When peacekeepers go to war

When peacekeepers go to war

The U.N. Security Council last week approved the creation of an "intervention brigade" to help root out extremist militias in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo. A more muscular U.N. presence in Congo has long been discussed to address the persistent threat of militia violence. For years, the U.N.’s large Congo peacekeeping force has struggled to respond to violence in the region, and it has been severely criticized for failing to protect civilians in the region. Thursday’s resolution formally cleared the way for offensive operations.

The intervention brigade will carry out targeted offensive operations, with or without the Congolese national army, against armed groups that threaten peace in the eastern part of DRC – a region that is prone to cycles of violence and consequent humanitarian suffering.

The objectives of the new force – which will be based in North Kivu province in eastern DRC and total 3,069 peacekeepers – are to neutralize armed groups, reduce the threat they posed to State authority and civilian security and make space for stabilization activities.

The force will reportedly include troops from Tanzania, South Africa, and Malawi and may begin operations as early as this summer. The largest rebel group, the M23, has criticized the decision. A rebel spokesperson said the U.N. had "chosen to wage war against one of the partners for peace."

Several press accounts (see here and here) have described the addition of an offensive mandate to a peacekeeping force as "unprecedented." They are right in a narrow sense. The council has not previously designated particular units for offensive operations. But there’s important, and ominous, precedent in Congo for U.N. offensive operations.

The current Congo mission (which has gone by several names) is in fact the second major U.N. operation there. The first operated from 1960 to 1964 and struggled to keep the newly decolonized state intact even as it navigated intense Cold War politics. At first, the mission stuck to the core peacekeeping principles of impartiality and neutrality. But those principles were tested by the near disintegration of the nascent state. Was the U.N. supposed to be impartial between state and non-state actors?

By 1961, the Security Council had given peacekeepers permission to go on the offensive against separatists in the province of Katanga, who were operating in league with foreign mercenaries. Significantly less verbose in those days, the Council authorized "the use of force, as a last resort" to suppress civil war and disturbances in the country. Several months later, the council urged the peacekeepers to "take vigorous action, including the use of the requisite measure of force." Just as it has now, the notion of peacekeepers turning into warfighters startled some observers. A top U.S. official, Harlan Cleveland, wrote at the time:

I shall not soon forget the political shock wave produced in our politics by the Congo crisis when Americans suddenly discovered that soldiers on a peace-keeping mission sometimes had to shoot back at people who insisted on shooting at the peace-keepers. It was more comfortable to think of "peace" as a cartoonist’s image, a vaguely female figure in a pure white gown, mouthing sweet nothings and clutching her olive branch. But when this ethereal creature, adjusting her halo to a rakish angle, whipped out her six-shooter … most Americans did a double take.

The U.N.’s offensive in Congo included several distinct phases, including "Operation Rumpunch" and "Operation Morthor." The campaign, which featured Indian and Irish troops, was ultimately successful in defeating Katangan secessionists, but it proved highly controversial. As William Durch has noted in a superb book on the history of peacekeeping, the trauma of that operation "helped to ensure that the U.N. funded no new peacekeeping operation for a decade."

There’s even more recent precedent in Congo for U.N. offensive operations, although on a much smaller scale. In 2006, a group of Guatemalan special forces soldiers assigned to the peacekeeping mission attempted to hunt down units of the Lord’s Resistance Army operating in Congo’s Garamba National Park. The operation turned into a disaster. Several U.N. soldiers were killed (likely by friendly fire), and the LRA forces escaped. In early 2009, U.N. forces began actively supporting the offensive operations of the Congolese armed forces. But that collaboration was dialed back as criticism of Congolese army tactics mounted.

Part of the problem with offensive U.N. operations is that the training and resources of the forces doing the fighting often doesn’t match the mandate. It’s one thing for the Security Council to authorize offensive operations from New York; it’s quite another thing for peacekeeping commanders to manage them successfully on the ground. During the U.N.’s Bosnia operation in the 1990s, that gap between the Council’s proclamations and the actual work of peacekeepers grew to tragic proportions.

If peacekeepers get bogged down while on the offense — or, worse, commit abuses of their own — political will for the operation will likely melt away. The countries contributing the troops for the enforcement brigade may think twice. It’s doubtful that either the United States or cash-strapped European states will send their own forces to bolster peacekeepers in need of assistance.

The difficult history of offensive U.N. operations doesn’t mean that the new enforcement brigade is doomed to fail. The rampant insecurity in eastern Congo is crying out for a solution. U.N. peacekeeping has carried out important reforms in recent years. But the past does highlight some of the pitfalls that can await blue helmets with a green light to use force.