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Is the Congolese army getting better?

Fighting has cooled between the M23 and the Congolese army––after almost a week of fighting, the front line has been calmer now for the past three days. The Congolese army has been able to advance and retake some ground, and UN observers and journalists on the ground suggest that their performance has been better this time than during the November fighting, when Goma fell. (However, the reports that the UN is holding the army back appear to be bogus; Congolese officers told me the reason they hadn’t gone on the offensive was Kinshasa hadn’t given them the order.)

If the Congolese army is really performing better, then why?

“This time, the logistics are much better,” a UN official who works closely with the army told me. “The salaries are being paid, the supplies are getting to the front line. They still overreact and waste too much ammo, but there are a much better fighting force.” When I asked a senior Congolese intelligence officer, he confirmed this, saying that General Francois Olenga had been making an effort to make sure supply chains actually function.

Both sources agreed that the departure of dozens of senior officers to Kinshasa––where around 120 officers have been sitting around in hotels in January, ostensibly for training seminars, but in reality awaiting redeployment––helped, as well. “These officers had been embezzling funds and running parallel chains of command. Their departure has simplified the military hierarchy.” The Congolese intelligence officer argued: “Some of these people had been in collaboration with our enemies. Getting them out of here helped.”

In addition, the army is now giving more prominence to the commando battalions, the 321 and 322 trained by the Belgians (a third is currently being trained in Kindu), the 391 trained by the Americans, and one by the Chinese (on the northern front line in Tongo). During the operations last year, these battalions had been mismanaged by the military hierarchy, which dismantled them, sent them to areas where there was little to do, and “sabotaged them by sending them into battle without supplies or knowledge of the terrain,” according to one Belgian trainer.

The retirement of 322 colonels and generals in a July 7 decree also simplified things, although none if any of these commanders were on the front lines.

Of course, the problems of the Congolese army are far from over. As argued here before, the real challenge of army reform lies in tackling the culture of patronage, racketeering and impunity that undermines military discipline and any sense of hierarchy in the armed forces.

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