The Best Defense Is No Offense: Why Cuts to UN Troops in Congo Could Be a Good Thing

Following strong pressure from the Trump administration to downsize peacekeeping across the board, the United Nations Security Council cut by 3,600 the authorised troop levels for the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). This decision came only days after 40 Congolese police were beheaded and two UN-contracted experts and their interpreter were killed by militia members, and amidst warnings by many Western countries that now is a bad time to draw down the UN in the country.

Earlier in March, UN Secretary-General António Guterres had in fact requested additional police units for MONUSCO to address the growing risks of violence (this was rejected by the Security Council). But there is a way to meet both the US demands for cuts and the UN’s call for better resources to protect people under threat: MONUSCO should remove the troops it uses for offensive combat operations and instead beef up its ability to move forces quickly around the country to protect civilians.

MONUSCO’s “Force Intervention Brigade” (FIB) has been called the “first ever offensive combat force” in UN peacekeeping. With 3,000 troops, air reconnaissance, surveillance drones, attack helicopters and the most robust mandate in UN history, the FIB should have been an exciting new chapter for peacekeeping. But after four years on the ground, it has become clear that offensive combat operations are a poor use of UN resources for three reasons: (1) they don’t really work; (2) they could well be harming civilians; and (3) they divert focus and resources away from more serious threats facing the Congolese people. Eliminating the very expensive FIB and using the savings to increase the UN’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to protect civilians would put resources where they are most needed, a good deal for Guterres and for Trump.

The Force Intervention Brigade doesn’t work

Established in the wake of the rebel group M23’s takeover of Goma in 2012, the FIB was initially successful in helping to defeat M23. But this victory was as much the result of concerted international pressure on Rwanda to stop supporting the group and a sincere desire by Kinshasa to push the M23 out of the country. Since 2013, the FIB has had a dismal track record. It has failed to neutralise any of the other four armed groups it was tasked to fight: the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the Front for the Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FRPI) and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

According to the UN, these militias still retain the capacity to destabilise much of eastern DRC and continue to perpetrate attacks on local communities. In fact, the ADF carried out its most serious attacks in 2016 right under the nose of the FIB, during a period of sustained offensive operations against the ADF by MONUSCO and the Congolese army. In many areas, the local population deeply resents MONUSCO for raising expectations without delivering.

MONUSCO and the Security Council have the wrong strategy, built on the misconception that there is a military solution for the militias of eastern Congo.

Why does the FIB fail to deliver? One reason is that MONUSCO and the Security Council have the wrong strategy, built on the misconception that there is a military solution for the militias of eastern Congo. For example, the FIB carries out aerial bombardment and delivers support to Congolese army ground maneuvers against the ADF, an attempt to degrade the ADF’s capabilities and to drive a wedge between the group and its supposed support base in western Uganda. But, after more than 20 years of living in eastern DRC, the ADF is not a foreign Islamist group, it is part of the Congolese social fabric, an active participant in the illicit networks plundering the timber and mineral resources, and closely linked with parts of the Congolese military and political establishment.

It can’t be separated from a base in Uganda because it has ample reservoirs of support within Congo, though characterising it as foreign and Islamic has a distinct utility for President Kabila and his allies. The same is true of the FDLR and FRPI groups: both are deeply embedded in Congolese society, able to draw from local populations for support and recruitment, fueled by natural resources within the country, and very unlikely to be seriously pressured by the FIB’s military campaign. The LRA, capable of slipping in and out of Congo’s highly porous borders with South Sudan, Uganda and Central African Republic, has proven equally elusive to military pressure.

Secondly, the FIB targets only four of the more than 70 armed groups operating in DRC. For example, the recent spate of killings in the Kasai region led to at least 400 deaths in the past eight months. However, because the group responsible for the killings is not on the FIB’s “hit list,” the FIB has no mandate to engage. Similarly, fighting in Tanganyika province in February this year led to more than 150 deaths and the displacement of 430,000 people — again, not involving groups targeted by the FIB. This limitation means the FIB has essentially no role to play in combating some of the most serious atrocities in DRC, from attacks on vulnerable displaced populations, sexual violence and widespread human rights violations against local communities, or even the killing of UN peacekeepers. This is not to argue that the FIB should be expanded — in fact, the FIB would be a terrible choice to deal with most of these conflicts, which require politically-driven engagement and a protection-oriented force — but to point to the need for better use of resources.

The UN’s offensive operations could be causing harm

What happens when the FIB sends in its attack helicopters to strike an ADF stronghold? To be honest, no one knows. MONUSCO rarely carries out battle damage assessments following a bombing raid, because the jungle canopy is too dense, and the FIB is not trained to conduct ground assessments in the jungle.  As one MONUSCO official stated, “We are bombarding without eyes on the ground.” In fact, the UN has to take the government’s word that it’s even targeting the right spot in the jungle: MONUSCO generally gets its targets from the Congolese army.

What we do know is that following a MONUSCO offensive there tend to be reprisal attacks on nearby villages and an increase in kidnappings, likely in an effort to refill the militia’s ranks after taking losses. Similarly, there are credible reports that MONUSCO-supported offensives against the FDLR have triggered further displacements of the Hutu population, putting more people at risk. While these are not necessarily a direct result of the FIB’s activities, they point to the possibility that the FIB is doing more harm than good.

Well under half of those living in eastern DRC believe MONUSCO protects civilians at all, and nearly half of the eastern population thinks MONUSCO should leave altogether.

Furthermore, MONUSCO has historically insisted that the FIB conduct all its operations in support of the Congolese army, in part to avoid collateral damage on a terrain where the targets are difficult to determine. But by acting jointly with the Congolese army, even with measures to mitigate human rights violations, the UN appears complicit in some highly dubious activities in eastern DRC. According to the UN’s reporting, the Congolese state was responsible for roughly 65 percent of the human rights violations last year, and in many parts of the country, the army is seen by local communities as the most dangerous armed group. A well-respected organisation tracking this issue in the DRC commented that joint operations with the Congolese army “at best forego opportunities for protecting civilians and, at worst, support FARDC operations that cause excessive civilian harm.” In an increasingly fractured country with pro- and anti-Kabila groups pitted viciously against each other — and with nearly 40 per cent of the population of the view that MONUSCO is corrupt — the FIB’s close proximity to the Congolese army renders it too easily manipulated as a pawn in a political game being run from Kinshasa.

A dangerous distraction

The FIB draws important attention and resources away from the core task of MONUSCO in eastern DRC: protecting civilians. One analyst referred to the FIB as “valium for MONUSCO”, allowing the other UN troops (the so-called “framework brigades”) to fall into apathy. By designating the FIB as the “robust” element of the mission, the other troops are implicitly let off the hook. This passivity has contributed to repeated failures to protect civilians and an overall negative view of MONUSCO. Just ask the Congolese population: well under half of those living in eastern DRC believe MONUSCO protects civilians at all, and nearly half of the eastern population thinks MONUSCO should leave altogether.

The narrative that offensive operations will result in better protections for the people living in eastern DRC is highly questionable and quite possibly untrue (possibly a “fib”). Not only has it failed to degrade the militias it was tasked to fight, but the FIB has potentially increased risks to civilians and diverted resources away from activities that might well serve them better.

Troop cuts: an opportunity to protect

The Security Council’s decision to lower the troop ceiling by 3,600 troops is not necessarily as drastic as it sounds. MONUSCO regularly operates at well below its authorised troop levels anyway, due to the regular rotations of troops and a high vacancy rate, and there is a possibility that as few as 500 troops will actually be sent home. In a mission the size of MONUSCO, there are many ways to trim around the edges, such as drawing down troops in less conflict-affected areas (part of the mission’s exit strategy anyway). The question is whether the UN wants to continue with business as usual, tinkering with a mission that is expensive, unpopular, and showing extremely limited success in neutralising armed groups. Or, as some experts have suggested, should the UN use the cuts to make more drastic changes to peacekeeping more broadly?

The crux of the question in Congo is whether the FIB is good value for money. The FIB represents a significant portion of MONUSCO’s US$1.2 billion budget. This money could be repurposed to deploy more mobile units capable of responding quickly wherever violence arises in Congo, and specifically tasked with defending Congolese under imminent risk. Unlike the FIB, these units would be equipped to quickly provide a protective presence in any areas where the risk to civilians was imminent, access hard to reach areas, and stay in place for several days without re-supply. This “rapidly deployable battalion” model has already been tried in MONUSCO, with some positive results, and could be replicated with the savings from the FIB. In fact, the Security Council has already expressed enthusiasm for making MONUSCO “more active, more agile, more mobile.” Removing the FIB could also have the positive impact of energizing the other troops in the mission, who could no longer point to the FIB as the “robust part” of MONUSCO.

There are also cheaper options for beefing up MONUSCO’s response apart from troops. Some of the money saved by getting rid of the FIB could go into improving the ability of the UN to track and disrupt the criminal networks bleeding the country dry of natural resources and feeding militias in the east, or to improving early warning networks. These could be established at a fraction of the cost of maintaining the FIB, and would likely have more impact.

The risks to civilians will almost certainly grow in the coming months as President Kabila looks for any reason to cling on to power beyond the end of the year. Bombing rebel positions in the jungle is the last thing MONUSCO needs to be doing with its limited resources. Instead, the UN should use the Security Council’s cuts to help it take a tough decision: end the experiment with offensive combat and focus on helping the Congolese weather the coming storm.

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Dr Adam Day is Director of Programmes at the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research in New York where he oversees current research projects and the development of new programmes.

Prior to UNU, Dr Day served for a decade in the UN, focusing on peace operations, political engagement in conflict settings, mediation and protection of civilians. He served as Senior Political Adviser to MONUSCO (the Democratic Republic of the Congo), in the UN Special Coordinator’s Office for Lebanon, in the front offices of both UNMIS (Khartoum) and UNAMID (Darfur), and was a political officer in both the Department of Political Affairs and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York. Dr Day also has substantial civil society experience, working in Human Rights Watch’s Justice Program and for the Open Society Justice Initiative in Cambodia.