The Congolese army has in recent days shown marked success against a Congolese rebel group, capturing its base city and upping the pressure for the rebels to engage in peace talks with the government. The difference between this and other offenses against the rebels? The presence of a United Nations brigade, specially mandated to aid in taking the fight to the rebels in a way the organization hasn’t done in decades.
The Congo was the scene of one of the earliest U.N. interventions, when thousands of blue helmets were deployed first to stabilize the newly independent country, then to aid in suppressing the rebellion of the Katanga province. The mission was a full-scale military operation, going so far as to have its own military intelligence contingent. In the time since, the U.N. has kept itself to what have become more traditional peacekeeping roles, deploying only after a conflict has ended in order to separate the formerly warring sides when necessary.
Ethnic tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi groups that led to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 have since then been playing out in the Great Lakes region, to the detriment of the Congo. After a period of warfare in the late 1990s large scale enough to be dubbed “Africa’s World War,” in which all of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s many neighboring countries found themselves taking part in proxy battles within the country, hope for stability has found itself constantly thwarted by one rebel group or another. The most recent claimant to the title of spoiler has been the M23 movement, whose rise can be seen as a continuation of events in 2009. The CNDP — a Rwandan-backed, Tutsi rebel group in Eastern Congo — had in 2004 rejected the authority of President Joseph Kabila, citing the corruption of his administration, and began open warfare against the government in the Kivu region of the country.
The fighting became enough of a threat to civilians that the European Union threatened to intervene directly, forcing the two sides into peace talks, and the CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda into exile in Rwanda. The solution at the time to end the fighting, agreed to on Mar. 23, 2009, was to integrate the rebels into the Congolese army as part of a larger peace deal. Instead of forging a lasting settlement, many of those same soldiers defected earlier this year to form the M23, led by wanted war-criminal Gen. Bosco Ntaganda.
Since then, the group has swung wildly between launching offensive after offensive against the key town of Goma in eastern Congo to demanding peace talks with the government in Kinshasaa. All the while, Congo’s eastern neighbor, Rwanda, has been implicated both by the United Nations and the United States as supporting the group as part of its bid to maintain influence in the DRC. The United Nations’ peacekeeping force in the Congo, known as MONUSCO, did its best to fulfill its role of protecting civilians. Despite being the largest peacekeeping force in the world, with nearly 20,000 troops deployed in blue helmets, M23 appeared to be a bridge too far in terms of providing stability to the country.
Then the U.N. Security Council in March voted to authorize a component of MONUSCO to serve as an intervention brigade, provided with heavy weaponry and the mandate to take the fight to the rebels if need be. While not the first time the U.N. has authorized an offensive force, the decision to provide that authority to a peacekeeping force was seen as precedent-setting. In no small part, this is because offensive operations have become the purview of loose coalitions of member-states once the U.N. has given its imprimatur as seen in the Gulf War or through regional groups such as NATO as seen in Libya. Actually having countries offer up blue helmeted forces to the United Nations and under the command of a U.N.-appointed general do the fighting has become a rarity.
The Council was clear from the start that this brigade was meant to have muscle that previous U.N. promises of civilian protection as seen in Bosnia did not. In the authorizing resolution, the Security Council laid out that the brigade would consist “inter alia of three infantry battalions, one artillery and one Special force and Reconnaissance company with headquarters in Goma, under direct command of the MONUSCO Force Commander, with the responsibility of neutralizing armed groups.”
These fighters, the U.N. determined, would combat and reduce the threat “posed by Congolese and foreign armed groups, […] violence against civilians, including sexual and gender-based violence and violence against children to a level that can be effectively managed by the Congolese justice and security institutions.”
And it seems that they’ve managed to do just that. In late July, MONUSCO issued an ultimatum to the group, demanding that the rebels lay down their weapons or face the consequences. The M23 refused, setting up the last two weeks’ impressive show of force from the Congolese army, also known as the FARDC, and the intervention brigade. On Wednesday, the FARDC captured the city of Rutshuru, the informal capital of the M23, before taking their last stronghold in Bunagana.
Darren Olivier, writing at the African Defence Review, detailed just how the Intervention Brigade managed to turn the tide against the M23. “Using UN Mi-8s, Oryxes and Mi-26s, [Force Intervention Brigade (FIB)] troops were separated into three task forces and deployed near Kiwanja, Munigi/Kibati and north-west of Rutshuru,” he wrote, acting as a blocking force in support of the FARDC. “Crucially, this involved establishing sufficient logistics for each front, avoiding the typical problem in Congolese operations where poor roads make operations riskier the further they move away from main logistics bases.”
“It was also the first time the entire FIB was together in a single operation, as the Malawian infantry who arrived earlier in October were part of the UN positions,” Olivier added, allowing for a three-front operation, establishing a southern, western, and northern front. “It formed a pincer movement that squeezed M23 out from its strongholds and into the Virunga mountains against the Rwandan border,” he concluded. “It also proved that the FIB concept works, as the support its troops provided were what allowed for the three fronts to be established.”
The result is that members of MONUSCO are declaring victory in the fight against the M23. MONUSCO chief Martin Kobler told the U.N. Security Council late on Monday that “practically all M23 positions were abandoned, except for a small triangle at the Rwandan border.” While M23 is still claiming that it is holding ground against the FARDC, the MONUSCO Twitter account boasted on Wednesday that “dozens of members of the M23 went to MONUSCO forces” in surrender as a result of the operations, showcasing the downfall of the group.
Laura Seay, an assistant professor at Colby College and an expert on the region, concurred that things look bleak for the M23. “They’re in big trouble,” she said in a phone interview with ThinkProgress. “This is not the end for Tutsi grievances in Congo, to Rwanda wanting to have an active and friendly ally in the Kivu region, but for this particular iteration, I think it’s fair to say that they’re not going to survive the current onslaught that they’re undergoing.”
Key to the success that the Congolese army and MONUSCO have seen thus far, Seay said, is that Rwanda has decided not to intervene in support of M23. “If they were going to do so, they would have already done it,” she said. Part of that is due to the diplomatic pressures that have been placed upon Rwanda in recent months, including direct condemnation from the United States on multiple occasions and the U.S. decision not to waive sanctions related to Rwanda’s use of child soldiers. While Congo’s eastern neighbor has not fully withdrawn support for the M23, Seay told ThinkProgress, it’s very clear that that support has been scaled back.
While the U.N. has frequently stressed that the Congolese armed forces have the lead on all missions, the impact the intervention brigade fighting alongside them has had is hard to overstate. The brigade has served as a role model to the Congolese, Seay said, displaying fighting skills, discipline, and handling both logistical issues and tactical issues, such as dealing with snipers. “I think there’s a lot of intangible benefits to that and seeing acts of heroism,” Seay said. “Nobody has ever seen that before in the Congolese army.”
The next target of MONUSCO may also have played a part in Rwanda’s choice not to support their alleged proxy group. One of the other armed groups operating in the Congo, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), has proven a frequent thorn in the side of Kigali while also targeting Congolese civilians. Given regional political dynamics, Seay speculated, and that Rwanda wants to ensure that there’s no reason that its interests are threatened enough to intervene directly, the FDLR could prove a prime target for the intervention brigade moving forward.
And so military victory over the M23 doesn’t, however, mean that the conflict in Eastern Congo is even close to being over. Nor does it make clear what precisely will happen to the rebels now that they’ve been beaten back completely. Kabila has already rejected the notion of attempting reintigration of the M23 into the Conglese army again, a position which he has public support in taking. It’s possible that those captured could find themselves facing trial at the International Criminal Court, as their leader Ntaganda currently is, but that’s in no way certain. But the U.N. isn’t set to go anywhere anytime soon, with its political staff on the ground to help facilitate stability once the security situation has been improved, and the intervention brigade still authorized to act until March.