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Taking the Fight to the DRC Rebels: The Potential Pitfalls of a UN Intervention Brigade

The creation of a special UN unit in the DRC to conduct "targeted offensive operations" against rebel groups could prove helpful, but there are also dangers.
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UN peacekeepers return from a helicopter patrol in the DRC. Photograph by Julien Harneis.

Bukavu, DRC:

At the end of March, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 2098. This not only extended the mandate of MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), until 2014, but also catered for the creation of an Intervention Brigade, a new special unit tasked with conducting "targeted offensive operations" against rebel groups.

Led by a Tanzanian general, the Intervention Brigade will be composed of 3,069 troops, organised into three infantry battalions, one artillery, and one Special Force and reconnaissance company. Tanzania, Malawi, and South Africa will all contribute troops, and the brigade will be mandated to “prevent the expansion of all armed groups, neutralize these groups, and to disarm them”.

One of the incentives behind the creation of the brigade was impotence of MONUSCO last year in the face of the eastern Congolese rebels M23 as they seized towns and cities right under UN peacekeepers’ noses.

The Intervention Brigade with its more explicitly combative mandate will no doubt provide new impetus in attempts to tackle the DRC’s numerous non-state armed groups. However, it is not clear that the underlying issues which hampered MONUSCO taking action in 2012 and which have long hindered UN forces in the region have really been addressed.

Old problems die hard

To begin with, MONUSCO is somewhat constrained by its mandate in a Catch-22-like situation: it must provide civilian protection but also restore the authority of the Congolese state, an actor which is all too often amongst the main perpetrators of violence itself.

It should also be pointed out that MONUSCO (and its predecessor MONUC before it) did have a Chapter VII mandate, allowing it “to use all necessary means…[to] ensure the effective protection of civilians”. Rules of engagement and parallel chains of command from troop-contributing countries, however, have obstructed its ability to use force.

Despite being a heavyweight amongst international peacekeeping missions, MONUSCO has also had serious constraints for many years in terms of transport speed, quality, and capacity. It is far from adequately equipped. For example, its maximum 17,000 soldiers (adding up to slightly over 20,000 with civilian and police staff) for an area the size of Western Europe – resulting in a ratio of one blue helmet per 10-15 square kilometres for the two Kivu provinces – is far too little. Troop-contributing countries also tend to be reluctant to provide their soldiers with expensive, high-quality equipment, resulting in operational delays.

It is unclear to what extent these underlying and structural weaknesses of MONUSCO in the past will also affect the Intervention Brigade.

One brigade, many rebels

The new force will also face its own new problems. With just 3,000 soldiers, it’s unlikely it will be able to confront different armed groups at the same time. Different objectives will have to be ranked and prioritised, and this will inevitably have political consequences. There is the risk that political perceptions around the brigade’s decisions of who to tackle and in what order could be controversial and end up discrediting the force – and by extension MONUSCO and the UN – in some actors eyes. The regional make-up of the brigade could also raise suspicions of hidden political agendas.

There are also simply a large number of armed groups in the region. Even after integration processes have started for a number of the Kivus’ larger militias – such as the Mayi-Mayi Yakutumba/Mayele in South Kivu, as well as the currently stalled process with Nyatura and APCLS in North Kivu – a potential pool of 20-30 armed groups will still remain active. Many of these are very small in numbers and arms and/or poorly organised, but they can still have a deadly impact on civilian populations in remote areas.

One of the more major rebel groups is the FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu power outfit. The FDLR appears to have weakened in the past few years – partly due to joint Rwando-Congolese military operations but also due to the Raia Mutomboki’s presence in South Kivu – but remains a brutal and indeterminable threat. Having been dislodged from many former strongholds, the FDLR now operates in a scattered fashion and has retreated to difficult to access areas.

The M23 meanwhile is believed to have close to 2,000 combatants and has already proven its fighting capacity and discipline. It could be weakened by the withdrawal of alleged external support from the likes of Rwanda and Uganda in late 2012, but remains a serious force.

The M23 is also still engaged in talks with the Congolese government, further complicating the picture. Attacking M23 while talks are ongoing would seriously thwart diplomatic efforts. Indeed, while the military branch of M23 was measured in its reaction to news of the Intervention Brigade, its political counterparts were less restrained. M23’s president, Bertrand Bisimwa, for example, branded the plan “l’option de guerre”.

An aggressive stance from the brigade could thus bring about an increase in violent reactionary skirmishes. And civilians could be put at risk if rebel groups resort to retaliatory attacks. Moreover, there is a danger that all UN actors (and maybe other humanitarians) will become associated with offensive action and come to be seen as legitimate targets.

Tough choices

For the Intervention Brigade to be successful, it is of utmost importance that, a) a flexible set of rules of engagement is established, b) material assets and equipment correspond to both the needs of the troops and the necessities of the intervention area, and c) political support is provided at various levels.

Its choice of which groups to tackle will also have to be made carefully. Many are no doubt already on the brigade’s radar – such as the FDLR, M23, Sheka, the Masisi-based groups, Raia Mutomboki and others. A prudent choice in terms of feasibility and political impact, including at the local level, will be of paramount importance to the success of the brigade and therefore the UN’s operations in the DRC. Moreover, in terms of political balancing it will be dangerous to exclusively concentrate on M23 as indicated by several UN sources.

The historical deployment of the intervention brigade bears a couple of historical pitfalls too. The currently multifaceted UN strategy involving the newly-appointed UN Special Envoy Mary Robinson, the Intervention Brigade, and a support role in both the 11+4 Addis Ababa framework and the Kampala talks appears more a cacophony than a coherent strategy. Beyond that, the urgent need to create a local counterpart to complement international (Addis Ababa) and national (Kampala) peace process elements has neither been addressed by the DRC government nor the UN.

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