KIGALI — The United Nations Intervention Brigade (MONUSCO) in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was given an expanded mandate that went beyond peacekeeping - allowing offensive operations to support the Congolese Army against M23 rebels. It was a pivotal move in defeating M23, and what it could mean for continuing operations against other rebel groups in the region, and for other peacekeeping operations in Africa.
After years of disappointing performances by the UN mission in Congo, MONUSCO, against a variety of rebel groups, the Congolese were not sure what to expect of the 3,000 strong UN intervention brigade from Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi that went on the offensive against the M23 rebels in August.
The brigade has long range artillery and its Tanzanian commander is an artillery expert. Its South African snipers have also proved their worth, and the force’s willingness to give the Congolese army, the FARDC, close support, and to take casualties, has impressed local and international observers.
Security expert Nicholas Garrett has studied armed groups in the Congo and its military situation. "Yes, in my opinion the Intervention Brigade and the rest of MONUSCO, particularly with the new robust mandate, has made a significant contribution to the recent offensive and engagement of the M23. I believe it’s been absolutely key to provide the Intervention Brigade in that context and then to provide a more robust mandate, as we’ve seen in the past the FARDC has had very little success in engaging the armed groups," he stated.
That’s a view shared by many Congolese, like Bovicky Mumbere, a lorry driver in Goma.
Mumbere said he wants to thank the MONUSCO soldiers, especially those from Tanzania. Because were it not for the Tanzanians he does not know how the DRC forces would have won the war.
The Tanzanian battalion with MONUSCO suffered several casualties in the fighting, including an officer killed.
Nevertheless, experts agree that the Congolese army also put up a much better performance under new commanders and with its best units deployed to the front-line.
International Crisis Group analyst Thierry Vircoulon’s assessment is that MONUSCO gave the Congolese army important logistical and tactical support.
He said there was a real tactical working partnership between the Congolese army and the UN force. They planned their military operations together.
This was different from last year, he said, when the UN mission gave fire support to the Congolese army but did not plan operations together.
Vircoulon expects the partnership to continue.
He said we know that both Congolese army officers and MONUSCO have said their next target will be the Rwandan rebel FDLR. But he asked if they are going to change their strategy and adapt it to a new enemy.
Security expert Garrett thinks the partnership’s tactical approach may have to change to deal with some of the rebel groups. "It depends on the armed group we’re talking about. If we are talking about the FDLR for example, that operates in a far greater geographical area and also in dispersed pockets, the same tactics might not yield the same results. At the same time though it’s important to have an actor with a robust mandate in the region," he said. "And even incremental success with this strategy, complemented by other measures might yield success certainly in particular cases."
In Vircoulon’s view, the close partnership between the Intervention Brigade and the Congolese army sets important precedents for future UN military operations.
He said it is shown that Africanizing MONUSCO allowed a shift from peacekeeping to peace enforcement, because the African countries contributing troops were willing to commit them to close combat.
And he believes it has also shown the effectiveness of close cooperation between a UN force and a national army.
But Vircoulon and Garret both commented that this partnership is conditional on the national army avoiding human rights violations.