Having been brought to the brink of ruin by former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, shattered in the Congo wars and pieced together from the remnants of diverse rebel groups, the Congolese army (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo – FARDC) had been reduced to just another armed group in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International regularly listed the FARDC as one of the organisations in the region with the worst human rights records. There are several well-documented cases of mass rapes, murders and exploitation of natural resources carried out by the Congolese soldiers and officers.
At the same time, the FARDC has only rarely had military success despite its size (around 150,000 soldiers) and receiving weapons, logistics and training support from various western militaries and the United Nations. In the Congo wars, the army was defeated twice by the army of its substantially smaller neighbour Rwanda and only survived the Second Congo War because units from Angola and Zimbabwe fought most of the battles. With Rwanda’s support, the M23 rebel group swept aside the FARDC lines of defence around Goma in November. The M23 occupied Goma, a metropolitan city on the border with Rwanda with more than one million inhabitants for a short time until the FARDC managed to regain control as diplomatic pressure forced the rebels to retreat.Intact supply lines bring success at the front
FARDC units have been receiving training, logistics, reconnaissance and combat helicopter support from Belgians, Americans and troops under the UN for years. This engagement has not to date yielded much success, however, because the structures of FARDC were considerably weakened through corruption, the criminal activities of its officers and the questionable loyalties of many former rebels who had been integrated into the army.
Slowly, things are starting to change however. In an offensive action in recent weeks against M23 positions near Goma, the FARDC managed to make some territorial gains and received kudos from several observers for their tactical behaviour. Jason Stearns, a former member of the UN expert group for Congo, has attributed this change in particular to tightly organised supply lines and a change in the management of the troops (Jason Stearns, “Is the Congolese army getting better?“, Congo Siasa, 20.07.2013). After last November’s disgrace, many officers were called back from the front lines, especially those who had sabotaged the deployment of newly formed elite units, according to a Belgian military trainer.
With the UN on the offensive
FARDC also received some boost from the fact that the UN is ready to test a radical new peacekeeping concept in eastern Congo (cf.: “High-Level Debate on the Democratic Republic of the Congo“, What’s in blue, 24.07.2013). In reaction to the fall of Goma last year, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO) with 16,000 troops came under a lot of criticism. The UN troops sat by in their tanks and combat helicopters watching the front line collapse and M23 march into the city. The criticism was not always fair and reasonable: MONUSCO was bound to a restrictive mandate which did not allow it to carry out offensive actions independently. The rebels in turn were clever enough not to attack the UN units. Hence, MONUSCO was no longer permitted to get involved in the battles after the FARDC fled the city.
If the intervention model currently being tried out by the UN in the Congo meets with success, this could signal a paradigm shift for UN peacekeeping missions worldwide. It is not a coincidence that this new model for the UN is being tested in Africa. The peacekeeping mission in Somalia under the oversight of the African Union has been working for a long time with more offensive strategies than those tolerated by the UN in its own missions. The African states seem to be ready to take the risk associated with an offensive mission. Dead soldiers are much more difficult to sell politically in Europe than for the governments in Pretoria and Kampala.
Similar to the case in Somalia, the new military dynamics could also give impetus to finding a political solution for the continuing conflicts in eastern Congo. Whether this will happen or not still remains to be seen. Two decades of civil war and a complicated political situation in the region are more than just a normal endurance test for the Congolese army as it gets stronger or for the new peacekeeping concept.
The newly formed “Force Intervention Brigade” (FIB) at exercises near its base in Sake, about 25 km west of Goma:
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Despite negotiations, battles are still taking place between the Congolese army and M23 around the town of Goma. On War is Boring, David Axe published some current photos by Joseph Kay from the front line.