Over the weekend, the Kivu Security Tracker reported on possible joint operations between the Ugandan and Congolese armies against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). RFI, AFP and Reuters then also reported on these operations. These news stories provoked a raft of questions, some of which I will try to answer here.
What kind of operations will take place?
On November 30, the Ugandan military began shelling the area to the east of Beni town and later that dayunits of the Ugandan army crossed the border. The Ugandan and Congolese armies have been sharing intelligence for many years through a Joint Coordination Center, which was set up in 2011 in Beni. Even prior to that, officers from the two armies shared intelligence in operations against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Dungu. While the Ugandan army (UPDF) has raised the possibility of sending troops to the Congo against the ADF on several occasions, the only previous offensive operation was the cross-border bombing of ADF camps in 2017.
According to interviews with diplomats and Congolese and Ugandan government officials, somewhere between 1,500 and 5,000 Ugandan troops might eventually be involved, although the videos that have been posted on the internet and shared on social media show smaller numbers for now.
The justification for the operations is likely linked to the recent bombings in Kampala, which authorities there attributed to the ADF. The ADF has been responsible for a string of massacres around the Congolese town of Beni that began in 2014. Violence has persisted since then, and the ADF have killed at least 2,000 civilians since April 2017, when the Kivu Security Tracker began documenting violence. The US, Ugandan, and Congolese governments,have claimed that the ADF are linked to terrorist networks, including in Mozambique, and say they pose a threat to regional stability.
Can there be a military solution?
Military operations will probably have to be part of the solution. Rebellions have often ended with strategies that include a military option––the M23 rebellion (2012-2013) was brought to an end with a mixture of military and diplomatic pressure. The Kamuina Nsapu rebellions (2016-2017) offer a more cautionary tale: military operations did end up contributing to their demise, but only after using extreme brutality, killing thousands of civilians and probably initially fueling the insurgency. Around 22% of domestic conflicts around the world have ended in military victory (by either side) recently, with most ending in settlements or fizzling out (the figure of settlements for conflicts involving “terrorists” is much lower).
But the success of military operations also depends on what we think is causing the violence. Is it being fueled by Islamic radicalism, by tactical considerations, or both? The Bridgeway Foundation (which is a funder of the KST) has argued that links to ISIS are fueling violence. This is possible––it could be that the ADF leaders are using sensational violence to attract recruits and funding, and that its ties to ISIS have been accompanied by greater violence against civilians.
But what is also clear is that ADF massacres have always also been a response to military pressure. After all, the violence began in earnest in 2014 following a large-scale military offensive by the FARDC, when the Islamic State did not have ties outside of the Middle East. The beginning of the “large scale offensive” of the FARDC, at the end of October 2019, was also followed by large scale massacres in Beni territory, provoking the death of at least 344 civilians in three months – the worst tally in this territory since the KST began collecting data in 2017.
In this sense, renewed operations could prompt more violence against civilians, at least in the short term. Of course, this is not an argument for not doing anything, but rather for proceeding with caution, taking measures to protect civilians and above all considering non-violent options.
There are other possible causes of violence which would probably not be solved, and could be compounded, through a military offensive. In our 2016 and 2017 CRG reports on the violence around Beni, we showed how local conflicts over land and power were sometimes camouflaged as ADF violence. More recently, there have been multiple reports of members of the “Banyabwisha” community taking part in the violence both on the side of the ADF attacks and the FARDC, possibly due to conflicts they have with other local communities. It is unlikely that military operations will bring an end to these kinds of communal conflicts and could end up aggravating them. In the past, the FARDC have often sided with local militia when conducting operations, as did the UPDF during their 1998-2002 occupation of parts of the eastern Congo.
Are there links between the ADF and ISIS?
Probably, but the nature of these links is not clear. A study by George Washington University and the Bridgeway Foundation has suggested extensive communication, financial support and ideological affinities between the two groups, and the US government has designated the ADF as a terrorist group due to its links with ISIS. Musa Baluku, the leader of the group, appears to have pledged loyalty to ISIS in 2018. However, while there seem to have been financial links, ISIS’ operational control over the ADF is still in question––a July 2021 UN report said that there was no evidence of direct support of the ADF by ISIS. A previous report by the same UN group said that ISIS “limited knowledge and control” of ADF operations, inaccurately describing locations and dates in the claims it published.
Of course, the stakes in this kind of designation are high. Some have argued that it is necessary to highlight these links to ISIS, as that will then prompt the policy interventions needed, such as deradicalization and regional intelligence sharing. But the opposite could also be true: if the links to ISIS are exaggerated, it could inadvertently fuel a recruitment drive for the group if it becomes a magnet for radicalized youth in the region.
What are the possible risks of this kind of military offensive?
A military offensive could aggravate regional tensions. Rwanda, which has long eyed its northern neighbor with suspicion, could see Uganda’s deployment as a threat and an encroachment on an area it considers extremely important for its national security. Sources close to the Congolese government told CRG that they had briefed the Rwandan government, which had not objected to Ugandan intervention.
As a reminder, Rwanda and Uganda fought two wars in Kisangani (1999-2000) and a brutal proxy war in Ituri (2002-2005). Relations are still tense: the Rwandan border with Uganda is still closed, and on Tuesday the Ugandan government accused its neighbor of abducting one of its elite soldiers. In recent weeks, there have been at least three incursions by M23 fighters in Rutshuru territory, which has prompted speculation about Rwandan involvement, the group’s previous backer.
A second danger is that a military offensive could distract from the most important actor in the conflict: the Congolese state. It is difficult to imagine a comprehensive solution to violence in this area without the involvement of the Congolese state. It is needed to conduct military operations but also to conduct a demobilization program, mediate local disputes, build and maintain infrastructure and provide state services. Until now the performance of the Congolese state has been lackluster. There is no effective stabilization strategy, the new DDRCS demobilization program is struggling to get off the ground, and military operations are irregular. By focusing on the military threat, the pressure could be taken off the Congolese state to reform. A similar argument can be made for Uganda, where Museveni is facing domestic opposition and an economic downturn. Playing up a jihadi threat could help bolster his reputation domestically and abroad.
Finally, a military offensive could become a political liability for President Tshisekedi, although this would of course depend on the outcome. On Monday, Dr Denis Mukwege, the Nobel peace prize laureate and one of the most influential people in the country, wrote on Twitter “No to arsonist-firefighters, the same errors will produce the same tragic effects,” referring to Uganda’s previous involvement in the Congolese conflict. In 2009, when Joseph Kabila allowed the Rwandan Defense Forces into North and South Kivu to conduct targeted strikes against the FDLR, it proved to be extremely unpopular. It caused the displacement of 900,000 people and provoked the mobilization of local militia.
Nonetheless, several MPs from the area concerned have expressed support for the Ugandan intervention, and sources on the ground suggest that many are willing to give this new initiative a chance, if only because they are desperate for a solution to the violence.
What are some alternatives to this military operation?
However, any successful counterinsurgency strategy will have to be coupled with other approaches, including a demobilization plan, reconstructing infrastructure, helping farmers and small businesses get off the ground, and allowing local communities to be part of all of these reforms. This comprehensive approach exists already: it is more or less what the stabilization plan launched by the International Security and Stabilization Support Strategy (ISSSS) has proposed since 2015. Given the security challenges, this strategy––under the name “Ensemble pour Beni”––had to wait until February 2019 to be launched, and since then has made little progress due to the Ebola outbreak that lasted until June 2020, the violence, and a lack of funding.
The Ugandan government has long used amnesty as a means to convince combatants to leave rebellions, especially the Lord’s Resistance Army. According to the government, 28,000 people have benefitted from an amnesty, including ADF members. A new National Transitional Justice Policy was passed in 2019, with a more nuanced approach toward amnesty. The governments of the Congo and Uganda met last month in Kampala to discuss a joint demobilization plan.
What about negotiations? Of course, this would be controversial given the group’s extreme brutality. But, much like amnesty, there is a precedent for this with the LRA. These efforts can often provoke internal disputes. On the other hand, it may be useful to hear what the group has to say, What does it want? Who represents it?
A final option is deradicalization initiatives, which have been tabled in Uganda and other East African countries. Deradicalization has not always had a good reputation among psychologists, who prefer the term “disengagement,” as the term deradicalization conjures up discredited approaches to ideological “deprogramming,” failing to acknowledge that many leave terrorist organizations and reject violence but still retain many of their radical views. In addition, it assumes that it is personal beliefs, and not socio-economic conditions that have led to radicalization. As other studies have shown, the spread of Salafism and violent extremism among Muslim communities in East Africa has been caused and shaped by social exclusion and marginalization. As Abdisaid Ali, an analyst of the region, argued, “Confronting Islamist extremism with heavy-handed or extrajudicial police actions is likely to backfire by inflaming real or perceived socioeconomic cleavages and exclusionist narratives used by violent extremist groups.”