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The Congolese strategy against the M23: A stick and another stick (no carrot)

The truce between the M23 and the Congolese army has held now for almost a month – both sides have silenced their guns while negotiations have stumbled from Addis Ababa to Khartoum, Kampala and finally to Goma.

Despite the reprive, however, the talks have not brought much hope, and chances for a break-through remain slim. The Congolese government’s main strategy seems to reside in donor pressure on Rwanda and the military defeat of the M23 – neither of which, standing alone, is likely to be sufficient to bring an end to this debacle.

Let’s review this approach.

The Congolese government continues to refuse to talk with the M23 mutineers, a position that has been bolstered by Belgian Foreign Affairs Minister Didier Reynders’ recent statements on his trip to the Congo. (“Integrating those who are indisciplined, that means integrating indiscipline itself.”) In private, Congolese army commanders still insist on a military solution, and have continued sending troops to the Kivus over the past months. This means that the main diplomatic efforts have been between countries in the region, and have focused on the creation of a neutral military force.

The contours of this force were sketched out in the recent meetings of regional army commanders in Goma. It should be made up of 4,000 African troops, have a UN and AU mandate, be charged to eradicate the M23 and the FDLR, and be “operationalized” within three months of the next meeting of the ICGLR head of state in September. The force would be deployed over a vast area – the Rusizi Plain, Beni-Ruwenzori, Masisi-Walikale, and Rutshuru.

However, there are good reasons not to question whether this force will be set up. Primarily: who will staff the force, and who will pay for it. The latest deal between the countries would exclude Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and the DR Congo from the mission. While the Congolese say in private they have over a dozen countries lined up who are ready to send troops, there has been little public expressions of interest, and it is difficult to imagine who would want to send their soldiers into risky counterinsurgency operations in the Congo.

The Congolese have suggested that MONUSCO could be converted into this force – despite the clause in the Goma deal saying the troops would be African (most MONUSCO troops in the Kivus are South Asian). And there have been some encouraging mumurs from some diplomats, but it is highly unlikely that the UN or its troop-contributing countries would accept an aggressive peace-imposition mandate.

As for footing the bill – none of the donors I have spoken with seem very eager. They are already spending $1,4 billion each year on MONUSCO.

At the same time, the M23 has taken advantage of the break in fighting to train new troops and to structure their movement. One of their main challenges has always been their lack of soldiers – they started their group in May with around 200-400 men, and have since been able to expand their numbers to perhaps 1,500. But many of these troops are newcomers and have been thrown into battle after just a week or two of training. Defectors speak of suffering so many casualties in the battle for Bunagana in early July, for example, that new recruits – bakurutu in their terminology – were sent to the frontlines, many with only rudimentary knowledge of fighting.

So they have accelerated their training wing, first in Tshanzu, where the CNDP also had a training camp back in 2008, and in Rumangabo since the M23 took over the Congolese military camp there in July. This past week, there was news of a graduation ceremony there for several hundred new recruits.

In sum, the neutral force is unlikely to be the solution to the current mess, and could provide the M23 with a much-needed break in fighting.

As for the second prong of the Congolese strategy, international pressure on Rwanda, it will probably be part of the solution, but is not a silver bullet. Pressure is most effective when you can measure results, and it is difficult to figure out whether Rwanda has stopped providing support to the M23.

In addition, donors are also reluctant to play politics with aid, especially in a country such as Rwanda, which is known for its efficient use of donor money.

A first litmus test will be donors’ decisions regarding their aid money. Various donors – the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, and the African Development Bank – have suspended aid while they evaluate the situation. Some of these countries are now due to make their decision whether to continue to suspend, to disburse or to cut their aid altogether.

The UK, for example, has promised Rwanda a decision by the end of the month, while other donors, such as the AfDB and Sweden, as well as Belgium and the European Union, are due to make decisions in September. Germany has already said it will link its decision to the final report of the UN Group of Experts, which will be submitted in October.

(Another interesting development will be any changes to Rwanda’s credit rating – Fitch is coming out with a new appraisal in mid-September, and Standard & Poor’s will be out before the end of the year. Both currently give Rwanda a B with a stable, positive outlook.)

In any case, pressure would be most productive if one could specify concrete steps that Rwanda could take, rather than trying to measure the absence of support to the M23. En bref, donors want Kigali to be seen as part of the solution rather than being part of the problem. In 2009, for example, Kigali acted against the CNDP, arresting Nkunda and forcing the CNDP to integrate into the national army. It is difficult to imagine a similar deal now, in part also because the Congolese government does not appear ready to compromise.

This is perhaps now the most important task – trying to figure out what political compromise can form the fulcrum of international pressure and diplomatic activity. Should it be the reintegration of the M23 into the Congolese army, perhaps deploying commanders elsewhere in the country, while arresting others? Should it be a more comprehensive peace process, that would address political as well as military issues (refugee return, decentralization, etc.) and would include other groups in addition to the M23? Or should it be the focus on the deployment of a military force, either to hunt down the FDLR and M23, or to observe the Congolese-Rwandan border?

For now, these questions are moot, as the Congolese government refuses to consider any political compromise. In the end, military offensives and pressure on Rwanda may be part of a comprehensive political strategy. But only a part.

Posted by Jason Stearns

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