Wanted: 100 American military observers to save Congo

by | May 27, 2010


The UN has had peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo for a decade. Congolese President Joseph Kabila, hoping to show he’s not reliant on the blue helmets, wants the force to go in 2011.  Almost every outside analyst thinks that this could precipitate a disaster, with militias running rampant, the hopeless Congolese army unable to cope and the country’s neighbors moving in to gobble up territory.

The UN hopes that it will be able to keep at least some troops – maybe about 6,000, compared to the current 20,000 – to protect civilians in the especially vulnerable eastern Congo. This would do some good, but how much? The peacekeepers were thoroughly outmaneuvered by militias in the east in 2008, and I’m not sure that a reduced presence could do more than stifle low-level violence. What is to be done?

Over at World Politics Review, David Axe quotes Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings, who argues that the U.S. and its friends should tell Mr. Kabila (still in a very precarious position) that it’s time for more peacekeepers, not fewer:

“Ideally, we’d see an entire American brigade, but that’s not realistic. Barring that, how about a battalion doing a mission along the lines of Special Forces, doing intelligence-gathering and planning? . . . That would enable a country like France, which is not as globally committed but is afraid to stick its neck out [to deploy troops]. We need more Western forces. There’s not much of an alternative if the mission is to do what it was designed do.”

I’m afraid that’s not going to happen, although I applaud O’Hanlon’s advocating an idealistic but unpopular line. France is trying to cut back its presence in Africa, and there are huge obstacles to it playing a role in the Great Lakes region – the locals haven’t forgotten the questionable French part in the Rwandan genocide.

But I think that there may be a broader fallacy here: the idea that getting new combat forces into the Congo is what’s needed in the first place. Yes, the UN has struggled with 20,000 troops – but as I think O’Hanlon himself once noted, you might need up to 200,000 to stabilize somewhere on the scale of Congo. Rather than focus on numbers, I’d try to see if there are any light-weight ways the U.S. can affect the  political decision-making of Mr. Kabila and his neighbors (especially the hawkish Rwandans).

Here’s one possible formula.  While the UN should maintain the 6,000 troops on active protection duties, the U.S. should deploy around 100 military observers to operate in the UN framework.  Why?  The UN already has a bunch of observers in Congo, and the U.S. is said to have spooks and special forces in the east.  But American colonels and captains publicly monitoring the situation would send a clear message to the Congolese and their neighbors that Washington wants calm.  This American mini-presence would also play a tripwire role: it’s one thing to outflank and embarrass standard UN infantry, but quite another to play games in front of U.S. observers.

What makes this option half-credible is that the Obama administration has already thought about sending more military staff officers on UN missions – the President said so himself last year – so this idea is not too far from current policy.  That said, the U.S. has just 10 military experts in UN operations at present (the figures are here).  2 of them are in the Congo.  The Pentagon is rumored to be unenthusiastic about  helping the UN – but 100 personnel is not beyond the realms of the possible.  They don’t need to be O’Hanlon’s green berets… though that would be nice.

I don’t think that 100 Europeans would have the same effect.  China, which has invested a lot in the Congo, could send more observers or regular troops and reinforce the American message.  I can see this proposal running into lots of quibbles, but it might be just the low-cost, high-profile help the UN needs in Congo now.

UPDATE: the Security Council agreed the first reduction of the DRC force today.

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