim.  Millions have lost their lives in the civil war and countless others have been ruined by the continuing violence and destruction. Rape is commonplace in eastern DRC, and armed rebel groups control large swathes of mineral-rich land while an ineffectual and corrupt government looks on helplessly. What began as an ethnic conflict in neighboring Rwanda has descended into a chaotic situation involving myriad local armed groups, interference from outside countries, and long-standing grievances over land rights and citizenship.

While such conditions demand an innovative response, will the new brigade prove capable of protecting civilians even with its unique mandate? And can it finally do more than pretend to keep a peace that has not existed for years? Perhaps. But cautious optimism is needed.

First, the soldiers composing the brigade do not inspire a great deal of confidence. South Africa is one of three countries, along with Malawi and Tanzania, contributing soldiers to the new cadre. Its troops, however, failed to prevent a coup in the Central Africa Republic earlier this year, resulting in the death of at least 13 of its soldiers. Following these losses, South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma, announced the withdrawal of all troops from the country. As such, South Africa may not have the stomach to withstand the intense guerrilla fighting likely to take place in eastern DRC, let alone the infliction of heavy casualties by the rebels. This, combined with the logistical headaches of the three countries working in concert with troops from different countries, may prove too much for the regional power to overcome. It has already been reported that troop deployment has been delayed, with only a quarter of the troops in place thus far.

Second, it does not appear that the brigade will have the resources necessary to hold the territory it secures from rebel forces, meaning Congolese government forces will be responsible for maintaining security gains and working with the local populations to restore political institutions, reduce corruption and deal with ethnic tensions. This is a tall order for any army, let alone the undisciplined troops who make up the DRC’s, and could seriously damage the U.N.’s already weak standing in the country. In 2009, the U.N. performed joint operations with the Congolese military against the region’s armed groups, only to see atrocities committed by government troops against civilians. The fallout from the joint operations was so devastating that the U.N. was compelled to create a new Human Rights Due Diligence Policy, pledging that its peacekeepers would not be used as a smokescreen for human rights violations perpetrated by others. In spite of these measures, there is no indication that the conduct of Congolese government forces has improved since then. According to the U.N., over 100 women were raped last November by retreating government troops after rebel forces seized control of Goma.

These very individuals are meant to be the U.N.’s allies in the DRC and continued human rights violations could turn the local population against all U.N. forces, including not only the brigade but also the 17,000-odd members of the U.N. force with more traditional peacekeeping duties, making it harder for those forces to provide protection to the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons in the region.

Finally, attempts at a political solution to resolve the conflict leave much to be desired. The peace framework agreement signed by eleven heads of states in February of this year made no reference to M23, the largest rebel group in eastern DRC, which had been integrated into the Congolese armed forces in 2009 only to defect and resume its insurgency campaign in May 2012.  What’s more, the framework does not include benchmarks for success, has no plan to tackle corruption and poverty, and provides no money for the goal of rehabilitating the DRC’s security sector. No matter how successful the intervention brigade is on the battlefield, a convincing diplomatic mechanism is needed to persuade the various armed factions in eastern DRC to agree to a lasting settlement. This is ultimately the most important international tool for ending the conflict and protecting those at risk.

In spite of the considerable risks inherent in its approach, the intervention brigade does enjoy widespread support from U.N. member nations, and the decision to create the new cadre of fighters doubtlessly required months of painstaking, thoughtful diplomacy. Moreover, in recent months M23 has been significantly weakened – for example, its leader, Bosco Ntaganda, has been sent to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, where he is being tried for crimes against humanity. Hundreds of rebel fighters have since laid down their arms. Further, the U.N. is to be applauded for strengthening its peacekeepers’ mandate and having the courage to apply creative thinking to address a conflict in an area of the world where countless strategies have been employed since U.N. operations in the region began 14 years ago.

If the intervention brigade proves capable and is able to take the fight to the rebels, its success could usher in a new period of more robust peacekeeping operations for the U.N. and illustrate that the world body is not destined to stand by idly and merely observe human suffering.