Quick reaction forces to the rescue in eastern DRC
Can a revamped Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) turn the tide against the malignant Islamic State-linked armed group that continues to terrorise the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)?
The FIB is staffed by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and attached to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). For the past few years, the brigade has done little to implement its aggressive mandate to neutralise armed groups like the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the east of the country. So last year, the UN decided to restructure the FIB and include troops from Kenya and Nepal.
The original FIB, comprising three battalions from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi, went into the DRC in 2013. It registered almost immediate success in its first campaign against the M23 rebels backed by Rwanda. After that it was supposed to tackle the other armed groups in the region, like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda and the ADF.
But those campaigns have not gone well, particularly against the ADF, which operates in the Beni district of North Kivu province. On the Semuliki bridge in December 2017, 14 FIB peacekeepers and five soldiers from the DRC’s defence force – the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) – were killed. And then, in the Usalama operation in November 2018, nine peacekeepers were killed and two went missing.
The FIB did little to implement its aggressive mandate to neutralise armed forces in the eastern DRC
The ADF has continued to massacre civilians and a ‘state of siege’ declared in May by DRC President Félix Tshisekedi in North Kivu and Ituri has apparently had little impact. The ADF has proved a far tougher foe than the M23. Originally from Uganda, it has been in the DRC since the 1990s. Fighters have entrenched themselves into Beni, with an intimate knowledge of the terrain, extensive smuggling networks for financing, and strong support from some locals.
And while the M23 was a fairly conventional and visible military force that could be attacked with conventional weapons, the ADF is a classic guerrilla operation. It attacks civilians and then retreats rapidly into the jungle before the FARDC or FIB arrive.
The ADF is also completely ruthless. Its most notorious and troublesome tactic is to respond to FARDC and FIB offensives with massive reprisals against civilians. Some suspect the increasing brutality and effectiveness of the group may be owed to its affiliation in 2019 to Islamic State through its Central Africa Province.
Another hindrance in the fight against the ADF has been inadequate coordination between the FARDC and MONUSCO/FIB, for a variety of reasons. These include a refusal by the UN to work with some FARDC generals accused of human rights violations, and suspicion that some FARDC troops have committed atrocities. FARDC generals have also sometimes been reluctant to share operational intelligence with the FIB.
These factors – along with fear of a ruthless enemy and concerns about provoking reprisals against civilians – appear to have kept FIB countries from participating in offensives against ADF since October 2019. The Kivu Security Tracker has recorded only five ground engagements between the brigade and ADF in Beni after that, none of which was initiated by the FIB.
With new MONUSCO leadership, cooperation with the new DRC government may be easier
But the brigade’s relative inaction sparked demonstrations – some of which turned deadly – by the Congolese population against MONUSCO/FIB for doing so little to protect them. Local approval of MONUSCO dropped to only 47% in March 2021 from 68% two years earlier, according to a poll by the Congo Research Group.
All of this prompted the UN Security Council to send the former head of MONUSCO’s military arm, Lieutenant General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, to assess the FIB in late 2019. His confidential report led to a UN proposal to reorganise the brigade. Along with initiating offensives against armed groups, it would acquire several quick reaction forces. The tactical thinking appeared to be that instead of just launching operations that provoked ADF retaliation, the FIB would respond rapidly to attacks on civilians.
After initially rejecting the proposal in August 2020 because it would introduce non-SADC elements and reduce its control, SADC accepted it at a special summit in November of that year.
UN military sources say the new FIB still comprises three battlegroups from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi. It has also acquired four quick reaction forces, two from Tanzania and Kenya, which are already in place, plus two more from South Africa and Nepal, which are yet to be deployed.
Many worry that military intervention is not being accompanied by any political strategy
Since good intelligence will be key to rapid action that saves civilian lives, the revamped FIB has new intelligence units staffed by Tanzanians and South Africans. It’s too early to say if these changes will make the brigade more effective, especially against the ADF.
Pierre Boisselet of the Kivu Security Tracker says ‘a window of opportunity for the FIB to do better may have opened.’ Troops from other contributing countries may be more willing to fight. With a new MONUSCO head since March and a new force commander coming this month, cooperation with the new DRC government may be easier.
David Zounmenou, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, emphasises however that in the end it is the DRC’s responsibility to protect its people. ‘With the UN exit strategy unfolding, it is more sustainable to reinforce the national security forces’ capacity to consolidate the eventual success of the restructured FIB,’ he says.
Many worry, though, that military intervention is not being accompanied by any political strategy. ‘The causes of the conflict are deep and numerous,’ says Boisselet. ‘They cannot be solved by military means alone – reforms of the Congolese state are also needed.’
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant
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Photo: Ministry of Defence – Kenya