Since the M23 seized Goma in November, a cascade of criticism has rained down on MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo. The opprobrium was widespread and came from Congolese civil society, foreign diplomats and media alike. Why couldn't the 19,000 blue helmets prevent the biggest trade hub in the eastern Congo from falling? Why couldn't they live up to their mandate and protect civilians in imminent danger?
I, too, have been disappointed by the UN, but not for the above reasons. In short: the UN has been stripped of what it does best, brokering a political peace process and has been reduced to what it is worst at––military protection.
UN peacekeepers have never been very good at protecting civilians in imminent danger. In part, this is because it is extremely difficult to do––once the danger is imminent, it is often too late to intervene, especially in a country as vast and infrastructure-challenged as the Congo. (In part, of course, it is also due to poor leadership, as the Kisangani and Kiwanja showed). The way to do civilian protection is through pre-emption, not firefighting, but that requires more risky and aggressive operations, which many of the troop contributing countries (TCCs in UN lingo) did not sign up for. "We don't want to see our men come home in bodybags," is the frequent refrain from the contingents.
Not that these kind of aggressive operations are impossible––in 2005, for example, the UN conducted "robust peacekeeping" in Ituri, declaring certain areas demilitarized and then aggressively shutting down remnant militia there, killing dozens and dismantling entire groups. But even then, the UN military leadership felt that they wouldn't be able to apply the same tactics to the Kivus, with its more battle-hardened armed groups and difficult terrain.
What about Goma? The main problem in November was that the UN's modus operandi was to prop up the Congolese army, in accordance with its mandate. When the army crumbled between 19-21 November and fled from town, the UN was left holding the metaphorical bag. The UN there––who, with ill-advised braggadocio had said they would not let Goma to fall (as they had said in Bunagana in July)––was unwilling then to fight a difficult counterinsurgency against the M23 (and perhaps the Rwandan army, as well), especially since they would have to share the town with them.
No, the main problem with UN peacekeeping in the Congo is not its military failings, although there have indeed been many. It is that, since 2006, its mandate has been largely emptied of its political content. The UN is best at facilitating a political process, brokering a peace deal, and then shepherding that process through to its conclusion. This is exactly what it did during the Lusaka peace process, beginning in 1999 and culminating in the transitional government (2003-2006), when it was the legal guarantor of the transition. This was the UN's largely unsung success: making an unruly and difficult political compromise stick, stepping in every time the transition was about to go off the rails, and helping to then organize elections.
The problem is that since the 2006 elections, we have been living in a post-conflict fantasy. Kabila won the elections and promptly marginalized the UN peacekeeping mission, declaring the country sovereign and largely at peace. Although violence escalated in the Kivus––reaching levels similar to those at the height of the 1998-2003 wars––there was never an official, genuine peace process there to deal with the political challenges that remained there. So the UN stayed on, but wasn't given an official role in institution building, as could happen in a post-conflict period. Nor was it allowed to mediate or even facilitate in the conflict in the eastern Congo. The only deals made there were either backroom deals between Kinshasa and Kigali (as the mixage agreement of 2007 or the March 23, 2009 deal) or the hypocrisy of the 2008 Goma conference, when all sides were preparing for war almost as soon as they sat down to talk. While Olusegun Obasanjo was nominally involved in implementing the 2009 deal, the real negotiations happened behind his back, between Kigali, Kinshasa, and other regional capitals. The UN––and most of the international community with it––has been politically sidelined from the conflict.
Military force in the absence of a political framework is, at best, firefighting. While the UN obviously has a responsibility to protect vulnerable civilians where it can, its larger role should be in forging and implementing a political deal to end this crisis, as there does not appear to be a military way out.
The recent ICGLR initiative is a welcome one in this regard. There is some attempt by countries in the region to grapple with some of the underlying political drivers of the conflict––Congolese institutional failure, meddling by its neighbors, and communal conflicts at the grassroots level. The problem is that body appears to diplomats and many Congolese officials as too biased to be an honest broker.
There is currently a push at the United Nations to re-politicize the UN mission and to get involved in the peace process. There is little doubt that a "Super-Envoy" will soon be named, probably with both a mandate to broker regional peace and to manage the peacekeeping mission, and hopefully with an AU mandate, as well. Names are being bandied about––Ibrahim Gambari, Bill Richardson, and Benjamin Mkapa have been floated, as have other names. While the person will be key, the political lessons of the past are even more so. Without a political process that is able to obtain the buy-in of all key parties and that grapples with the key underlying issues, even the best military strategists will be stumped.