The imminent deployment of a UN-backed 3,000-strong international force mandated to “neutralize… and disarm” all armed groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) marks a switch to a more belligerent international stance towards rebel militia, but has met with scepticism in some quarters.
The deployment of this “international brigade” made up of troops from Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania will complement the existing UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) and is designed to help quell M23 and other rebel militias.
When an intervention force was first mooted by the African Union (AU) last year, Sivuyile Bam, AU head of Peace and Support Operations Division (PSOD), told IRIN the plan was to “deal specifically with M23, and when M23 go away, they [the intervention force] go away”. That has since evolved into preventing the expansion of all armed groups, and neutralizing and disarming them by deploying an “offensive” military force, said a UN Security Council resolution.
Pretoria-based think tank the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) estimates there are more than 33 armed groups currently operating in eastern DRC. They are variously involved in mineral extraction and self-defence through to acting as proxies for the strategic interests of neighbouring states.
The intervention force, known as SADCBrig (Southern African Development Community Brigade), will “carry out targeted offensive operations… either unilaterally or jointly with the FARDC [DRC national army], in a robust, highly mobile and versatile manner and in strict compliance with international law,” says UN resolution 2098.
It will consist “inter alia of three infantry battalions, one artillery and one Special force and Reconnaissance company with headquarters in Goma,” the UN resolution adds.
Since the first deployment of “blue helmets” to the DRC in 1999, first as the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) and then as MONUSCO, troop numbers have increased more than three-fold from the original 5,000-odd uniformed soldiers. There have been supplementary ad hoc military missions, such as the 2003 European Union (EU) military intervention in Bunia during the Ituri ethnic-based conflict dubbed Operation Artemis, and the 2009 operations Umoja Wetu (Our Unity) and Kimia II, a joint military offensive of DRC and Rwandan security forces against the armed group Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération de Rwanda (FDLR).
A military analyst serving with the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), who declined to be identified, said the Security Council resolution was “a massive expansion of the task” first envisaged by the AU, but the mandate had to be “wider than M23” if the ambition was to protect civilians.
The analyst told IRIN the intervention force was expected “to have initial capability by end of May and operational capability by end of June ”.
The deployment of South African troops in CAR and their participation in SADCBrig is being viewed by analysts as a departure from South Africa’s previous military ventures, with a more aggressive stance towards resolving the continent’s conflicts. It has been dubbed the [President Jacob] Zuma doctrine by analysts.
South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told a media briefing on 29 April 2013 her country was in favour of “preventative diplomacy, intervening when there are situations of strife. When we are called upon to do that, we will always be there, we will never say no.”
In a statement adjoining the UN resolution, Rwanda’s Eugene-Richard Gasana hoped the force would tackle the “FDLR, which had sparked the 1994 [Rwandan] genocide”. Rwanda, which is suspected of supporting M23, sees it as a bulwark against the FDLR.
The military analyst said MONUSCO had been “hesitant” to use force beyond self-defence - something for which the UN’s largest peacekeeping operation was roundly condemned when M23 walked into Goma unopposed, despite the presence of more than 1,500 armed peacekeepers in the town and nearly 6,000 in North Kivu Province.
Ahead of the deployment of SADCBrig, and in the wake of 13 South African soldiers having been killed recently in the Central African Republic trying to prevent the rebel coup by the Séléka alliance, M23 taunted SANDF on social media saying it was “corrupt” and “old”.
Meanwhile, some doubt the new force can achieve its objective.
“Armed (DRC) groups are seen as a military threat but most of them are not. The military option against the armed groups has failed repeatedly and some [armed groups] deserve a small dose of military pressure but [also] a lot of police work in order to be neutralized. The intervention brigade in particular and the UN [MONUSCO] in general are not equipped for this,” International Crisis Group (ICG) analyst Thierry Vircoulon told IRIN.
He said SADCBrig deployment was “security by substitution”, and would delay reforms of the DRC national army (FARDC), which has been accused of being a serial human rights abuser by rights organizations. SADCBrig’s more offensive posture would lead to “retaliations against civilians [by armed groups] and worsening of the humanitarian situation”, unless stringent measures were put in place to protect civilians in the areas of operation.
Liam Mahony, author of a recent report commissioned by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) entitled Non-military strategies for civilian protection in the DRC, said: “The international community continues to believe that military protection of civilians in the DRC may succeed, if there are only enough soldiers or a sufficiently strong mandate.
“However, there is little if any empirical evidence for this. Faith in military solutions is exaggerated by the mistaken belief that violence can only be met with more violence…
“The humanitarian service machinery has become a virtually permanent fixture in the region, serving victims of multiple displacements and repeating cycles of violence for two decades, while efforts to change the underlying dynamics of conflict have been insufficient and ineffective.”
He told IRIN the approach by policymakers to armed groups in the DRC was “one size fits all… People tend to oversimplify or choose extreme interpretations of armed groups… People assume they are unreasonable and not open to negotiation and communication… This is not specific to DRC. It is true everywhere.”
“I would not categorically dismiss the possibility that there may be armed groups with whom such approaches would fail, and there may be armed groups who would be more deterred from human rights abuse by an effective military counter-force. It is conceivable, but it must be the result of a very specific detailed analysis, not a generic knee-jerk approach.”
Andre Roux, author of a recent ISS briefing on SADCBrig’s deployment, said: “The realities of conducting operations in this remote and complex environment have been underestimated in the rush to put solutions on the table.”
Roux said the capabilities of SADCBrig “to effectively conduct `war fighting’ operations in an integrated manner, are questionable. With different operational doctrines, a variety of tactical deployment techniques and military equipment that is often not interoperable, the battalions can fight as individual units, but questions arise about whether they can or must fight as a cohesive brigade.”
SANDF is expected to transfer its troops serving with MONUSCO to SADCBrig, which is supposed to operate in conjunction with FARDC, though past experiences of cooperation between SANDF and FARDC appear to have been problematical. “Members of the local army [FARDC] did not share information and they would steal anything without blinking an eye,” said a June 2012 ISS report on relations between the two.
Roux noted that apart from the challenges of integrating military “tactics and doctrines”, there was also the risk of “a protracted counter-insurgency-type scenario characterized by atrocities in which entire villages are wiped out by rebel forces in order to divert the attention of the brigade into a defensive mind-set focused on the difficult task of protecting civilians rather than neutralizing illegal armed groups…
“Is this again a peacekeeping band-aid that will struggle to meet the high expectations that do not consider the difficult realities of the situation?” he asks.