Did You Know There’s a Major Intervention Going On in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

DRC campaign could shape international politics for decades

Did You Know There’s a Major Intervention Going On in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Did You Know There’s a Major Intervention Going On in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Uncategorized September 3, 2013 0

South African troops with the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), pour out of an armoured vehicle at an operation site during a training session in... Did You Know There’s a Major Intervention Going On in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
South African troops with the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), pour out of an armoured vehicle at an operation site during a training session in Sake. U.N./Sylvain Liechti Photo

Did You Know There’s a Major Intervention Going On in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

DRC campaign could shape international politics for decades

All eyes are on the politicking around the possible U.S. intervention in Syria, but the future of humanitarian interventions is actually being forged right now, in the vicinity of the town of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Goma is a regional hub, a sprawling city of over one million inhabitants mostly living in tin shacks and walking the notoriously bad roads. It’s a center of mineral trading — both legal and smuggled — and hosts tens of thousands of refugees in camps on its outskirts. Goma lies directly on the border to Rwanda, a neighbor with a lot of influence and a long agenda in Congo.

Since the outbreak of the First Congo War in 1996, and in the subsequent Second Congo War and the general state of insecurity since, Goma has changed hands between the Congolese state, Rwandan forces and rebel groups many times. At the moment, its airport and barracks are home to a contingent of the largest peacekeeping mission ever, the United Nations Organisation Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MONUSCO.

The U.N. force, which has around 20,000 men and women under arms across the country plus about as many civilians, came under intense criticism when it allowed the Rwandan-supported rebel group M23 to occupy Goma in November last year.

The peacekeepers largely stood by while the Congolese army was routed. U.N. commanders argued that their mandate didn’t allow for an independent engagement of rebel forces. More likely, the main troop suppliers at that time — India and Nepal among them — weren’t keen on the possible loss of their own soldiers, either.

Intensive diplomatic pressure on the M23 via its main supporter Rwanda led to a withdrawal from Goma, but the rebels took up position on the outskirts of the town on two strategically located hills.

A FARDC (Congolese army) soldier crosses open space under fire to carry ammunition to the front line northwest of Goma. Joseph Kay photo

New brigade

With hostilities abated, the diplomats spun into action. Congo’s government and some other African countries lobbied hard for an extended mandate for MONUSCO. They succeeded — on the condition that it would be their soldiers risking their lives fighting experienced and well-equipped irregular forces in the rainforests of eastern Congo.

The result of all the negotiations was the Intervention Brigade, made up of soldiers mainly from South Africa and Tanzania. Its three infantry battalions, one artillery company and one special forces and reconnaissance company have largely carte blanche to engage rebel forces. You could say that the international community — and especially the African part of it — got fed up with the mess in the DRC and got out the sledgehammer.

Even before the Intervention Brigade was deployed, it was already leveraged intensively as threat towards the M23 and other armed groups. Military officials from South Africa and Tanzania let it be known on every occasion that they would take the fight to the enemy, if these wouldn’t agree to an unconditional integration into the Congolese armed forces.

The M23 obviously took these warnings seriously and, some weeks before the Intervention Brigade was operational, hostilities restarted around Goma. But this time the Congolese army was better prepared, better commanders were in charge and its logistics were improved. The M23 wasn’t able to deal such a devastating blow to the army as in November last year and the deployment of the Intervention Brigade continued.

Then, on Aug. 22, came the moment of truth. M23 forces lobbed some artillery shells into Goma. At least six people — all civilians — died and angry citizens took to the street to protest against the renewed passiveness of MONUSCO.

MONUSCO obliged and it started an offensive against M23 positions in concert with Congolese troops and it got out all the toys. U.N. helicopter gunships flew frequent sorties on rebel positions, firing 216 rockets.

South African snipers took out at least six rebels, one at a claimed distance of 2.2 kilometers. Tanzanian infantry was active on the frontline together with Congolese troops and U.N. forces suffered at least six casualties, among them one Tanzanian soldier killed by a mortar shell.

Members of a South African machine gun unit with the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), listen to a briefing during a training session. U.N./Sylvain Liechti photo

U.N. rising

After several days of heavy fighting, M23 declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew its troops from the frontline, several kilometers back towards the town of Kibumba. For the M23, this was a hefty defeat. Threatening Goma was their main trump card in negotiations with the government and the international community. This card is now off the table, together with the military superiority that its forces enjoyed for a long time over the national army.

For MONUSCO the outcome of the battle is a redemption with possibly far-reaching consequences. For all intents and purposes, the new mandate and strategy were hugely successful. Casualties were relatively minor and taken by countries with the political ability to sell these kind of engagements to their electorate at home. African militaries have demonstrated their readiness to play a part in complex international peacekeeping and intervention missions — albeit financed by Western donors.

Much more than any Western engagement in Syria, the last few weeks in the DRC have the potential to reshape the international practice of humanitarian intervention. If the experiment in Goma keeps being successful, expect to see more agressive mandates coming out of the U.N. Security Council, giving U.N. troops more leverage against irregular forces — even if these are supported by strong regional powers.

Expect also to see more and more African troops taking part in these engagements, especially if the conflict in question touches on the political objectives of the troop-sending country — South Africa, for example, has a lot of hope for their energy partnership with the Congolese government.

There are already quite a few candidates for more robust international missions: for example the Central African Republic and South Sudan, to name just two of them. Of course, the situation in the DRC is special and transferring successful solutions to other contexts is difficult at best.

Even for Congo, the U.N.’s success could have a lot of unintended consequences. But it will be extremely interesting to see the repercussions of the U.N.’s latest engagement rippling out into the international system.