With its nearly nineteen thousand troops, MONUSCO is an especially painful reminder of the inherent shortcomings of the present UN peacekeeping model that the “intervention brigade” will have to overcome if it is to permanently change the game in the region. Although heavily armed, the MONUSCO force has actually been prevented by its civilian protection mandate from engaging insurgent groups or clearing territory. On paper, Chapter VII of the UN Charter gives the force fairly broad latitude to engage the armed groups that Rwanda has helped establish in the DRC. But in fact, major contributors to the force simply can’t risk the political fallout of any potential casualties—“the Indian ambassador was here every month at one point,” one Goma-based security expert told me. And FARDC, the Congolese military, is not only too fractured and unprofessional to act as an effective partner for the UN mission—according to a 2010 State Department report, it is also responsible for “the majority of the country’s human rights abuses.” In May 2013, it was reported that Congolese army officers had raped dozens of women, and even girls as young as six, in a town called Minova, in South Kivu Province. In a sign of the near total breakdown of order in Congo, there was little political or organizational fallout from this state-tolerated rampage.
This combination of ineffective troop contributors and predatory state partners has made for a toxic situation on the ground, engendering a kind of operational passivity that the intervention brigade is meant to correct. In M23-occupied territory, I saw hundreds of MONUSCO troops on patrol, including a ten-truck convoy of blue helmets and several tanks.
On the one hand, the peacekeepers were fulfilling their mission by making sure that humanitarian corridors remained open and providing a potential tripwire in the event of any future, Rwandan-backed offensive along the countries’ porous border region. Yet although there are ten times as many soldiers in MONUSCO as there are in M23, the peacekeeping force isn’t designed to engage in traditional war-fighting activities. Thus MONUSCO, in its pre-intervention brigade form, simply appeared to maintain a baseline of security—a baseline that didn’t in fact exist for certain ethnic or political groups living under M23’s control.
In November of 2012, MONUSCO essentially allowed M23 to occupy Goma after the Congolese military refused to defend the city during a major offensive. The attack turned out to be a pivotal moment in regional affairs. Goma is essential to UN and NGO operations in the region. It is home to more than one million people, with large populations of every major regional ethnic group. The city is also a hub for the DRC’s lucrative mineral trade, as well as a strategically crucial air and lake port. Until November, experts and policymakers believed that insurgents wouldn’t target Goma because of the economic and political fallout such a provocative move would entail. But then M23 showed up with “equipment they certainly didn’t have before,” in the words of one UN official, including night-vision goggles and state-of-the-art communications gear. Heavily armed Rwandan commandos reportedly joined in the offensive as well.
The UN’s decision not to defend the city is understandable: because of its restraint, there was no street-to-street fighting and few civilian casualties, which probably would not have been the case if MONUSCO had gotten involved. And it’s arguable that it should not be the responsibility of Egyptians and Indians to act as a de facto Congolese military—especially when the actual Congolese military makes the conscious…