No Quiet on the Eastern Front: A Different Force Needed for Congo

in Program

By Alix Boucher and Max Kelly – In a recent interview, the Indian Commander of UN forces in the eastern Congolese province of North Kivu railed against the world’s unrealistic expectations of the mission. Known by the acronym MONUC, the UN operation has proven unable to protect civilians as the region has been wracked by the latest round of violence. Brigadier General Bipin Rawat told the UK’s Daily Telegraph that he lacks the men, materiel, and mandate to take on General Nkunda’s Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) rebels: “I have not been equipped to fight. If I’m going to fight, I need an expeditionary force.” General Rawat’s blunt assessment is a reality check for the international community. What he is suggesting amounts to a UN-authorized enforcement action akin to the French-led Operation Artemis in another part of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2003, rather than a peacekeeping operation. It may be what the Congo needs, but the UN is not capable of conducting that kind of operation on its own.

With roughly 17,000 troops, MONUC ranks among the most robust operations the UN has mounted since the end of the Cold War. But it pales in comparison with the challenges it faces. The DRC is the size of Western Europe and lacks even a single passable road linking the capital to its Eastern regions. Its difficult terrain harbors dozens of armed groups connected to the endemically corrupt central government in Kinshasa by a dizzying web of shifting alliances and interests. The national armed forces and police are notorious for preying on Congolese civilians rather than protecting them. They generate more fear amongst civilians when in retreat than amongst their opponents during offensives. Peace deals have proven to last only until they impinge on the ability of the parties to enrich themselves through resource exploitation. The number and size of belligerent groups, the geography, and the intensity of the fighting that periodically breaks out all vastly outstrip MONUC’s size, capabilities, and concept of operations.

Congo is not unique in this regard. Darfur, Chad, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq. The litany of failed states plagued by insurgency and weak or predatory governments is familiar. In response to pressure – often to protect civilians – the international community often turns to the UN for solutions when powerful states are reluctant to intervene directly. In doing so, Member States ignore the UN’s inherent limitations: UN operations were conceived not to alter the strategic balance in conflicts, but hold them static. Peacekeeping missions are avowedly impartial in environments that require partiality. The civilians they are increasingly expected to protect are not merely unlucky bystanders to war, but often deliberately targeted for reasons of ideology or opportunity. Incentive structures in civil conflicts are not the same as those found in international ones: they are less susceptible to the kinds of leverage that the UN can apply – sanctions and international disapproval, for example. In this context, relying on the good faith of the belligerents is a recipe for disaster, as demonstrated repeatedly by the UN operations in the Congo and Darfur.

Bringing peace to places like the DRC requires reducing the benefits and increasing the costs of insurgency. Securing the populace is key to easing inter-communal tensions and preventing the emergence of self-defense groups that inevitably morph into brutal militias bent on power and profit. Doing so requires forces that are willing not only to react to attacks on civilians, but to launch systematic campaigns to neutralize rebel groups that refuse to disarm. This requires an inherently partial approach with a clear vision of the desired end state, a strategy to achieve that goal, and the resources – military, political, and financial – to do so. In contrast to UN forces, the military component must have the capability, willingness, and political backing to take swift and decisive action wherever and whenever it is necessary. MONUC demonstrated this principle briefly and on a limited basis in the Ituri of northeastern Congo in 2005/06: sustained robust operations led to the demobilization and reintegration of an estimated 16,000 combatants.

This isn’t to suggest that the answer to Congo’s instability is purely military. A negotiated settlement, communal reconciliation, and state-building initiatives are the only way to achieve a durable peace in the region. However, political processes won’t yield peace in the absence of effective security guarantees for civilians and states alike – guarantees the UN can no longer credibly make.

The Security Council’s decision to authorize an additional 3,000 troops for MONUC, while helpful, is not a solution. In conflicts like the Congo, even a mission as robust as MONUC is at best a band-aid and at worst helpless in the face of widespread violence. The international community must decide whether to muster the resources to overhaul the nation-building project in the Congo, to tackle corruption, reform the security sector, and resolve the internal security dilemma that helps drive the endless cycles of violence. For starters, this entails deploying a capable, non-UN expeditionary force to take on the various rebel groups, as envisioned by General Rawat.

More broadly, the international community must decide whether to continue deploying inadequate ad hoc responses to civil conflicts or to develop institutional capacities to conduct the full-spectrum stability operations required in an era of endemic civil conflict.

photo credit: 

MONUC North Kivu Brigade,

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