Hope in the Congo
The big international news story these days involves the recent interim nuclear agreement with Iran. Long story short, it’s a good deal that provides the breathing room necessary to reach something more comprehensive. Although I may have more to write about it in the future, for the time being ,the ball is in Congress’ court when it comes to deciding whether to enact further sanctions that effectively destroy the progress that’s been made in normalizing US-Iranian (and providing the best insurance against a future Iranian bomb). Congress’ track record in recent years doesn’t exactly inspire optimism that they will display wisdom on the matter. Instead of discussing Iran, however, I’d like share a more hopeful, lesser known event that is occurring in what has been the deadliest place on earth since the Second World War – the Eastern Congo.
In way of brief background, the Eastern Congo has always been a largely lawless place and an example of why the famous political scientist Samuel Huntington once wrote: “the most important distinction among countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government.” In the countrysides of the lesser developed world, it is often the case that the hungry and sick are desperate for governance, any kind of governance, to escape what often amounts to an existence that is “nasty, brutish and short.” By most estimates, over three million lives, and as many as six million, have been cut short in the Eastern Congo since 1996, when the country fell into civil war that has existed, to a greater or lesser exist, ever since.
There are a dizzyingly large number of different ethnic identities and affiliations among the tens of millions of people of the Eastern Congo. Much of the conflict that is taking place takes place between different groups who look to their own kind for protection in the absence of an effective government security force. The most important of these groups in recent years have been the Hutus and Tutsis – the same groups at the center of the genocide that took place in neighboring Rwanda in 1994. The tragedy of the Rwandan genocide, which itself claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, mostly Tutsi, lives on in the Eastern Congo where militia groups aligned with each ethnicity have fought one another and preyed on civilians in massive numbers.
Since the year 2000, the United Nations has deployed increasing numbers of peacekeeping forces to the area for what, at now over 20,000 troops, has become the largest UN operation, and represents about a third of the total of UN troops employed globally.
Unfortunately, UN efforts in the Congo over the last decade have generally been thought of as ineffectual and UN troops have even been accused of their own crimes. This year, however, things may have taking a permanent change for the better as the UN mission has taken a more assertive approach under a strengthened UN Security Council mandate (UNSC 2098) that provided for the creation of a new “Forward Intervention Brigade.”
The newly rejuvenated UN forces, in support of the historically ineffectual Congolese army, employed heavy artillery and air power last month to decimate one of the most dangerous and murderous of the region’s militias, the Tutsi-supported M23. The offensive suggests that both the United Nations and the Congolese army have found a new sort of battlefield synergy that suggests hope for future such operations. The focus now turns to the largest of the Hutu militias, the FDLR, the Islamist fundamentalist ADF (about 10 percent of the region is Muslim), the loosely organized Mai-Mai and some forty odd other militias.
Can the UN defeat these dozens of other groups and pacify the country? Not on their own. Only the Congolese Army has the manpower to bring peace to the Congo. However, it’s possible that a long history of failed efforts by the United Nations to “make peace” rather than simply “keep peace” have taught a valuable lesson – UN troops that fail when they try to go-it-alone can still play a valuable support role in conjunction with local forces. Like when the US used Special Forces in Afghanistan in late 2001 provided high tech and logistical support to local anti-Taliban rebels, UN peacemaking may be most feasible when UN forces focus more on material resources and allows others to provide the bulk of the manpower.
The road to a stable Eastern Congo will be a long one. Military force alone can only do so much without economic and political development. However, without security, there is no hope for the people of the resource-rich region to break out of their cycle of war, disease, and poverty. I don’t know if the UN and the Congolese government will keep up the momentum that they gained this month and whether this is the beginning of the end of the Congolese tragedy. But, for the first time in a very long time, there is hope.