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Militarizing the Peace: UN Intervention Against Congo’s ‘Terrorist’ Rebels

Rachel Sweet
Sunday, June 2, 2019, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The civil war in Congo remains one of the world's bloodiest and most intractable conflicts. In response, the United Nations has authorized a large, and militarily aggressive, campaign to target rebel forces. Rachel Sweet, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, argues that this intervention is not working. The UN effort often ignores the dynamics of conflict in Congo, and as a result the use of force fails or even backfires.

Daniel Byman


Photo Credit: UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti via author

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Editor’s Note: The civil war in Congo remains one of the world's bloodiest and most intractable conflicts. In response, the United Nations has authorized a large, and militarily aggressive, campaign to target rebel forces. Rachel Sweet, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, argues that this intervention is not working. The UN effort often ignores the dynamics of conflict in Congo, and as a result the use of force fails or even backfires.

Daniel Byman


United Nations peacekeeping faces increasingly dangerous operating environments and more complex conflicts. To cope with these changes, the UN is calling for greater flexibility in peacekeeping, including more robust mandates and an expanded use of force. The largest and most costly UN mission in history—in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—stands at the center of this change. In 2013, the UN Security Council created the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), a unit within the peacekeeping mission authorized to use offensive force to “neutralize” armed groups. With this brigade, the Security Council recognized that peacekeeping entered “new territory.” Some observers caution against the loss of traditional peacekeeping principles, but others view this model of force as “inevitable” amidst “chaotic situations” in contemporary war. In fact, a recent UN secretary-general report urges this aggressive posture for missions around the world, arguing that “hostile forces do not understand a language other than force.” These trends fuel debates about military force, now by international bodies typically known for nonviolent solutions to conflict.

The performance of the Force Intervention Brigade, as the most robust force in UN history, should weigh heavily in these debates. The success of its ongoing campaign against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) also carries global importance for dealing with alleged terrorist threats: The ADF is an Islamist group, and ISIS recently claimed responsibility for one of its attacks. But the results suggest that a bigger stick isn’t working. Now five years into its military campaign, the FIB has failed to eradicate the targeted rebels. Instead, military operations provoked deadly attacks on UN peacekeepers and escalated violence in the country to its highest levels in a decade. Inaccurate assumptions about the nature of security threats contribute to these failures. Military approaches define threats as emanating from armed actors outside of the state who can be targeted with force, but corrupt networks within the national army also contribute to violence and support armed groups. The cross-infiltration of rebels and state politics creates intelligence gaps regarding the conflict that risk turning UN efforts against themselves. Military force cannot succeed in these environments. The conflict demands a new approach with more sophisticated intelligence capabilities, an expanded role for civilian branches of UN missions in operational decision-making, and reengagement with political channels to deescalate violence.

“Counterinsurgency” Peacekeeping and the Creation of the Force Intervention Brigade

Since its initial deployment in 2000, UN operations have faced repeated setbacks in DRC that spurred calls for a more robust mandate. Criticisms over the UN’s failure to protect civilians erupted when it failed to intervene in massacres near a UN base in Kisangani in 2001, or to prevent rebel invasions of Goma and Bukavu in 2004. Despite knowledge of rebel activities, the UN mission leadership maintained that “[w]hen war breaks out, the role of peacekeepers ends.” The decision provoked calls to use more effective force to protect civilians. The UN mission experimented with a new approach in 2009, when it began military support for the Congolese army, first against the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda. In 2010, the UN mission was revamped with a more aggressive mandate to stabilize conflict zones in the country’s east (becoming MONUSCO, Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en RD Congo). It adopted a “counterinsurgency” approach to help the Congolese military “liberate, clear, and hold” rebel territory. MONUSCO expected this approach would create “peace dividends” for civilians by “restoring state authority” in conflict zones.

The Force Intervention Brigade, introduced in 2013, was envisioned as a more muscular tool for this strategy. The brigade was created after MONUSCO failed to prevent the M23 (Mouvement du 23 Mars) from invading Goma—a major urban center and MONUSCO’s base. The UN Security Council responded by creating an “offensive combat force” within MONUSCO to “neutralize” armed groups. Some Security Council members voiced concern that the FIB would compromise mission neutrality, but ultimately the brigade was created with unanimous support. FIB joint offensives with the Congolese military seemed an initial success against the M23, but analysts emphasize that effective diplomatic pressure on the M23’s sponsor, Rwanda, was the instrumental tool in the group’s surrender.

Since 2013, the force has failed to neutralize the rebel groups it has targeted. Inaccurate assumptions about the nature of security threats are largely to blame.

Wrong Assumptions About Security Threats

The strategy behind the FIB assumes a world in which rebels fight the government on clear sides. This approach treats state security forces and administrations as tools that crowd out insurgents. But in reality, the separation between armed groups and state forces is often less meaningful.

Weak states produce more complex wars. The DRC government faces more than 70 armed groups. Governments in a fragile position like this must focus less on neutralizing Hydra-headed rebellions and more on co-opting groups to divide rivals. Kinshasa enlists militias in the Kasais and Kivus to weaken rivals and repress opposition areas. Parallel networks in the national military also pursue their own interests through trafficking partnerships with rebels and by supplying armed groups with ammunition, uniforms and intelligence, either for economic gain or to build their own armed forces. In fact, the UN Group of Experts—an investigative panel of conflict and area experts commissioned by the Security Council—has repeatedly found that armed groups do not need to rely on external sources for arms and ammunition because most come from the national army. And, even by UN calculations, most documented human rights abuses in the DRC are perpetrated by state actors.

Double-dealing also creates inroads into state forces for armed actors. Rebels have built up parallel networks within the national army since the end of the Second Congo War in 2003. These networks siphon off weapons and intelligence, creating a military that often operates like a sieve and that undermines the efforts of dedicated soldiers.

UN military operations don’t work in these environments. The failure of the FIB’s longest-standing campaign—against the Allied Democratic Forces—helps demonstrate why.

The FIB’s Campaign Against the Allied Democratic Forces

Since January 2014, the FIB has been deployed to northern North Kivu to support Congolese military operations against the ADF—a decades-old group with an Islamist identity that survives through dense links with local political, military and economic networks. The FIB has assisted Congolese troops against the ADF with air reconnaissance, surveillance drones, aerial bombardment and support for ground operations. But an inaccurate view of the nature of security threats compromises operations.

The FIB defines its target as “armed groups” that “threaten” state forces, but relationships between its military partners and armed groups are more complicated. Days after the FIB’s arrival, Congolese military officers who were longtime ADF collaborators partnered with the group to kill the head of the military campaign. Then, as the FIB-backed campaign continued, some Congolese officers used military vehicles—fueled with petrol supplied by MONUSCO—to facilitate timber trafficking in areas that required working with active ADF. Armed groups, including the ADF, obtain military uniforms from contacts in the national army, leaving FIB troops unable to distinguish rebels from legitimate soldiers and crippling attempts to use force against militants.

This incomplete view of security threats caused significant harm to civilians. In fall 2014, a series of massacres erupted that has killed more than 1,200 Congolese. Viewing the ADF as the sole perpetrator of the massacres, the FIB commander pledged to work with Congolese troops to “definitively neutralize” rebels through joint combat operations in late 2014 and early 2015. FIB operations aimed to “better protect the population” but inadvertently supported some of the actors responsible for the killings. The FIB failed to identify a broader set of perpetrators, which included the Congolese general leading the operations. While the FIB supported Gen. Mundos, the Group of Experts found that he also approached ADF fighters to carry out some of the massacres and “financed and equipped the group with weapons, ammunition and [military] uniforms.” According to the Congo Research Group, in some cases, Congolese officers secured the perimeter of killings sites to prevent victims from escaping. Ultimately, the failure to fully identify perpetrators left the UN unable to stop the killings that “occurred repeatedly” in areas with a strong peacekeeping presence.

This approach also contributed to intelligence failures. The FIB relies on the Congolese military for operational information, such as bombing targets and “enemy” profiles. Congolese officers sometimes obstructed access to killings sites, led UN troops to false locations, and advised against entering areas where officers were later implicated in attacks. In some cases, complicit officers attributed their violence to the ADF. When confronted about his role in the massacres, Gen. Mundos stated that the ADF is a “jihadist” group with sole responsibility for the killings. The ADF is an Islamist group, but it is also opportunistic and enigmatic: It operates through a complicated series of coalitions with local (predominantly Christian) armed groups and authorities. Describing the ADF as simply a foreign terrorist organization helps deflect attention from domestic agendas that also feed the violence. The DRC government has also repeatedly invoked foreign terrorist threats to international audiences, and the provincial governor told a Security Council delegation that Islamist terrorists perpetrate the violence. These statements do not mention the government’s arrests and trials of local perpetrators, or earlier descriptions of political agendas behind the attacks. As it stands, the ADF’s terrorist links are unclear; through 2018, the Group of Experts did not find evidence to substantiate ADF links to foreign terrorist organizations, but the government has furnished evidence otherwise. This is the core problem: Compromised military networks and political interference feed an environment of misinformation, in which it is difficult to vet information, comprehensively assess security threats, or, in this case, accurately profile the ADF.

The FIB failed to decipher these parallel networks and agendas. An evaluation later criticized the FIB’s failure to account for the “complexity” of conflict. The Group of Experts also warned that a lack of “reliable information and credible analysis ... may lead to misguided and ineffective decisions at the strategic and operational levels.”

Support for Congolese military operations also escalated violence against UN personnel. The FIB became the most defining attribute of MONUSCO, which undermined its neutrality and colored how the rest of the mission was perceived. Attacks began in 2014 and escalated in 2017 to the worst attack on UN personnel in recent history, which targeted the MONUSCO operating base in the forested Semuliki Valley, killing 15 peacekeepers and injuring 44 others. The national army has also suffered heavy losses in attacks; committed troops are especially susceptible to security threats. The ADF threatened to carry out attacks like these in response to military operations, but others also participated. Coalitions joining the ADF and local militias committed the attacks in late 2017, while a militia sponsored by another Congolese general (sanctioned individual Bwambale Kakolele) used ammunition from state forces to carry out the first major assault of the campaign in 2016 in Butembo. Gen. Mundos is also suspected of involvement in a 2014 attack on a UN patrol.

Facing attacks, MONUSCO criticized the FIB in internal documents for its “garrison mentality” and limited offensive operations. “FIB had become fixed and unable to move for fear of ADF committing atrocities,” according to a UN inspection, and they sometimes defied orders in an effort to avoid danger. But troops cannot perform if safety risks are not mitigated, and this is not possible without committed partners or a robust knowledge of the sources of insecurity.

Finally, operations that did occur have not achieved their goals. Although the FIB remained primarily focused on logistical and intelligence contributions through 2015, it also carried out artillery shelling against ADF positions. FIB soldiers rarely conducted ground observations to assess the effectiveness of the artillery strikes, making it difficult to conclude whether these were successful. In 2016, the FIB launched another round of large-scale offensives, including “ground troops and special forces, artillery and air assets.” These operations captured some ADF bases but failed to hold them. “Each time, [Congolese military] withdrew after the operation” and the ADF reoccupied its camps. These offensives have done little to dismantle support networks and recruitment channels. The ADF “continued to recruit and train new combatants ... the pressure of the military operations notwithstanding.” Intelligence documents from the civilian side of MONUSCO obtained by this author warn that military operations against the ADF usually backfire by escalating violence against civilians and increasing demands for troops, which fuels involuntary recruitment throughout the region. Indeed, attacks against civilians increased again in early 2018 after a new round of joint FIB operations.

Today, five years into its expanded mandate, the FIB continues to support joint military operations against the ADF, but little progress has been made to curb the potential for abuse. The FIB commander now works with the DRC’s head of military operations and intelligence, Lt. Gen. Gabriel Amisi, to discuss military operations, profile the operational zone and inspect troops—despite U.S. and European Union sanctions against Amisi for human rights violations and supplying ammunition to armed groups.

A Smarter Stick

UN troops operate in increasingly “toxic” environments—but they must also account for the challenges of regime politics. This is very difficult to do with offensive force. The FIB’s military-first approach has failed to protect civilians or neutralize targeted threats, yet it still has significant support in the UN. Special investigative teams recommend strengthening the FIB “for offensive operations” and a secretary-general strategic review suggests “unlocking” the FIB to deploy it throughout the country. The head of the UN mission in the DRC, Leila Zerrougui, despite her diplomatic background, reaffirmed that “we have a mandate to carry out offensive operations in this region” and pledged continued coordination and supply for the Congolese military. This view extends beyond the DRC. An influential UN secretary-general report calls for more robust force amidst dangerous environments, emphasizing that “nobody attacks a stronger opponent.”

Others worry about what this means for basic peacekeeping principles—neutrality, consent and non-use of force except in self-defense. Dissenters urge that the FIB be assessed in light of its effects on impartiality. Some countries contributing UN troops are reticent to participate in these new peacekeeping operations and have refused to contribute to Mali or the FIB in the DRC in light of the danger associated with the more robust mandates.

But it is also unclear what kind of end state military operations could bring about in complex conflicts with “ambiguous” commitment from national militaries and “politically motivated agendas.” The military partners that UN troops rely on to neutralize security threats may be no less predatory than armed groups themselves. Offensive force in a perimeter marked as rebel territory is unable to dismantle support networks that extend regionally or traverse state forces. In such conditions, some DRC experts and political analysts at MONUSCO criticize the existence of the FIB. As International Crisis Group warns, “Large-scale, joint operations with DRC forces against armed groups, long inappropriate, are now not even defensible.”

Making the stick bigger won’t work. It’s time for a smarter stick.

To navigate these challenges, the UN Security Council should restore the original terms of the FIB mandate. When the FIB was created, it came with conditions. The Security Council stipulated that intelligence-driven operations would mitigate risk against civilians and that the brigade would operate only if the DRC government made progress toward commitments to peace and security; the original mandate also called for a “clear exit strategy” if operations were ineffective. There are substantive policies that would make progress toward these goals. The Security Council could start by restructuring the mission to provide more civilian intelligence and oversight for the FIB, reincorporating political strategies to deescalate conflict, and setting limits on the use of force.

Political Framework

The Security Council envisioned that the FIB would operate “within the framework of a broader political strategy,” but the political framework behind the FIB has since “ossified” into what experts describe as a “single-mindedly military” approach to engaging armed groups. High-level UN diplomacy has been focused on warming the relationships between MONUSCO and the government of the DRC and navigating a delicate transition of power. But it must also follow up on sanctions and draw effective red lines to signal UN refusal to cooperate with military units accused of rights abuses. At the ground level, more proactive efforts are needed to resolve disputes and reduce threats. Military operations have crowded out other strategies to deescalate conflict, such as local-level mediation channels that can reach militants directly.


The FIB lacks the situational awareness and human intelligence needed for effective operations and mitigating risks to civilians. Numerous evaluations, including by the Security Council and regional governments, have identified this intelligence gap and emphasized a need for “enhanced political and conflict analysis” to “better understand” conflict actors. There are more than 70 armed groups in eastern Congo; intelligence to facilitate operations requires histories, profiles, and knowledge of alliances, political sponsors, trafficking, and regional networks for each group, as well as information about potential parallel networks in military brigades. This is a daunting task for commanders who are there for short deployments and often lack linguistic expertise. No mechanisms currently exist for sharing intelligence from the political and analysis cells on the civilian branch of the mission, or from external investigative teams, to inform military operations branches. The UN secretary-general should also ensure that regional countries fulfill promises to lend intelligence services to stem cross-border networks.

Effective Communication Channels With Civilians

The FIB force commander has stated consistently that defeating the ADF would require “better information” from the population to cope with “an adversary that changes the tactics.” But, despite UN efforts, “communication with Congolese citizens remains limited” and local authorities wonder when the FIB will act on the recommendations they’ve provided. What is called for is not more combat troops but, instead, personnel with skills to effectively communicate with civilians and develop deep informant networks to match the nature of the threat.

Clear Conditions

To continue, UN military operations should satisfy basic conditions on the acceptable use of force:

First, are the government and military committed? UN missions must not support military commanders or units implicated in rights violations. Support must be contingent on the government’s implementing sanctions levied against military officers and on devising an effective strategy to stop the flow of arms, ammunition and uniforms from military partners to armed groups.

Second, is there adequate knowledge about the target? Are there robust and well-vetted profiles for all groups operating in the targeted zone, as well as profiles of networks and officers within the national army in the area?

Third, is the Do No Harm principle met? Is collateral damage against civilians sufficiently assessed and mitigated? The UN must relink FIB operations to protection concerns. Better ground knowledge and human intelligence can ensure these standards are met, while also responding to mission calls for “more thorough battle damage assessment of past operations.”

The UN is not meeting, and never has met, these principles in its military intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If this cannot be done in the coming months, the secretary-general should place a moratorium on military operations and exercise the built-in exit strategy for the FIB. Doing so would have potential benefits: It would shift the use of force to secure population centers, place renewed focus on deterring and documenting violence, and free up resources for civilian protection.

Rachel Sweet is a postdoctoral academy scholar at Harvard University and will begin as an assistant professor in global affairs at the University of Notre Dame in fall 2019. She has worked with the United Nations Office of the Secretary General-Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region, the European Union Delegation to MONUSCO, and the Congo Research Group. Her research focuses on the organization of nonstate armed movements, trafficking, state building and counterinsurgency strategy in complex wars.

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