Congo’s Killing Fields
>Intervention forces will not have it easy in DRC
Windhoek – Doubts are emerging about the capacity of the UN intervention force comprising troops from Malawi, Tanzania and South Africa to put down rebels in eastern DRC.
The March 23 (M23) rebel group has in recent weeks ratcheted up propaganda against the intervention brigade, which is deploying in the volatile North and South Kivu provinces, unambiguously stating that it will respond with full force to the stabilisation mission.
A UN group of experts has said the DRC’s eastern neighbours, Rwanda and Uganda, are backing M23 and this could regionalise the conflict.
Peace talks between Kinshasa and M23 have more or less completely collapsed.
The impending war will cast a spotlight on the intervention brigade, especially the South Africa National Defence Forces (SANDF)’s military capabilities.
The intervention force is made up of 3 069 troops and a military security assessment conducted by SADC last year estimated the rebel numbers at about 3 000. Within the rebel ranks are some 1 000 conventionally trained soldiers who mutinied from the DRC national army.
The Southern Times spoke to a senior military officer, who has been closely involved in international military operations in the DRC.
His view is that the intervention brigade and the SANDF are not fully prepared to take on the rebels in jungle warfare.
Speaking on condition of anonymity for diplomatic reasons, the officer said while South Africa’s army is well equipped, it lacks engagement experience and could face a baptism of fire in the DRC’s killing fields.
“A military force is much more than equipment. If you don’t have the right men, then you are a very weak force. South Africa is the continent’s biggest economy and they have everything that it takes to fight any war, but that’s on the face of it.
“… machinery and equipment do not win a war on their own. An effective force is well trained, has good commanders, its troops are physically fit, and are committed, loyal and disciplined.
“Unfortunately for South Africa, some of these elements are lacking. The recent example in Central Africa Republic raises a lot of issues.
“Are these guys really as good as we would want them to be? There are other operations which have come before CAR and we have been engaged in training and other engagements. There are a lot of question marks that can be raised regarding the South Africa military,” he said.
South Africa lost 14 soldiers in clashes with rebels in CAR last month, in a mission whose objectives have not been made clear by the government in Tshwane.
Last November, M23 took over the DRC’s eastern frontier city of Goma.
The rebels marched into the city of more than one million people while a 17 000-strong UN force (MONUSCO) watched.
M23 was ordered to withdraw, which they did but in the process demonstrated they could more or less come and go as they pleased.
The rebels have financial, technical, logistical and moral backing from Rwanda and Uganda and are said to have bases in those countries.
The Southern Times is reliably informed that Rwanda and Uganda are “very uncomfortable with the intervention brigade deployment”.
This could possibly see them scaling up support to M23, causing further problems for the intervention brigade.
The SANDF’s reputation has never recovered from “Operation Boleas”, South Africa’s ill-fated intervention in an internal dispute in neighbouring Lesotho in 1998.
And South Africa’s lack of interest in deploying in DRC in previous missions has raised suspicion that authorities in Tshwane are not sure they can definitively do the job at hand.
A SADC military assessment last year highlighted the possibility of the UN intervention force facing much resistance in the DRC.
It is not only the senior officer who has reservations.
Dr Scott Firsing, head of international studies at Monash University in South Africa, recently wrote: “More than half of South Africa’s soldiers are medically unfit and numerous servicemen are too old.
“Another issue is lack of training, with army reservists not being deployed on training since 1996. However, a key concern is a lack of funds.
While SADC’s 2012 military assessment estimated M23’s numbers at 3 000, there has not been a concrete public analysis to determine the rebels’ actual capabilities.
That, however, has not stopped it from bragging about how it will wipe out any international forces that engage it on the field.
“We are ready for this brigade. They will not know the terrain, our tactics, not even the local languages. It will take them weeks to organise. If they attack we will respond very quickly and with full force,” said Colonel Vianney Kazarama, M23’s military spokesperson, in an interview with a British paper.
“You will see, we are going to capture them, destroy their equipment, march over their forces,” Kazarama said in another interview.
Rwanda and Uganda’s backing of M23 points to regionalisation of the DRC conflict and is a reminder of the 1998-2003 war, which split Africa. Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe ‑ and briefly Chad – backed Kinshasa; while Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda stood with the rebels.
“We are obviously not back to that sort of escalation, but the intervention brigade makes this conflict more regional than at any point in the past decade,” Jason Stearns, an analyst, blogged recently.
The Southern Times’ source added, “M23 are not fighting alone: we know that there has been extreme discomfort from Rwanda and Uganda … Because of this, they will want to undermine the deployment either diplomatically – and if that fails – or militarily.
“We are not expecting things to be easy for the deployed force.”
A news agency quoted Helmoed Romer Heitman, a South African military analyst, saying the war would be a “logistical nightmare” because “you don’t know who is who in the zoo from one day to the next”.
“The overall UN mission is not properly conceived. I think the force is too small and there is a certain amount of wishful thinking.”
South Africa is said to be using the DRC deployment to clear the way for deeper economic interests in the DRC.
Defence forces are an extension of any country’s foreign policy, and South Africa’s move, though it will come at a heavy cost, is not an exception
A political analyst said if South Africa helped bring peace in DRC, it would be a boon for BRICS as well in the mineral-rich country.
The DRC is estimated to be sitting on mineral resources worth US$24 trillion, while the Grand Inga hydropower project can unlock Africa’s energy potential.
“South Africa bolstering its peace and security efforts in the DRC…makes moral, political and economic sense for the perceived leader of Africa.
“Politically, more involvement is especially relevant within the context of being a BRICS group member and consistently punching above its weight in political affairs,” Firsing wrote.
This probably explains why South Africa made an about turn on the issue of sending soldiers to DRC.
“South Africa was not ready to deploy and at one of our (SADC) meetings they said they would only assist with logistics.
“Later on after pressure from SADC, they said they were ready to move the MONUSCO battalion to deploy under the intervention brigade,” The Southern Times’ source said.
The deployment of the intervention brigade is a departure from SADC’s original plan, in which the mission was to be backed by six countries from the bloc.
“If this initiative fails, it will be a serious embarrassment to those countries going in… SADC had planned a robust force to take out all rebel elements such as M23.
“SADC has also observed that DRC’s problems can’t be solved militarily alone and had traced the root cause of the crisis ‑ which ranges from tribalism, regionalism, maladministration and economic issues.
“As it is right now, taking out M23 will not help as tomorrow, there will be another M23,” he said.
SADC offered to help DRC build institutions through first stabilising the country and then helping with actual reconstruction.
“SADC at its last Summit agreed on reconstruction of the DRC state, that is rebuilding state institutions and restoring state authority in areas where it does not exist and this we think would make the DRC stand on its own. That has been the SADC position,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the approach of the UN is not quite the approach of SADC. UN has been there for more than 10 years and what have they achieved.
“MONUSCO has become a military tourist in the DRC-they have not done anything on the ground,” he said.