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Success against Congo rebels may signal sea change in peacekeeping

Analysts say the blow to Congo's M23 rebels shows what a U.N. peacekeeping force and a nation can do with a different mind-set.

November 02, 2013|By Robyn Dixon
  • A Congolese soldier responds to residents' cheers as the army enters Bunagana, one of the towns retaken from M23 rebels in recent days.
A Congolese soldier responds to residents' cheers as the army enters… (Joseph Kay / Associated…)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Their behavior was scandalous: Soldiers traded their guns for gold. They sexually abused children they were supposed to protect. They barricaded themselves in their barracks rather than fight.

And that unruly U.N. peacekeeping force was actually the better of the two armies fighting a notorious rebel movement in eastern Congo, scene of one of Africa's longest-running conflicts. Meantime, the Congolese army's efforts were led by rival commanders who competed for looting rights. Unpaid soldiers raped and stole with impunity.

Those two forces teamed up this week to stun the M23 rebels — and many observers — with a sharp, disciplined campaign that pushed the insurgents to the brink of defeat. They still have to show they can hold the territory they've captured, even with the introduction of surveillance drones planned this month.

But analysts say the success of the campaign so far shows what a United Nations force can do with strong leadership and a mandate to take offensive action. It also illustrates that even a country as unmanageable as the Democratic Republic of Congo has military leaders who can be successful if backed by political will. The lessons could be applied elsewhere in Africa, they say.

"A new type of peacekeeping is being tested now," said Thierry Vircoulon, a regional analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank. "And if it's a success, that may change the whole of thinking about peacekeeping."

"There is a drive for a more militaristic approach to peacekeeping in Congo, but also in other places in Africa," Vircoulon said. Intractable internal conflicts rack countries like Ivory Coast and South Sudan.

A succession of rebel groups has long operated along the eastern border of Congo, many of them vestiges of the genocidal conflict two decades ago in neighboring Rwanda. Twelve leaders of M23, the latest such group, have been indicted on suspicion of war crimes by the Congolese government. Another, Bosco Ntaganda, turned himself in and is being tried by the International Criminal Court.

Rwanda has always denied backing the rebels, but the U.S. slapped military sanctions on Rwanda in early October for allegedly backing M23.

Analysts say things started to change late last year after M23 seized control of Goma, the main city in eastern Congo. That galvanized Congolese President Joseph Kabila and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

"The sight of U.N. peacekeepers equipped with heavy armed vehicles and sophisticated weapons really standing by as a rebel group occupied one of the largest cities in DRC was hugely embarrassing and the complete antithesis of what they were there for," said Darren Olivier, an analyst with the African Defense Review.

In March, the U.N. Security Council endorsed the deployment of a 3,000-member "intervention brigade" to bolster a U.N. force that had grown to about 17,000 since it was first deployed in 1999.

The U.N. force, known by the acronym MONUSCO, had a reputation for being slow and corrupt. It was dubbed #MONUSELESS by critics on Twitter. If a report came in that militias had attacked a village, the force's armed personnel carriers would take hours driving terrible roads to move into position, usually arriving after the worst was over.

The new brigade was the first U.N. force in eastern Congo given a mandate to attack and destroy armed militias rather than wait for them to attack and then try to protect civilians. And it was given new leadership.

German diplomat Martin Kobler became the overall head of the U.N. effort. Brazilian Gen. Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz was appointed its military chief, and quickly announced he would use the most advanced technology available to crush rebel groups that for years had killed civilians, recruited child soldiers and raped women.

A top officer from Tanzania, Brig. Gen. James Mwakibolwa, was chosen to lead the intervention brigade. His soldiers are from regional military powers South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi.

The new unit has used extensive helicopter surveillance to track rebels and has planned and coordinated operations closely with the Congolese army, though it didn't directly participate in the fighting of recent days.

Underscoring its aggressive new approach, the force plans to deploy drones this month. By May, the unmanned aircraft will fly above the steep and leafy hills of eastern Congo 24 hours a day. Analysts say that would make it much more difficult for Rwanda to provide backing for the rebels while denying any involvement.

It wasn't just the United Nations that woke up after Goma fell.

Kabila replaced the military leadership in eastern Congo and simplified the command structure, Olivier said.

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