The U.N. Goes After the Next Rebel Group in Congo
Peacekeeping force hits Ugandan armed group with attack helicopters
After making short work of M23, one of the most dangerous rebel groups in Africa, the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Congolese army are taking aim at the next armed group—the Ugandan ADF-NALU.
With drones, attack helicopters and new aggressive attitudes, the U.N. and Congolese could destroy ADF as quickly as they did M23.
ADF is the only Islamist insurgency in Congo. One of the country’s oldest armed groups, it had been quiet for years before recently returning to prominence.
ADF dates back to the 1990s. Sponsored by president Mobuto of Zaire—Congo today—and the government of Sudan, the ADF was the two countries’ proxy against the Ugandan government under Pres. Yoweri Museveni. In 1996, the Ugandan army invaded Congo in part to hit back against ADF.
The group was never successful militarily, and lost virtually every major engagement. But the general chaos of the Congo Wars and the collapse of the Congolese state that accompanied them enabled ADF’s survival—albeit as a fringe group relying more on its integration in the local communities of the Congolese-Ugandan borderland than on its military prowess.
But the once-dormant group has made an unlikely comeback in recent years—one that analysts still don’t completely understand. ADF launched a recruitment drive in early 2013, bringing its strength to about 1,400 fighters, according to the U.N. The rebels then staged several attacks on the Congolese army, U.N. peacekeepers and civilians.
It remains unclear where the ADF got the resources for its offensive. Videos of Arabic-speaking men with beards training ADF fighters led to speculation that the Somali terrorist group Al Shabab is cooperating with ADF.
This is not implausible, as the Ugandan army is the backbone of the African Union mission battling Al Shabab in Somalia. The Somali group has every reason to back an armed group that could open a new front against the Ugandans.
Another theory is that the ADF’s old sponsor Sudan has resumed support of the group. Either way, ADF’s increased activity has placed it squarely in the U.N.-Congolese crosshairs.
Attack helicopter politics
Apart from posing a clear threat to civilians, the ADF’s offensive also has a regional political dimension. After M23 was beaten militarily, its fighters and officers fled to Uganda, where they remain. The Ugandan government is the key to keeping these fighters from coming back, so the Congolese government and the U.N. made the sensible choice to target a group that threatens the Ugandans.
Sure enough, Ugandan president Museveni has voiced his support for the anti-ADF operation.
The attack on ADF has followed the same script as the offensive against M23 last year. Announcing their moves in advance in order to give civilians a chance to clear the area, Congolese troops mobilized first, demonstrating their increasing military proficiency following a shakeup in leadership and years of U.S. training.
At first, the U.N. mostly supplied logistics and intelligence, probably relying on its new fleet of surveillance drones. But the MONUSCO peacekeeping force also deployed helicopter gunships to reduce ADF defenses around one of their last strongholds. The three South African Rooivalk copters fired 20-millimeter cannons and unguided missiles.
So far, the joint Congolese-U.N. offensive against the ADF has been a military success, with few losses on the Congolese side. The rebels are on the run. But as analyst Christoph Vogel points out, the end-state remains unclear. While M23 fighters fled the country after their defeat and are now under the control of the Ugandan government, the ADF rebels have mostly melted away into the bush.
As the LRA has horrifically demonstrated, even small, lightly-armed groups of unsupported fighters can have a highly detrimental effect on local security.
It will therefore be paramount to follow up the offensive with an increased presence of security forces in areas where ADF fighters are known to have gone to ground. The U.N. will also need to step up its efforts to reach these fighters … and convince them to demobilize and reintegrate into civilian life.
But military strategists in Congo will likely also begin to plan their next campaign. The next target is almost sure to be the FDLR, a Rwandan armed group. Rwanda has made it clear that it wants the group destroyed.