Goma Crisis Shines Light on Bankrupt Military Policies in the DRC

There is undoubtedly a need for a political solution to the ongoing crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which recently reached new depths with the fall of Goma. Yet viable solutions to intricate, multilayered conflict dynamics are difficult to reach when one party—in this case, the Congolese government—is brought to its knees following humiliating military defeats. The probability of a sustainable compromise that will reduce violence in the Kivus is difficult to envisage in the face of an insurgency led by skilled military entrepreneurs who have crucial military and diplomatic backing from neighboring countries. Certainly, the M23 has advanced some legitimate claims that are shared by both the Tutsi minority they claim to represent and wider layers of the population tired of the Kabila government’s inept governance. However, it is unlikely that its leaders, given their current military advantage, will accept any deal which does not reward their ambitions. In sum, the rebel takeover of Goma has decreased the possibility to break with a vicious cycle in which insurgent violence is time and again politically rewarded.

The responsibility of the “international community” in relation to the current events is multifaceted. It is not the least reflected in the inconsistent policies towards Rwanda, which have allowed the M23 to build up its military capacities unhindered. But in the context of the current bashing of the Congolese army (FARDC), it is important to point out that the “international community” also bears a responsibility for the failures of this military. The battle for North Kivu’s capital Goma on September 20, 2012 was not only a historic event in itself; it was also a test case for the effectiveness of donor policies vis-à-vis the DRC’s security sector, and stabilization more broadly. While the M23’s taking of the town was certainly a defeat for the FARDC, it has also shown the bankruptcy of donors’ military reform policies and the military cooperation between the FARDC and the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, MONUSCO.

An ostrich policy towards flawed military integration

According to some, the 2009 rapid integration of the CNDP rebel group in the FARDC (described here in more detail) was doomed to fail. Given that the Rwanda-backed CNDP was integrated from a position of strength, and could impose the terms of the agreement, so this argument goes, it was predestined to become “an army within an army” and to continue the power struggle within, instead of against, the FARDC. This was all the more so as Rwanda would not tolerate any weakening of the power networks through which it exercised influence over the Kivus.

However, this deterministic argument overlooks two important features of the 2009 integration process. First, as documented in a recent report by Jason Stearns, the government in Kinshasa hoped to profit from the internal divisions in the CNDP resulting from Nkunda’s removal. The outcome of this initially volatile power competition was by no means a foregone conclusion. Second, there was scope for the DRC government to handle the integration process in a different manner, both politically and organizationally. That the ex-CNDP eventually managed not only to maintain but expand their power position in the Kivus was in part the result of the opportunistic collaboration of key political and military actors, as well as the lack of organizational capacity to follow through on the integration process.  International pressure, monitoring, and assistance could have certainly helped in changing some of the dynamics of the unfolding military integration process.

Whereas the overnight integration of thousands of rebel soldiers without any advance planning or retraining is a feat unheard of, and the process was shrouded in a veil of opacity, it seems international actors felt they had little choice but to muster enthusiasm. Not only were they afraid to spoil the fragile rapprochement between Kinshasa and Kigali, they also feared that disproval would lead Kinshasa to marginalize them, thus making them lose all forms of leverage, and even information, over the process. Therefore,  MONUSCO decided to support the operations that the newly integrated military carried out against the FDLR and other rebel groups, while EUSEC (EU mission for military reform) struggled for the biometrical identification of the new troops.

In the meantime, bilateral donors continued with security sector and stabilization policy as usual. The lack of retraining, the unbalanced composition of newly integrated units—with some consisting for over 75% out of ex-CNDP—and the lack of redeployment of integrated units out of the Kivus, or even attempts to better spread them within the Kivus, should have raised eyebrows. Donors could have addressed these issues; for instance, through efforts to impose quota of newly-integrated troops for the units they were training, or to make continued support depend on the redeployment of troops out of the Kivus. However, they chose to massively stick their head in the sand, in spite of alarming signs that army integration had adverse effects on stability.

While it would be foolish to think a deeply political process like military integration can be stirred by merely changing the technical modalities we believe that concerted and well-timed pressure, as well as technical assistance, could have made a difference. To deny this is to succumb to fatalistic readings of the Congolese state and army, and to deny the contingency of events.  Different inputs could have created a momentum ultimately leading to other—albeit perhaps not radically different—outcomes, even in the face of Rwandan-backed elites keen on safeguarding their various interests.

A peacekeeping mission riddled with an identity and legitimacy crisis

MONUSCO has been a laboratory for UN peacekeeping missions. Without the intention to minimize its contributions, we argue that this experiment has first and foremost provided us with various “don’ts.” Above all, it has shown the challenges to reconcile within one mission a diversity of delicate tasks that require each a very different positioning within the military landscape. The demobilization and disarmament of rebel combatants, civilian protection, and support for a rapacious government army are roles that are difficult to combine. Moreover, the Goma debacle shows that invoking the civilian protection mandate appears to have become particularly popular in situations that are high risk for UN troops themselves.

The reasons for MONUSCO’s failure to prevent the fall of Goma are surely complex. Hopefully, the UN will launch a critical examination of the events, which will shed more light on whether the decisions made were optimal, even from a civilian protection perspective. The high civilian costs following the UN’s initial decision not to stop Nkunda’s advance on Bukavu in 2004, and the anticipated evacuation of most of the staff of aid organizations in case the city would fall, indicate there were good reasons to believe the humanitarian consequences of a rebel takeover would be dire. Furthermore, MONUSCO military’s expression of frustration and bewilderment—for example, by referring to rebels “coming from other sides” than expected as well as by ascribing combat difficulties to the M23 not being “a conventional force“—seem to reflect the inadequate intelligence, situational awareness, and tactical decision-making that are common to UN military operations.

Furthermore, some former UN top commanders have evaluated the Goma operations as an unmitigated failure of the UN.  For example, Brigadier General (ret.) Jan Isberg—former deputy force commander of  MONUC—described the operations as  a “fatal mistake” a “sign of weakness, sending a message to rebel groups that you can run over the UN as you want ” and, finally, as “a betrayal of the Congolese population which will have serious repercussions for the UN.”

Whether this is just one reading of the events, it is clear that the confusing array of tasks assigned to MONUSCO has been a recipe for creating disillusionment among the Congolese—both civilians and military. It is logical that the visible presence of a modern, professional fighting force generates high expectations concerning intervention, and especially so in a resources-scarce environment where advanced military equipment is otherwise lacking. While it might be true that these expectations can be managed through a mission’s PR and outreach machine, the latter’s impact is bound to be modest. The signs given off by helicopters and tanks, in combination with advertised promises of protection, make a much stronger impression than the complicated messages of leaflets and radio emissions trying to explain the intricacies of mandates and rules of engagement. As a consequence, populations—certainly those in desperate conditions—will simply fail to understand what  MONUSCO is there for.

The decade-long erosion of  MONUSCO’s legitimacy, now hitting rock bottom, was by no means inevitable. Decisions at the Security Council, headquarter, and field level leading to a more consistent interpretation of the mandate; better operating directives; and a more credible performance could have gone a long way to meet and adjust popular expectations. This also applies to MONUSCO’s collaboration with the FARDC. If anything, the battle for Goma showed once again the deficient interaction between these two forces, supposedly operating in a joint manner. This notorious flawed cooperation is not only a result of the limited exchange of information at headquarters level.

Another important factor is the long-standing mutual distrust and resentment. Understandably, the mostly aerial support of a well-equipped force pursuing a zero-casualty policy is not always enthusiastically welcomed by underfed and underequipped infantry knowing they are next in line to die. Many FARDC soldiers we spoke to simply see MONUSCO as unreliable and cowards, who withdraw the minute it gets hot in order to hide behind their civilian protection mandate. This deep distrust, as well as the lack of coordination, strongly undermines any potential synergy that could result from joint operation. In the FARDC’s current circumstances of high pressure, the blue helmets’ performance has reinforced frustration among troops already pushed to the limits due to deficient logistical support, and the climate of suspicion resulting from the awareness that traitors in their ranks constantly leak intelligence.

The consequences of a bilateral “islands” approach to military reform

Yet, it was not only a lack of coordination with MONUSCO that created confusion during the battle for Goma. A further problem was the knotty cooperation between different FARDC units partly caused by the “island” approach to military reform pursued by donors. Distrust and a different operating style between Belgian-trained commandos on the one hand and the regiments on the other created an atmosphere of competition rather than collaboration. Similar problems were earlier reported in Dungu between US-trained troops and their colleagues from “ordinary” brigades. This raises questions about the effectiveness of the bilateral military assistance hitherto provided. Time and time again, the training of rapid reaction units proves to have rather short-term and easily reversible effects, while also undermining coherence within the FARDC as a whole. Certainly, it could be argued that “one has to start somewhere” and that the trained units are “examples” or part of an “oil-spot approach” gradually diffusing “excellence” in the military as a whole. Yet, it seems that without complementary structural reforms—notably improving service conditions, logistics, communications, infrastructure and overall human resources management—these ‘islands of excellence’ will be swallowed by an ocean of disorder. This has been clearly illustrated by the recent events, with well-trained troops at the frontlines without food, shelter and ammunition.

Finding a way out of the quagmire

In conclusion, the military weakness of the FARDC and the fall of Goma are the shared responsibility of a wide range of actors, including international donors. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, this responsibility tends to be obscured by conveniently unilaterally blaming the Congolese government and its army. This gives the impression that the problems of the FARDC are somehow related to the innate features of its “ill-disciplined” and predatory personnel rather than the outcome of a complex set of processes. However, the fall of Goma was more than a failure of Kabila and his under-resourced military: it was also the culmination of misguided international military and defense reform policies.

The same actors responsible for this debacle must now help finding a solution to the crisis, balancing the contradictory imperatives of immediately stopping the bloodshed while trying to foster longer-term stability. Much will depend on the outcomes of the diplomatic horse trading currently taking place behind closed doors, but the prospects of finding an acceptable negotiated solution look quite bleak at the moment. M23’s refusal to withdraw from Goma before engaging in negotiations indicates that we might see a resumption of fighting in days ahead. While the outcome of military activity will partly depend on whether Rwanda will stop its support to the M23, it will also be influenced by decisions concerning the role of MONUSCO. If the peacekeeping mission does not step up and make more efforts to implement its Chapter VII mandate, it is probably better that this mandate is revised, giving the mission a more modest, coherent, and realistic set of tasks. Whether this will be logistical support to the battered Congolese army, ensuring humanitarian access, or aerial surveillance with drones, thus being able to detect cross-border military movements, clear choices need to be made. Continuing the status-quo will only further disappoint a population and an army feeling already heavily let down by a peacekeeping mission they have probably never understood.

Maria Eriksson Baaz is Associate Professor at the Nordic Africa Institute and the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University. Judith Verweijen is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Conflict Studies at Utrecht University and the Faculty of Military Sciences at the Netherlands Defense Academy.

This article was first published by Mats Utas on November 26, 2012.

About the photo: FARDC soldiers deployed in Kibumba, last position before entering into M-23 controlled zone, September 2012. © MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti