The intervention brigade will carry out targeted offensive operations, with or without the Congolese national army, against armed groups that threaten peace in the eastern part of DRC – a region that is prone to cycles of violence and consequent humanitarian suffering. The objectives of the new force – which will be based in North Kivu province in eastern DRC and total 3,069 peacekeepers – are to neutralize armed groups, reduce the threat they posed to State authority and civilian security and make space for stabilization activities.
The force will reportedly include troops from Tanzania, South Africa, and Malawi and may begin operations as early as this summer. The largest rebel group, the M23, has criticized the decision. A rebel spokesperson said the U.N. had "chosen to wage war against one of the partners for peace."
The current Congo mission (which has gone by several names) is in fact the second major U.N. operation there. The first operated from 1960 to 1964 and struggled to keep the newly decolonized state intact even as it navigated intense Cold War politics. At first, the mission stuck to the core peacekeeping principles of impartiality and neutrality. But those principles were tested by the near disintegration of the nascent state. Was the U.N. supposed to be impartial between state and non-state actors?
By 1961, the Security Council had given peacekeepers permission to go on the offensive against separatists in the province of Katanga, who were operating in league with foreign mercenaries. Significantly less verbose in those days, the Council authorized "the use of force, as a last resort" to suppress civil war and disturbances in the country. Several months later, the council urged the peacekeepers to "take vigorous action, including the use of the requisite measure of force.
The U.N.'s offensive in Congo included several distinct phases, including "Operation Rumpunch" and "Operation Morthor." The campaign, which featured Indian and Irish troops, was ultimately successful in defeating Katangan secessionists, but it proved highly controversial.
There's even more recent precedent in Congo for U.N. offensive operations, although on a much smaller scale. In 2006, a group of Guatemalan special forces soldiers assigned to the peacekeeping mission attempted to hunt down units of the Lord's Resistance Army operating in Congo's Garamba National Park. The operation turned into a disaster. Several U.N. soldiers were killed (likely by friendly fire), and the LRA forces escaped. In early 2009, U.N. forces began actively supporting the offensive operations of the Congolese armed forces. But that collaboration was dialed back as criticism of Congolese army tactics mounted.
Part of the problem with offensive U.N. operations is that the traning and resources of the forces doing the fighting often doesn't match the mandate. It's one thing for the Security Council to authorize offensive operations from New York; it's quite another thing for peacekeeping commanders to manage them successfully on the ground.
During the U.N.'s Bosnia operation in the 1990s, that gap between the Council's proclamations and the actual work of peacekeepers grew to tragic proportions.
If peacekeepers get bogged down while on the offense -- or, worse, commit abuses of their own -- political will for the operation will likely melt away. The countries contributing the troops for the enforcement brigade may think twice. It's doubtful that either the United States or cash-strapped European states will send their own forces to bolster peacekeepers in need of assistance.
The difficult history of offensive U.N. operations doesn't mean that the new enforcement brigade is doomed to fail. The rampant insecurity in eastern Congo is crying out for a solution. U.N. peacekeeping has carried out important reforms in recent years. But the past does highlight some of the pitfalls that can await blue helmets with a green light to use force.
As actions against the LRA demonstrated, what happens after the withdrawal of the intervention brigade may be just as critical as the period of the operations. This short term “surge” may create more agile and proactive operations, but the longer-term requirement to build the capacity of an indigenous security force remains.
Should the intervention brigade or the regular forces be successful in securing ground or clearing rebel-held territory, Congolese forces will be left to consolidate any gains and guard against reprisals. The formulation and implementation of this strategy should be addressed now to avoid a vacuum after the intervention or a loss of momentum following the “surge.”
Now that the intervention brigade has been authorized, operational planning should focus on robust control measures to protect civilians in the area of operations, and international efforts should shift to long-term capacity building to ensure sustainable security for the people of the DRC.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/African Affairs Expert