Two things should be clear from the previous pages on the complexity of the conflict and the incentive structure of the Congolese political system: first, that outside interveners can play only a very limited role in ‘solving’ the conflict in the east; and second, that they have very little leverage with the Congolese authorities to change the way things are done. This puts MONUSCO, which is supposed to be the international ‘lead’ for peacebuilding and political dialogue, in a very difficult position.
MONUSCO has to deal with three types of constraints. The first are international constraints. These relate to the lack of political support and the way in which the mission is left out on a limb in dealing with the Congolese government. The second are contextual constraints. The mission is effectively forced to support what is part of the problem because of the nature of the DRC’s political system. Finally, there are institutional and professional constraints, which are ingrained ways of responding along pre-established formats in peacekeeping missions. These three types of constraints have led to a largely supply-driven strategy which has been defined more in terms of the mission’s own means than its contextual ends or impact. Despite MONUSCO’s aggressive post-M23 discourse, the mission’s approach post-2013 has not changed much, guided as it is by the same set of constraints.
A UN peacekeeping mission is never a single organism with a clear top-down command-and-control chain. It’s an amalgam of competing state interests and agendas, held together by a Special Representative (the SRSG). It can only do what the international community, through the Security Council, allows it to do. That, in turn, depends on the strategic interests in the country where the mission is deployed. These strategic interests are unclear in the case of the DRC, and as a result MONUSCO is left in limbo when it comes to the political and military support it needs to do what its mandate stipulates.
There is a general lack of understanding of the conflict in the Congo and what to do with it, which has an important impact on what the mission is allowed to do. As Pouligny (2006) puts it: ‘A peace operation is largely conceived in the antechambers of international organizations (…) according to parameters that often have very little to do with the local and regional context.’ The situation in the Congo is ever-changing and it is difficult to keep track of what is happening on the ground for staff based out of New York, Kinshasa or any of the capital cities. The reports they receive from embassies, UN agencies and MONUSCO tend to be diplomatically phrased, often focusing on incidents rather than trends and highlighting positive developments. They are also kept as short as possible, as complex, long reports are cut down when they go ‘up the line’, or are simply not read. To get a grip on the complexity of the crisis, headquarters staff tend to simplify the situation to an understandable storyline that fits existing models of intervention. Autesserre (2012) shows how these ‘tales’ usually centre around the exploitation of minerals as the principal cause of conflict, sexual violence as a consequence, and the restoration of state authority and the filling of ‘state vacuums’ as a solution. The lack of understanding is not helped by the high turnover of international staff, who usually leave their post after two years. This leaves little institutional memory, and leads to a recycling of the same old approaches for ‘solving’ the conflict in the eastern DRC.
Moreover, even if international actors understood the conflict dynamics in detail, it is questionable whether this would lead to more coordinated political engagement with the DRC and the region. There is little strategic interest in the Congo. Quick (2013) shows how Security Council attention on the DRC peaks in times of crisis (i.e., in 2003, 2008 and 2012), with long periods of little interest in between; roughly the same cyclical engagement, ironically, as the Congolese government has taken. Compared to strategically important crises such as Afghanistan or Syria, the DRC crisis has been a long-running sideshow. In donor states, Congo policy is usually delegated to Africa bureaus of foreign ministries. There seems little willingness to escalate pressing issues in the DRC to a higher political level and have a tough discussion with the government. The traffic light is more or less always on orange: the Security Council is worried about the situation and will cling to every good news story coming out of the country, but is unwilling to do much more or become more political about what is going on.
Nowhere is the lack of strategic interest in Congo better reflected than in the composition of the MONUSCO brigades and in the caveats for the use of force they have been given by the troop-contributing countries (TCCs), particularly India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Uruguay. First of all, there are not enough troops to performthe job the mission is supposed to do. The military assets of the mission, its 20,000 soldiers, its helicopters and armoured vehicles, are deceptive: the peacekeeping mission actually has a limited footprint. There is roughly one peacekeeper for every 725 Congolese people and per 10km2 of largely inaccessible terrain in the eastern provinces, so armed groups have free play for logistical reasons alone. The sheer size of the eastern DRC and the lack of road access mean blue helmets are restricted to patrolling around small, ‘Fort Apache’-style outposts in the countryside. Second, even if they had the means to do what they should, operational caveats get in the way. Most troop contributors stick to the ‘traditional mechanisms of peacekeeping’ including the use of military force only in defence of the ‘mission’ or the ‘mandate’ – both rather ambiguous concepts that can be translated as liberally or conservatively as the troop contributors choose. These caveats have led to confusion, risk-averse behaviour, mixed command and reporting lines, and slow reaction speed. MONUSCO has been heavily criticised over the last few years about incidents of blue helmets ‘hiding’ in their bases and not reacting when nearby villages were being attacked. FARDC soldiers deployed with MONUSCO have also complained about the mission’s unwillingness to patrol and fight on foot on the frontlines, while they take all the risks themselves. The troop contributors have been criticised by the same Western countries that are unwilling to deploy their own troops as peacekeepers in the DRC. This has led to slow deliberations about the rate of troop reimbursements, and as a result, even more foot-dragging by the TCCs. In other words, even if MONUSCO had the mandate and means to go after armed groups, its own troop contributors would probably still not let it do so.
The one-sided understanding of the crisis in the DRC, coupled with the lack of strategic interest, has left MONUSCO in a difficult position. Its mandates symbolise the lowest common denominator between Council members’ positions and that of the Congolese government, and do little about the political drivers of conflict. Mandates emphasise a (limited) military approach to keep out armed groups and protect the population, support army reform, demobilise armed groups, support elections, restore state authority to ‘stabilize’ the east, and fight sexual violence: in all, a fairly standard and technical peacekeeping menu that has been more or less recycled every year between 2008 and the present day. MONUSCO is also left largely on its own to work with the government, as New York offloads politically difficult discussions on to the mission. MONUSCO is a fig leaf for a lack of international willingness, and is sometimes praised, but mainly blamed for anything that happens in the country by the same states that prefer not to get their own hands dirty. In this way, the peacekeeping mission is left in political-military limbo.
The contextual constraints of working in the DRC are not difficult to see. MONUSCO is in the paradoxical position that it is supposed to support a government and a wider political system which, because of the way it functions, is effectively part of the problem. The central government’s agenda may not always be shared by the people of the eastern DRC, who are meant to be the main beneficiaries of MONUSCO’s support, but it is nevertheless the government of a sovereign UN Member State and, as such, the mission’s foremost partner. MONUSCO is only active in the DRC because the government has requested its presence – and this invitation can be withdrawn at any moment. This puts the mission in a difficult position: as the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) guidance puts it, ‘a UN peacekeeping mission can only succeed if the parties on the ground are genuinely committed to resolving conflict through a political process’, which, as we have seen, is rather doubtful. MONUSCO has had to support poorly executed military operations, support fraudulent elections, help roll out a predatory state system, and push for reforms with the very people whose interests are directly opposed to changes in the status quo. It has done so partly because it hoped to have a positive impact or, barring that, to achieve some damage control, but also because it did not have nearly as much choice in the matter as some UN critics seem to believe. MONUSCO is a multilateral tool to support states; it does not have the ‘luxury’ of standing on the sidelines and working around the government the way that NGOs or humanitarian agencies can.
Moreover, even if it knew exactly where to start, MONUSCO has little leverage to change the way the Congolese government works. The mission doesn’t necessarily have a lot to offer that the government needs, except for logistical support for elections or occasional military support in times of crisis. The mission dares not push the government too far: if it should be asked to leave, it might well be the ordinary Congolese in the east who would suffer the most, as the mission could no longer protect them or exert any damage control around the FARDC’s military operations. As MONUSCO is the world’s biggest peacekeeping mission, being asked to leave could also seriously damage the reputation of peacekeeping operations in general. Kinshasa knows MONUSCO’s lack of leverage very well, and has a long history of more or less ignoring the mission’s diplomatic overtures and advocacy. The relationship between MONUSCO and the government has always been strained, and the mission has had to walk on eggshells in criticising human rights abuses and the absence of reforms. The government has generally left MONUSCO to do what it likes, as long as these are harmless technical interventions, and has slapped it on the fingers as soon as the mission seemed to impede on what the government considered its sovereign prerogatives. It has rarely pro-actively come to the mission to ask for help, except in times of crisis. A ‘realist’ would perhaps see these crisis moments, such as the fall of Goma, as the time to put the thumbscrews on Kinshasa and demand reforms in exchange for support. However, this not only fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between the UN and the government (the UN is, more than ever, meant to support a government unconditionally in times of crisis), but also underestimates the resilience of the political system to outside pressure: the government couldn’t change its system if it wanted to and political survival trumps other considerations. A confrontational approach would likely have backfired. Understandably, MONUSCO may have thought it better to prevent these sorts of clashes and instead re-position itself with every new turn of government policy.
Besides having its freedom to manoeuvre curtailed by a lack of Security Council support and the inherent paradox of working with the Congolese government, MONUSCO also has to work within serious institutional and professional constraints. These constraints have naturally influenced priority setting and implementation: the most innovative ideas in the world could not be realized if staff doesn’t know how, or when they aren’t motivated.Institutional and professional constraints are not particular to MONUSCO: researchers like Pouligny (2006), Hochschildt (2010) and Autesserre (2014), and even the most recent World Development Report (2015), have shown that dominant institutional practices, narratives and biases within most peacekeeping missions and development organisations dictate how they respond to challenges.
A first institutional constraint is the mission’s set of rules and regulations. MONUSCO, like any peacekeeping mission, is subject to a stupendous bureaucratic system that cripples the mission’s flexibility. Budgets need to be approved on the basis of outcomes expected a year in advance, which makes forward planning an exercise in crystal-ball gazing. Mission sections are chronically understaffed as the human resource system has slowed to a crawl. Particularly destructive to the mission’s effectiveness are its restrictive security rules. Armed convoys are required to take staff to areas where security incidents have occurred in recent months, which limits their flexibility and response speed. Security rules tend to alienate the local population, whose main interaction with peacekeepers seems to consist of seeing them drive by in armoured convoys. Longer-term deployments in fragile areas can only be done out of a UN military base, which makes it hard for civilian staff to be seen as neutral interlocutors. MONUSCO bases look like fortresses with barbed wire, meant to keep people out. All this makes the Congolese wonder whether the peacekeepers are not more concerned about their own security than that of the people they are trying to protect. This has led to frustration and anger. The mission may have all sorts of valid reasons for their security rules, but at the end of the day they create distance from the very people the mission is trying to help.
A second problem is complexity bias. Field staff suffer from cognitive overload: there are too many complex, opaque processes going on around them to make sense of. Because of time and security constraints, interaction with Congolese communities is limited to short field visits and discussions with formal authorities, so only limited information is gathered. Field staff are under constant pressure from headquarters to provide ready-to-go solutions to complex problems. There seem to be some different perceptions of priorities between field staff and headquarters, with the latter thinking their field colleagues are too focused on ‘local issues’ instead of the bigger picture; and field staff thinking their colleagues at HQ are too optimistic about government rhetoric and ‘paper progress’, which does not make the slightest difference to Congolese in the eastern provinces. This tendency for simplification is strengthened by the UN’s preference for thematic knowledge over country-specific knowledge. To allow staff to be moved from one mission to the other, peacekeeping staff specialise over the years in certain themes (‘job families’ like DDR or human rights), which are supposed to be more or less universally applicable across contexts, based on ready-to-use templates. Such templates are particularly attractive in complex situations when staff are under pressure to deliver, as they provide quick ‘answers’ that are familiar to the hierarchy. A process known as ‘confirmation bias’ naturally sets in: selectively focusing on information that supports previously held beliefs. In the case of MONUSCO, this results in the overt emphasis on the restoration of formal state authority to achieve peace at the local level. Whether the mission is building up or phasing out, the emphasis is always on support for military action, and building up the army, police and administration. The use of this ‘state authority’ language has become so ingrained in the organisation that it may not realise how alien some of it sounds to Congolese, who clearly have different experiences with their own government. Confirmation bias is more likely to happen and lead to ‘groupthink’ in organisations with top-down priority setting, such as a military organisation or, indeed, a peacekeeping mission. Thematic specialisation and confirmation bias helps staff to have quick ‘answers’ ready, but also leads to short-term, technical solutions being proposed for long-term and highly complex problems.
Third, falling back on top-down, rapid fixes, in its turn, is strengthened by upward accountability for results. Staff are responsible to their direct superiors and the broader mission plan, not to the local population. The mission emphasises ‘visible impact’, so staff and reports will naturally emphasise quantifiable results (number of training sessions organised and patrols undertaken, kilometres of roads rehabilitated, etc.) without trying to assess what the impact of such activities could be on the broader peace process or whether local communities appreciate such activities. This dynamic is reinforced by what is known as ‘sunk cost bias’. This is the tendency to continue projects or activities once initial investments have been made, as changing tactics mid-course is not only administratively difficult, but would also be recognition that past activities have been wasted. As to sunk cost bias, MONUSCO is in a difficult position: the mission has stressed that the ‘old’ way of peacekeeping didn’t work the way it should have and got in the way when Goma fell, but as we shall see in the rest of this chapter, this has not led to a fundamental change in mission tactics.
Finally, there is an increasing body of literature that examines the impact of stress on the way international organisations work. Walkup (1997) shows how stress leads to overwork, detachment, blaming others for a lack of results and, finally, reality distortion: staff start to believe that despite what they see and hear, what they do must have a positive effect on peace and development somewhere, as the thought that all that work was for nothing is just too painful to imagine. These stress-based dynamics are, not surprisingly, found in MONUSCO, which has to deal with an unwilling government and is blamed by all sides for its deficiencies. Mahoney (2013) captured the resulting frustration well: ‘One of the most powerful impressions the author got during this field research [in DRC] was the deep sense of sadness, impotence and hopelessness shared by so many of the most committed people trying to help. These emotions seem warranted by the consistently bad news they live with. Nevertheless, a sense of impotence is one of the worst inhibiting forces against any level of collective strategic thinking and planning (…) Creativity also suffers: if we don’t believe that solutions exist, we are less able to look for them.’
These international, contextual, institutional and professional constraints put MONUSCO in a very difficult situation. First, it is mandated to support what is effectively part of the problem, i.e., the Congolese political system. It has few bargaining chips, so can be pushed around with practical immunity. Second, through the combined effects of institutional and professional culture, biases and stress, standardised, simplified approaches are promoted for extremely complex problems, and do not have the effect they should. Finally, as there is a short international attention span and little strategic interest in the DRC, MONUSCO could have the best ideas in the world but would not be able to get the political support and military means needed to put them into practice. Perhaps not surprisingly, the strategy MONUSCO has chosen for eastern DRC is based on what it thinks it can do despite these constraints.
‘Strategy’ is a concept that means different things to different people, but Simpson (2013) gives a useful summary: ‘Strategy is the calculation of objectives, concepts and resources, within acceptable bands of risks, to create more favourable outcomes than might otherwise exist (…) strategy must understand a problem on its own terms, not through dogmatically applied conceptual structures (…) pragmatically drawing upon doctrine to create a tailored approach (…) a dialogue between the product and the relevant technique.’ In other words, strategy is about understanding the political problem and the potential end game, focusing your means towards that end, and flexibly adapting the approach whenever required. As we shall see, MONUSCO has never had the leeway to develop such a game plan and follows an approach based more on means than on ends.
Considering the constraints mentioned in this chapter, any MONUSCO strategy would have to stay within certain boundaries. First, the causes of conflict related to the predatory nature of the state or ethnic issues need to be handled carefully, as it is unclear how to engage with these to begin with, and raising the issues might provoke Kinshasa into speeding up the mission’s withdrawal. Second, the mission’s end-goal needs to remain open and ambiguous. That way, options remain on the table to either scale-up the mission, should the east come apart at the seams again, or to slim down. MONUSCO needs to keep emphasising progress, as this will maintain morale and consistency, keep the government content, and prevent doubt and navel-gazing in the UN Security Council. The easiest way to show progress is to focus on activities the mission knows how to carry out and which the central government accepts – so nothing too complicated and with uncertain effects. These considerations have made MONUSCO define its approach in a particularly constant way: despite the ever-changing context of eastern DRC and the re-branding of activities, on closer observation, MONUSCO has undertaken the same sort of work for the last five years or so.
As to the causes of conflict: the mission seems to pick and choose among the complex interplay of root causes, drivers and multipliers of conflict those that it wants to address. Security Council reports and mandates have mostly defined the ‘root causes’ of conflict as state vacuums, impunity, regional interests in minerals and ‘governance’, without really explaining what those mean or how they relate to each other. Considering the activities it has put in place for protection of civilians and training of state agents, MONUSCO seems to be addressing the consequences of violence more than the causes of it. This limited analysis has two obvious benefits though: first, it avoids difficult discussions about the predatory nature of the state, so it is palatable to the mission’s host and will lead to less interference; and second, the way the conflict is defined fits well with the traditional toolkit of a peacekeeping mission. If problems are thought to be caused by faltering military operations and capacity shortfalls of administration, police and justice, then the mission’s traditional tools of support for military operations and training, equipment and support for the deployment of state actors fit well. The mission’s conflict analysis is supply-driven this way: instead of basing activities on an analysis of conflict, it bases the analysis of conflict on the type of activities it has available. Ferguson (1990) would call this an example of ‘DevSpeak’: ‘a distinctive style of reasoning, implicitly (and perhaps unconsciously) reasoning backwards from the necessary conclusions (…) to the premises required to generate those conclusions.’ Or, less prosaically: if you have a hammer, all your problems start to look like nails.
Despite the many changes in the DRC context, MONUSCO’s goals have remained remarkably similar from 2011 to 2015. They are summed up by a 2013 Security Council report as: ‘the reduction of armed violence, violence against civilians and sexual violence to a level that can be effectively managed by national security and justice institutions; stabilization through the establishment of functional state institutions in conflict-affected and mining areas; and a functioning democratic order that reduces risks of instability, including adequate political space, observance of human rights and credible elections, on a regular basis.’ These goals are not only clearly linked to the activity-driven analysis mentioned above, they are also very ambitious: they seem to list all the things the country hasn’t got, and has never had, and turns them into a strategy. They are also highly ambiguous. The theory of change behind these goals is never specified: for example, how will expanding the state help to stabilize it? Who defines when a democratic order is ‘functional’? How do you measure whether that point has been reached and the time is right for an exit of the mission? Instead, progress seems to be defined by the number of activities the mission implements. Most Security Council reports start by saying that there ‘has been progress, but challenges remain’ and sketch the political situation, then spend many paragraphs outlining what MONUSCO has done, without linking these activities (or ‘inputs’) to concrete outputs in terms of peace and security or to the political analysis which the report started off with. There seems to be an assumption that the mission has a positive impact because it is active. None of this is particularly ‘SMART’ but that, of course, is the point: if there is no clarity about the end game for the mission, and there was no ‘bar’ or baseline set to begin with, then it is also impossible to define benchmarks for what objectively constitutes success, leaving it up to MONUSCO and the government to fill in how they see fit. The mission and the government undertake a yearly evaluation of the situation in the eastern provinces to decide on the required size and scope of the mission, but the results of these evaluations are kept classified. This ambiguity leaves all the options on the table to either withdraw or strengthen MONUSCO – whatever option works at that point for the GoDRC and the Security Council.
To sum up, and to go back to Simpson’s definition of a strategy: instead of developing goals and an approach based on an assessment (‘the political problem on its own terms’) and undertaking tailored activities linked to it (‘a dialogue between product and relevant technique’), MONUSCO has more or less inverted this idea: it sets out what it feels it can do first, and then deducts goals and an overall approach out of it. MONUSCO defines its strategy in terms of its means rather than its ends, which makes it supply-driven and, as such, not really a strategy in the original sense of the word. What little strategy the mission has, seems to be focused more on ‘internal’ audiences – New York and Kinshasa – than on contextual impact. Considering the complexity of the conflict and the many constraints on the mission, the lack of an in-depth strategy cannot be entirely surprising. In many ways, MONUSCO is doing what it can in an impossible situation. Still, it is hard to escape the feeling that efforts are going to waste this way.
The fall of Goma at the end of 2012 would seem to be the perfect outside ‘shock’ to break through the mission’s ingrained thinking. That MONUSCO had stood aside to let the M23 enter the most strategic town in eastern Congo led to a crisis atmosphere inside the Security Council. Some outside observers thought that MONUSCO’s days were numbered and that the mission would have to fundamentally overhaul its approach if it wanted to survive this crisis.
The mission initially seems to have got exactly the overhaul it needed. The new special representative, Martin Kobler, energetically set the mission in overdrive in 2013, ‘talking the talk’ on addressing the political causes of conflict and being a constant presence in the eastern provinces and the media. The mission also outlined what seemed to be a new approach, dividing into pillars of support for confidence-building and reforms related to the Peace Security and Cooperation Framework (PSCF); protection of civilians through more risk-taking patrolling and early warning networks; and stabilization with quick-impact ‘Islands of Stability’ to compliment the ongoing works under the I4S (more about which in the next chapter). By far the most visible new element of the mission was the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), which was set up to pro-actively take the fight to the armed groups and was at the time widely hailed as a new type of aggressive ‘peace enforcement’. In line with the renewed focus on the east, a substantial part of the mission was re-deployed to the eastern provinces as well. As Kobler put it: ‘fourteen years of a static approach have proven insufficient. (…) We are not in the DRC to react but to act, we are not here to deter but to prevent, and (...) we must make peace a long term reality.’ These were hopeful words indeed.
However, one should be careful to look beyond this energetic new rhetoric, the mission’s thematic re-structuring and the flurry of activities, at what is actually being done differently than before. In the context of the Congo post-M23, a genuine strategic re-assessment would mean that partners would have taken the time to reflect on what the situation was on the ground, how (and whether) the parties’ incentives had changed, and what the mission could realistically do with the means at its disposal. Instead, the mission seems to have rushed on as fast as it could, re-branding what is, on closer observation, not that different an approach from before. The end goals of the mission are the same as in earlier mandates: reduction of the threat of armed groups, protection of civilians and restoration of state authority. Neither does the mission necessarily do things differently than before, as it still has the same toolkit at its disposal: support for military operations, training and equipment, support for elections, et cetera. The amped-up discourse around national reform and the need for ‘politics first’ looks good but is rather deceiving and, as we have seen, remains steadfastly ignored by the central government. This is not to say that MONUSCO’s new energy has no inherent value, but it may go a bit too far to credit the mission for boldly going in a new direction. Considering the mission’s constraints, this cannot be entirely surprising: even with the best intentions in the world, MONUSCO can only operate within the boundaries discussed earlier in this chapter.
To understand how constrained the mission still is by international agendas post-M23, it is useful to take a closer look at the much-discussed Force Intervention Brigade, the FIB. The UN has presented the FIB as a means to create space for the political process, and time for the Congolese army to take over operations. The FIB has been hailed by the wider international community as a break with the past: a peace enforcement brigade that fights hand in hand with the FARDC to ‘mop up’ the last remaining armed groups and force them to disarm. On closer inspection, there are three problems with this type of discourse. First, the FIB is not that new because of what it does: it is more of a robust support-giver than an offensive force. Second, the FIB isn’t new because of why it does what it does: troop-contributing state interests guide the FIB’s agenda as much as any other MONUSCO battalion. And third, the FIB may not have had the game-changing impact on the perceptions of eastern Congolese as the discourse would like.
First, the Intervention Brigade is not that new because of what it does, supposedly aggressively fighting back armed groups. The UN has something of a history of operating aggressively against armed groups in other peacekeeping theatres, but what is different this time around is the FIB’s mandate to undertake unilateral military operations, without being in support of the national army. However, SRSG Kobler has made it clear that this will not happen, as unilateral operations cannot ensure that the FARDC could ‘hold’ the zone ‘cleared’ by the Brigade – not to mention the diplomatic problems this would probably cause with Kinshasa. More importantly, however, looking beyond the aggressive rhetoric, the FIB’s actual tactics on the ground show it to be more of a robust support-giving force than an offensive military force. It more or less does what other MONUSCO forces do, except, on occasion, more ‘robustly’ so. This is shown in what is arguably the brigade’s greatest feat of arms, its role in the defeat of the M23. The FIB acted as a three-front defensive blocking force, allowing the Congolese army to free troops to surround M23 positions in a pincer movement. The FIB took substantially more risks than MONUSCO normally would have, in some cases engaged its infantry directly with the rebels, and provided robust fire and logistical support to the Congolese armed forces, which made a big difference in defeating the rebellion. In the end though, the M23 was defeated because it decided to fight in regular infantry formations instead of using guerrilla tactics, and because the Congolese army deployed troops capable of combined arms operations, which were properly equipped, fought hard and were led by specially selected commanders not linked to patrimonial military networks in the east. Most critically perhaps was that due to strong international pressure, Rwanda decided not to intervene on the M23’s side this time. This should nuance the Brigade’s role a little. More than anything else, the FIB is a force multiplier; it is not an aggressive front-line force. That role has always been played by the Congolese army.
Second, the Intervention Brigade isn’t that new because of why it does what it does. Its activities show that it is an extension of state interests as much as other MONUSCO brigades are, except that these interests are more regional this time. This is clear from the way in which the force was set up after the fall of Goma. The FIB was a creation of the South African Development Community (SADC), as South Africa, Tanzania and Angola have strong strategic and business ties with Kinshasa, and a more difficult relationship with Rwanda. President Kabila held off an earlier suggestion for a regional force, in which Rwanda and Uganda would play a role, preferring to work directly with his allies instead. The FIB was originally meant to be a regional African brigade working in parallel to MONUSCO, and it was only after discussions between UN peacekeeping-chief Ladsous and the African Union that the brigade was finally integrated, despite strong doubts from other MONUSCO troop contributors. The way in which the Brigade has targeted its opponents since its formation makes it hard to escape the conclusion that it reflects the limited strategic goals of its troop contributors and the Congolese government more than those of broader peacebuilding. The FIB was praised for its robust support in getting the M23 out, a Rwandan proxy force, which was a direct threat to SADC’s ally, the Kinshasa government. Since then, the Intervention Brigade’s momentum seems to have petered out. It provided support to army operations against the rebels of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) on the border with Uganda, but this support was apparently not nearly as robust as it was against the M23. There was no joint planning involved, and no FIB involvement in ground operations either. As the ADF is not nearly as urgent a strategic threat to the government as the M23 was, this lack of interest is understandable. There was an even bigger lack of FIB enthusiasm to go after the FDLR, which is not exactly surprising considering the rebel movement’s role as a tool used by the FARDC against Rwanda. The appointment of two UN-blacklisted Congolese generals as the head of anti-FDLR operations, thereby letting the Brigade off the hook, serves the FIB so conveniently that rumours are going around that there was some sort of deal made between South Africa, Tanzania and the DRC. Whatever the situation may be, the Brigade’s foot-dragging around the FDLR has proven to be quite an embarrassment to MONUSCO, as SRSG Kobler has consistently emphasised the need to go after those rebels. If the limited strategic interests of Kinshasa and SADC dominate the Intervention Brigade’s considerations, then the question is whether the defeat of the M23 means it hasn’t outplayed its role by now. Kinshasa’s 2015 request to slim down MONUSCO by 6,000 troops certainly seems to point to this conclusion.
Had the Intervention Brigade’s purpose indeed been to contribute to a broader peace consolidation process, then the removal of the M23 could have provided political breathing space to address some of the local grievances that have made eastern Congo such a fertile ground for foreign-backed rebellions. The defeat of the M23 meant that mayi-mayi groups and the FDLR had fewer excuses to mobilise to ‘protect their communities’. It could have paved the way for multi-track peacebuilding and addressing national reform – originally a quid pro quo for the roll-out of the Brigade. A regional dialogue, focusing on cross-border communities and the (legitimate) security interests of the regional states could have begun. As we have seen, none of this has happened; in fact, as soon as discussions around the establishment of an intervention brigade started, Kinshasa lost interest in further negotiations with the M23 or addressing local grievances. In a way then, the FIB may have actually hastened the current cyclical downturn of government engagement. The deployment of the Intervention Brigade may have closed a window of opportunity for peacebuilding in the east as much as it opened one.
Third, and finally, it is not certain that FIB deployment has given many eastern Congolese new confidence in the future. Harvard’s community perception surveys in the Kivus and Ituri, which were mentioned earlier, were undertaken after the UN-supported defeat of the M23, and MONUSCO was still perceived very negatively, with most (77%) of the interviewees saying the mission made little to no difference to them and was rarely seen, even in areas where it had actually deployed bases nearby. The exception was in Niyaragongo and Rutshuru territories, where the FIB was seen as an active combatant on the side of the Congolese army. This lack of ‘credit dividend’ is perhaps not that surprising: the brigade is still a relatively small part of the wider MONUSCO force: some 3,000 soldiers out of a total of 20,000, or 15%. The majority of MONUSCO blue helmets operate with the same caveats as before, so most eastern Congolese have the same experiences with the mission they have always had. Despite MONUSCO’s best intentions and the many sensitisation sessions about its mandate, it is simply unexplainable to local people why a mission with armoured cars, artillery, attack helicopters and trained soldiers is not more aggressive towards the armed groups. This chimes with Pouligny’s (2006) research, which shows that what people want from a peacekeeping mission is not a neutral intervener but an ally who will risk its own security to fight armed groups for them: ‘(…) Refusal to adopt a position, or mere inaction, is seen as taking a de facto position.’ The Intervention Brigade may have actually created expectations that the other MONUSCO brigades should go out and fight too: if the FIB can (supposedly) do it, why not the other blue helmets? These negative perceptions may be one-sided, but this is irrelevant for a mission whose effectiveness relies on the support of local communities. As Simpson (2013) notes about counter-insurgency operations: ‘If you think you are doing well, then think again: for it is not what you think, it is what they [the population] think that matters – if they think you are doing badly, then you probably are.’
None of this is meant to belittle the efforts of the Brigade, or the sacrifices it has made in fighting the M23. It is not a criticism of MONUSCO either. The FIB and its accompanying agenda were the best the UN could have achieved under the circumstances. But it goes too far to call the Brigade a tool for peace consolidation, or ‘new’ or ‘aggressive’, and it is too early to know whether it has served a broader peacebuilding purpose. As the government is asking MONUSCO to slim down and the post-M23 downturn inevitably gains momentum, it is unlikely that we will know what a more long-term, nuanced military approach could have looked like.