Give them the helicopters

The success of the UN Intervention Brigade in the DRC shows that peacekeepers need crucial hardware to carry out their robust mandates successfully.

Was it the result of a knee-jerk reaction after South Africa failed so dismally to protect ousted Central African Republic (CAR) strongman Francois Bozizé against Seleka rebels earlier this year? Or is it Africa's attempt at finding ‘African solutions to African problems’ following the ‘humiliation’ of having to rely on French troops to drive Islamists out of Mali?

One thing is clear, though: the new Intervention Brigade for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), made up essentially of South African and Tanzanian troops, has done what 17 000 peacekeepers have been unable to do for years: hit back hard against the militias and rebels who wreak havoc in the eastern DRC.

‘South Africa has the political will, the legitimacy and the capacity to act in regional conflicts,’ said ISS senior researcher André Roux.However, ‘force enablers’– the hardware needed to fight a serious war – are crucial if this kind of intervention is going to be successful, he said at a seminar about the future of peacekeeping in Africa, hosted by the ISS on 27 September. According to Roux, peacekeeping operations were in a transitional phase and the DRC Intervention Brigade could well represent a ‘tipping point’ towards giving peacekeepers more fighting capability. ‘The new buzzword is robust mandates,’ he said.

The Intervention Brigade was planned as early as March this year, but was given a boost when South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma argued strongly for a rapid deployment force of African soldiers during the last African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa in May 2013. At the end of August the Intervention Brigade, working together with the Congolese army (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo, or FARDC) achieved sizeable successes over the M23 rebels, who have emerged as the main ‘spoiler’ fighting force in the area.

The successes of the Intervention Brigade has earned it the respect of locals, who had given up hope that the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) would protect them from being constantly terrorised by armed groups and even, at times, their own soldiers. MONUSCO (until July 2010 called the UN Organisation Mission in the Congo, or MONUC) was established in 1999 following the take-over by former president Laurent Kabila and the ensuing rebellion. It now has an authorised 20 688 uniformed personnel in total, including the around 3 000 troops of the Intervention Brigade. It costs the international community over $1,5 billion per year to maintain.

This week, the UN Security Council visited the troops in Goma as part of its week-long tour of the Great Lakes region, from 5 to 9 October 2013. The 15-member delegation spoke to force commanders, victims of the violence and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in the area. ‘From the security perspective the various commanders characterised the joint operation in late August as a success. It was the first aggressive posture deployed by the Intervention Brigade and it effectively pushed back M23. In addition, it boosted the confidence of FARDC,’ the group found, according to the UN Security Council Report. ‘In MONUSCO’s assessment the joint operation had also changed the perception of the peacekeepers in the eyes of the civilian population who had been unhappy with what they saw as a lack of effective engagement from MONUSCO in neutralising armed groups in the area.’

Roux said he believed the fact that the Intervention Brigade would soon have dedicated attack helicopters at its disposal for ‘close air support’ would make a huge difference in its capability, specifically in the fight against M23. ‘The challenge which the Intervention Brigade has … is the fact that the MONUSCO Mi-35 attack helicopters are not “on call”, but specific mission sorties must be requested and authorised up a long chain of command in the civilian bureaucracy. A classic example was when M23 took Goma [in November 2012], the air operations team was out of contact – sitting in a conference at Entebbe in Uganda – so there was no authorisation for the helicopters. The South African Rooivalk attack helicopters deploying shortly will change this dynamic.’

He also stressed that the mission needed a sophisticated mortar- and artillery-tracking radar capability to establish the origin of the shelling that was a bone of contention on both sides of the DRC-Rwanda border. Roux explained that the lack of military hardware and sufficient capability was sometimes attributed to the bureaucracy within the UN system. The UN Department of Field Support has ‘templates’ that restrict the type, capability and number of vehicles, weapons and special capabilities that troop-contributing countries can deploy. This is a critical restriction when the UN Security Council is passing robust mandates containing issues such as the protection of civilians under immanent threat – which may require active fighting against well-armed and capable ‘spoilers’.

Speakers and participants at the ISS seminar agreed that the seemingly interminable wars in the DRC, which had been dragging on since the late 1990s, had created an exceptional situation. The continual splitting up of militias and rebels and the ‘recycling’ of combatants was a huge problem. ‘Sometimes a fighter would decide to leave one of the militias, or get demobilised, but then get drawn back into a illegal armed group such as M23. Many of them are children,’ one participant said. This same vicious circle is also found in other conflict zones around the world, where one conflict breeds another. There is also the ‘bad neighbourhood effect’: instability in all the Great Lakes countries has, over the past decades, spilled over into the region.

Speakers said it was crucial for troop-contributing countries to see eye-to-eye on what was needed to stop a conflict. South Africa’s deployment in Burundi showed that a robust political commitment did bring about the necessary results, said Roux. The problem with South Africa’s deployment in the CAR was that there was no clear strategy behind it, considering the possible threats, he added. The mission was shrouded in controversy because of claims that President Zuma had not immediately informed the South African parliament of the details of the mission, which was presented as training for CAR soldiers. There were also accusations that South Africa’s intervention in the CAR took place in exchange for lucrative business deals. Thirteen peacekeepers were killed in Bangui on 23 March.

Participants at the seminar agreed that the nature of peacekeeping was changing, because in many cases, like in the DRC and recently in Mali, there was no peace to keep. Often peacekeepers had to deal not only with one group of rebels, but also with ‘the fracturing of insurgents’. In Darfur in Sudan, for example, rebels have split into more than 30 factions.

The DRC peacekeeping mission has gone through various phases, but has been a disappointment for the greater part of the last decade. Finally, giving the ‘peacekeepers’ the mandate and firepower to stop rebels and militias is clearly paying off – at least for now.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS consultant

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